In this extract from A CITY IMAGINED; BELFAST SOULSCAPES, the third and final instalment of his memoirs, Northern Chronicles, poet Gerald Dawe takes a brief look at the example of one of the city’s most celebrated writers, Brian Moore.
If Joyce’s turn-of-the-last-century Dublin was a city of paralysis, mid-century Belfast was deadly – a cramped and dampening place, not unlike Muriel Spark’s Edinburgh. To survive meant to leave and find out what the world was really like. Moore’s novels from the mid- 1950s can be read as his quarrel with himself and the hometown that never let him alone.
Not so much as a place but as an idea, Belfast in Moore’s mind means a Northern Catholic professional middle-class upbringing that haunts and taunts his writing with its religious ceremony, cultural etiquette and historical self-consciousness. Throughout his writing life, Moore deconstructed that legacy of Catholic nationalist aspiration with a cool imaginative rigour.
The formal clarity of Moore’s novels, the narrative compression, bright delivery of conversation, the rarity of his polished diction and the implicit moral dilemmas his novels dramatise, placed Moore at an intriguing angle to popular critical expectations about the nature and meaning of what an ‘Irish writer’ is, or should be.
Like his accent, Moore was hard to pin down, along with the suave stylishness and urban wit, all of which strike me as peculiarly Belfast. Exile, lonely and all as it may well have been, was the making of Moore’s writing. In an article published in 1974, Moore remembered leaving Belfast on a ship bound for Liverpool and a government job:
[A] man sitting on a suitcase beside me took out a Baby Power and offered me a drink. ‘Your first time across the water?’ he said. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘What line of work are you in?’ I didn’t know just what I was going to do in this British government job. I had bluffed my way into it.
All I knew was I was being sent abroad to some place my French would be useful. So when the man asked what line of work I was in, I began to live out my private lie. ‘I’m a writer,’ I said. ‘Ship’s writer?’ he said. ‘No, just a writer.’ ‘Would that be good wages?’ ‘I don’t know,’ I said.
Perhaps that’s the way a lot of people become writers. They don’t like the role they’re playing and writing seems a better one.
That disarmingly anxious, self-conscious ‘just a writer’ has mostly disappeared today, along with the quick-witted retrieval of the last sentence, as the internationally recognised Moore looks back to the younger self voyaging out from Belfast.
The sense of leaving and being uprooted is specific to Moore’s own personal set of circumstances. But it carries historical reverberation even if the hundreds of thousands who currently fly in and out of Belfast’s two airports carry a very different sort of baggage to that of the generation who left between the mid-1940s and the mid-1970s.
The earlier generation was following a pattern of emigration, which had become a feature of working-and middle-class life in Belfast. Attachment to the large UK-based post-war industries, at craftsman or managerial level, often meant travelling with the job.
When work was not plentiful, looking for a job generally meant leaving, while the economic reasons for so doing assumed a different kind of meaning as the Troubles took root in the 1970s. Many tens of thousands decided, if they could, to relocate because of the extraordinary population shifts that were taking place as a result of the social unrest, or simply to find a ‘normal’ society in which to settle and rear a family. Against the backdrop of the relative stability of Belfast in the 1950s and 1960s, the provincial capital experienced some degree of prosperity.
The problem was, as we all know now, that the upswing in opportunities did not percolate sufficiently throughout the various social strata of Belfast’s unemployed and lower-paid workers, and the confidence to accommodate different versions of Irish identity proved either skin-deep or else withered on the vine.
The cultural straitjacket seemed all the more rigid if few of the economic benefits were widely shared. This experience of exclusion unquestionably fuelled the sense of grievance significant sections of the Catholic community felt at the denial of its legitimate political and cultural aspirations.
Yet leaving was also a rite of passage, for Catholics as much as for Protestants who wanted to experience the wider, freer world beyond Belfast Lough. By the mid-1970s the matter had become rather more urgent, a choice in some instances between life and death, or between reliving the past and creating a different and possibly better future elsewhere. (In the last ten years or so the converse is true, as immigrants seek a future in Ireland.)
Precious wonder then that the very fragility of self that Brian Moore’s greatest novels embody is predicated upon the city he left. For Moore’s characters possess a self-awareness unquestionably honed in the Belfast in which he grew up, such as how the individual deals with inordinate family pressures to conform to certain handed-down religious or political beliefs and conventions.
The Emperor of Ice Cream is as much an examination of this moral condition in the explicitly Irish setting of Belfast as The Statement (1996) is in an implicitly European context. And unlike many of his contemporaries, Moore seems uninhibited when it comes to exploring the sexual life, the passionate life of his characters, men as well as women.
This might have some relation to the frank, almost defiant sexuality of Belfast city life in the 1940s – from the jubilant liberating influence of the major United States Army presence to the reaction against the socially conservative and puritanical ethos of the city fathers.
Moore’s characters developed into sexual beings, aware of the pleasure of the body but also keenly aware of the cost of their own solitariness when rejected by, or taking an irreversible step beyond, the inherited bonds of family and home.
In the intense and vigilant upbringing of his own middle-class education, Moore could not help but know how fraught the struggle was for self-understanding, when any hint of licence or criticism could be interpreted as transgression (letting down one’s own ‘side’); a kind of moral betrayal.
The cultural configuration of such an inheritance can be viewed as distinctly Belfast-made.
A City Imagined: Belfast Soulscapes is published by Merrion Press.
Gerald Dawe is a Belfast-born poet. He was professor of English and fellow of Trinity College Dublin until his retirement in 2017. He has published twenty collections of poetry and literary criticism, including most recently, The Last Peacock and The Sound of the Shuttle: Essays on Cultural Belonging & Protestantism in Northern Ireland.