Celebrating Louis MacNeice in Carrickfergus

macneice flyerThe 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.

parkhill&orrMacNeice was born in Belfast and spent his early years in Carrickfergus, where his father was rector.

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?’

Parkhill has kindly provided the text of the full lecture.

He explained:

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:







  • mickfealty

    I don’t think I ever doubted his love for Carrick, at least not after reading the poem of the same name. There’s a lot of emotion freighted in that last stanza:

    ” I went to school in Dorset, the world of parents
    Contracted into a puppet world of sons
    Far from the mill girls, the smell of porter, the salt mines
    And the soldiers with their guns.”


  • SeaanUiNeill

    One of the most interesting early champions of MacNeice was the classicist Eric Robertson Dodds:


    “Dodds was also responsible for Louis MacNeice’s appointment as a lecturer at Birmingham in 1930. He assisted MacNeice with his translation of Aeschylus, “Agamemnon” (1936), and later became the poet’s literary executor.”

    Dodds was also kicked out of Oxford in 1916 for his fervent and vociferous support of his friend, Pádraic Pearse.

  • Clanky

    I can understand MacNiece’s early antipathy towards Carrick, I grew up there from the age of 10 until around 24 and after leaving to live in England, looked back on Carrick as a colloquial backwater. It is only almost 20 years later that I have started to appreciate the fact that it was actually a very nice town to grow up in. Even as “The only taig in the village”

    I remember the old manse where MacNiece lived, I was lucky enough to get a look around as I knew the caretaker at the time and it saddened me to se it being knocked down to make way for an old peoples’ home.

  • mickfealty

    There’s so much in that reading that’s contemporary and relevant. These lines here seem to me to be pretty relevant to what’s been in play during the Scottish referendum, particularly that sense of longed for agency in the broader world that frustrates so many about the bland mere fact of democracy.

  • mickfealty

    You can’t have been the only one. I remember playing GAA at a school in Carrick where they had to pin extensions to the soccer goal posts before the game began. I remember being threatened by a full forward four years older than me and then making the decision thereafter never to hold on to the ball for any longer than I had to: upfield, anywhere I could.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Important not to fail to notice McNiece’s championing of local writers. He would have been delighted to see that Amanda McKittrick Ros, one of those authors whose name was often on hs lips, has recently been re-published with a long critical introduction and extensive appendices by a new local publisher:


  • SeaanUiNeill

    One of the few real draws for non-locals (beyond fishing) in the wee six is the much neglected resource of cultural tourism. perhaps this is because the almost fre hand given to developers to flatten any building with literary or historical associations. Nearby Kilroot offers one serious miscalculation of this sort. I quote from “your place or mine”:

    “Swift’s little cottage at Kilroot survived from the 17th century up until the 1960s when unfortunately it was demolished.”

  • Clanky

    Mick, I arrived in Carrick from Larne at the age of 10 just as St Nicholas’ School closed (almost certainly where you played GAA, you must have a few years on me 😉 ), so while I’m sure I wasn’t actually the only catholic in Carrick, I was certainly the only catholic that I knew in either my school or the area where I lived. Although even at that stage I was a catholic in name only. I remember being asked if I was a catholic and replying that actually I was an atheist, to be told that if I wasn’t a prod then I must be a fenian. It was certainly a good way to learn how to fight but probably more importantly allowed me to grow up with an understanding of how unionists felt about the whole deal, which is why I now find myself shaking my head in disbelief at the tactics employed by nationalist politicians sometimes.

    SeaanUiNieil, sadly this was not only the case in Northern Ireland, but all over Europe, it seems that we have only just discovered that the value of old buildings is more than just archeological.

  • ted hagan

    I remember playing at the manse at birthday parties when the Mitchells lived there. Yes, it was a pity they knocked it down, but then they have made so many poor decisions about the town and wasted a lot of money

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Ah Clanky, you only have to travel a bit to notice that the one thing the Wee Six leads the world in is an ability to destroy anything architecturally worth while or even just historical, on an industrial scale. Sure other countries pull down old buildings but the last fifty years here has been wholesale destruction!