The anniversary of the birth of the poet and playwright Louis MacNeice was marked on 12 September with a celebratory event in Carrickfergus Museum and Civic Centre. The event was titled ‘Beyond the Hawthorn Hedge, the Sound of Bugles,’ and was hosted by local historian and author Philip Orr. It included an engaging lecture by Trevor Parkhill, a recording of an interview with MacNeice, readings of his work by local poets, and performances of live music from the era. Artefacts and photographs belonging to the MacNeice family were also on display.
His education was primarily in England and this was his base throughout his life, which was cut short when he died of pneumonia in 1963. He had been caught in a storm on the Yorkshire moors while gathering sound effects for his final radio play for the BBC.
But the focus of the Carrickfergus celebration was primarily on MacNeice’s local roots. Parkhill, the recently retired Keeper of History, Ulster Museum and editor of Familia, Ulster Genealogical Review, titled his lecture ‘How False were the Strings in Carrickfergus for Louis MacNeice?’
My own interest in determining the extent of the influence of his Carrickfergus childhood on Louis MacNeice’s publications and BBC career, and in particular his poetry, and even in trying to establish how much of an Irishman he thought himself to be, was sparked by a re-reading of MacNeice’s autobiography, The strings are false. An unfinished autobiography.
… I was further intrigued by MacNeice’s background and Carrickfergus connections when I read David Fitzpatrick’s recent and excellent biography of Louis’s father, Revd John (and later Bishop) MacNiece. Solitary and Wild, published in 2010, traces Louis’s father’s early days in what would become the Republic of Ireland and looks in close detail at his background, and most closely off all perhaps, his reputation. Revd MacNeice’s rectorship in Carrickfergus coincided with the tempestuous period prior to the outbreak of the First World War. In particular, the great debate in Ireland at that time centred around the impending imposition by the Westminster government of Home Rule, which to many of course was ‘Rome Rule’. The Home Rule Bill was passed in 1912, to become effective in 1914. Tension mounted during that limbo period, culminating in the landing at Larne harbour in April 1914 by the Ulster Volunteer Force of some 25,000 rifles and over a quarter of a million rounds of ammunition, obtained from Germany. Revd. MacNeice acquired something of a reputation during the Home Rule crisis as being effectively a Protestant Home Ruler, a viewpoint that was highly unpopular locally. As Fitzpatrick explains it, Louis’s father ‘… is almost universally portrayed as a tolerant if puritanical southerner, courageously opposing all forms of sectarianism and violence and supporting Home Rule’.
Later in the talk, Parkhill shared MacNeice’s recollections of Carrickfergus:
In spite of himself and his occasional disparaging remarks (mostly while a student) about his home town, there is a slightly begrudging recognition of the more romantic aspects of the area around the town, not least its place-names. Carrickfergus, he says, ‘was a name to be proud of .. but I disliked its abbreviation Carrick which in the local voice sounded like a slap in the face’.. Within our parish, radiating from our house, were a number of attractive names’. He itemises ‘the Busky Burn, the Mile Bush, the Red Brae (there was nothing red about it butthe red seemed to suit its steepness … right along the Sullatober Road, a musical purplish name’.
And MacNeice’s reflections later in life on his Irish identity:
It is in his correspondence with Eleanor Clark, with whom, as I indicated, he had a most meaningful intellectual dialogue, that he reveals any sense of having an Irish identity.Writing in 1940 he (MacNeice) says :
If you want a formula for me … it is that I am a peasant who has gate-crashed culture and when [p. 395] I say that I am a peasant this isn’t a figure of speech or an inverted snob romanticism, it is just a statement of fact, though very few people can see except some people who have come from your ‘lower classes’; themselves and, having gate-crashed culture, realise my curious position… Even you, darling, when you say things like ‘It’s amazing the way these people live’ are being superior. It doesn’t seem to me amazing the way poor people live, though as the case may be it may seem admirable or regrettable. There is nothing exotic in it for me, it’s a stratum which is still (instinctively) intelligible to me, my relations are still living in mud-floored cabins in the West of Ireland.
One of MacNeice’s counterparts in the BBC was fellow Irish poet W. R. Rodgers. In theRodgers papers in PRONI is an interesting series of letters between the two, MacNeice andRodgers, in the late 1950s on letter-headed paper ‘The character of Ireland’. This was aproject they co-managed and were to edit for the Clarendon Press, inviting contributors suchas John Hewitt who would discourse on the visual arts in Ireland. Others included ElizabethBowen on ‘the big house’ and Estyn Evans who would consider, as Rodgers put it, ‘the weehouse and the wee people’. Nothing seems to have come of it but it does perhaps indicate the extent to which, at least in his later years, MacNeice sought to resolve something of the Irish identity issues that recur in his work.
MacNeice’s poetry was read by Stephen Sexton, Kate Newmann and Stephen Connolly. You can watch Connolly reading from Autumn Journal.
Image above of Trevor Parkhill (left) and Philip Orr.
See more photos from the event, by Brian O’Neill, here: