John Hewitt and the Myth of Europe

John Hewitt and the Myth of Europe

Dr Connal Parr (Northumbria University) examines the present political climate through the eyes of Belfast-born poet John Hewitt, who viewed himself as an Ulsterman, Irishman, Briton and European.

As the United Kingdom’s place in the European Union recedes and we approach the exit door, the European myth may still linger in consciousness, especially in Northern Ireland, which voted – like Scotland and London – against the national consensus to leave.

A man who pondered this in great seriousness was Belfast-born poet John Hewitt (1907–87), who saw Europe as a way of transcending Ireland’s ethnic and parochial divisions. Hewitt developed a ‘hierarchy of values’ in the 1940s and articulated the concept thereafter, almost as a preamble. In a 1974 symposium, he again outlined its key tenets:

          I’m an Ulsterman of planter stock. I was born on the island of Ireland, so secondarily

          I’m an Irishman. I was born in the British archipelago and English is my native tongue,

          so I am British. The British archipelago are offshore islands to the continent of Europe,

          so I’m European. This is my hierarchy of values and as far as I’m concerned, anyone

          who omits one step in that sequence of values is falsifying the situation.[1]

For a long time, the final European stage was proudly (and tellingly) rejected by both Irish Republicans and Ulster Unionists, and is still by the Democratic Unionist Party, the largest Unionist grouping, who campaigned for a ‘Leave’ vote in last June’s referendum, despite the effect it may have on that which they hold most precious: the Union itself. Conservative newspapers have already moved swiftly to reassure their readerships that Scotland has no intention of going it alone and that support for Scottish independence is behind in those consistently-accurate and reliable polls.[2]

     The formulation of Hewitt’s hierarchy coincided with the radical measures of the UK’s postwar Labour government, a condition which undoubtedly strengthened the British step.[3] Prior to this the Second World War had been paramount in the development of ‘Regionalism’, with Hewitt one of many prevented from travelling in Europe to holiday locally in Ulster. As well as delivering a boom period for readings, concerts, and plays, the influence of the war ‘encouraged people all over Europe to think deeply about the problems associated with nationalism’.[4] In response Hewitt requested a federated British Isles along with a culture ‘individual and distinctive, a fine contribution to the European inheritance and no mere echo of the thought and imagination of another people’.[5]

Credit Dermot Dunbar

Credit Dermot Dunbar

     As it transpired, Attlee’s Labour government passed the 1949 Ireland Act, cementing a positive relationship with Unionists at Stormont, and Hewitt would later distance himself from the specifics of regionalism. But Europe remained an essential mental aspiration. On his retirement from Coventry, where he had moved in 1957 to manage the newly-established Herbert Art Gallery, Hewitt and his wife Ruby visited the entirety of eastern Europe and Yugoslavia. They were in Hungary when British troops fanned through the streets of Derry and then Belfast in August 1969, with friends ‘In a back garden at Lake Balaton’, who asked why things had kicked off again:

                                   We tried to answer, spoke of Arab, Jew.

                                   of Turk and Greek in Cyprus, Pakistan

                                   and India; but no sense flickered through

                                   that offered reason to modern man,

                                   why Europeans, Christians, working-class,

                                   should thresh and struggle in the that old morass.[6]

 The die was cast for Ulster in ways we know, but Hewitt returned anyway three years later. His final years had him sauntering around Belfast writing poems about the city tearing itself to shreds, though, again, Europe remained. In the early-1980s, when no political party would back the campaign, he was one of the few public personalities who supported the European court case which would lead to the decriminalization of homosexuality in Northern Ireland. He passed away in June 1987, leaving his body to science.

 Hewitt was aware that middle class intellectuals such as himself played a role in enabling and empowering those less economically fortunate through education and guidance. As something of a small ‘u’ unionist, i.e. in favour of the union but not Unionist parties, he offered leadership, conveying to many in Northern Ireland a new Britain: a place characterized not by the royalism and imperialism of the Edwardian era but Clement Attlee’s post-war state; planned and revitalized after the war, a Britain of racial difference, supported by a National Health Service. His expansive Europeanism was a branch of this, and there are no signs of any such voice stepping up to the current political plate to offer similar leadership (though the Democratic Unionist Party did put aside their ideological objections to alcohol for a champagne reception celebrating Brexit at the Conservative Party annual conference in Birmingham last October).

Northern Ireland’s 56 per cent majority who voted to remain undoubtedly ‘contained many liberal unionists who felt the EU offered them economic security, political stability or broader cultural horizons’.[7] Where will this go? To hell in a handcart, as it always has, many will say. But a review of a posthumous Hewitt collection by another Ulster Protestant poet of note speaks as much to the present as it did when it was published in 1992: ‘As Europe painfully rearranges herself, as Communism retreats discredited, as narrow nationalism and crude religion combine to release their toxins, so Hewitt’s big-hearted, open-faced versions of regionalism, socialism and atheism appear ever more relevant.’[8]

[1] Quoted in Irish Times, 4 July 1974.

[2] See Ben Riley-Smith, ‘No boost in support for Scottish independence despite Brexit, new poll finds’, Daily Telegraph, 30 July 2016.

[3] Russell Rees, Labour and the Northern Ireland Problem 1945–1951 (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2009), 33–63.

[4] Tom Clyde, ‘A stirring in the dry bones: John Hewitt’s regionalism’, in Gerald Dawe and John Wilson Foster (eds), The Poet’s Place: Ulster Literature and Society. Essays in Honour of John Hewitt, 1907–1987 (Belfast: Institute of Irish Studies, 1991), 250–1.

[5] John Hewitt, ‘Regionalism: The Last Chance’ (1947), in Tom Clyde (ed.), Ancestral Voices: The Selected Prose of John Hewitt (Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1987), 125.

[6] ‘Conversations in Hungary, August 1969’, in John Hewitt, Out of My Time (Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1974), 25.

[7] Ian McBride, ‘After Brexit Northern Irish politics will again be dominated by the border’, The Guardian, 19 July 2016.

[8] Michael Longley, ‘Pivotal Poetry’, Fortnight, No. 303 (Feb., 1992), 22.

Dr Connal Parr is Vice-Chancellor’s Research Fellow in the Humanities at Northumbria University. His first book on Ulster Protestant politics and culture will be published by Oxford University Press in 2017.

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