The Rest is History

by Gerald Dawe

A few months ago Ciaran Carson published the autobiographical reverie, ‘The Star Factory’, which was a dense perambulation through the Belfast of his youth, a confectionary of poetic prose which was fine if you took two sugars in your stew.

Gerald Dawe, who presently lectures at Trinity College Dublin, also explores his roots in the protestant community and his development as a poet in a much shorter but more interesting version (‘Belfast Notes 1984-1993). The ‘Notes’ is one part of a four-part slender volume which also looks at the works of singer Van Morrison and the late playwright Stewart Parker and singles out the neglected Padraic Fiacc as one of Ireland’s greatest living poets. Some of this material Dawe has already used before – in summer schools and at conferences – but I found myself wishing that he had concentrated in greater detail on his own life and his life as a poet, and ignored Van Morrison who, let’s face it, has yet to mention Gerald in any of his albums!

Having said that, the Belfast of Dawe’s youth was the same puritanical Belfast that Van, six years his senior, first stepped out in: “Protestantism was everywhere. From the Union Jack flying above the Orange halls, to billboards proclaiming Proverbial wisdom from the Bible…”

Dawe’s antecedents were Huguenots from France who fled persecution in the eighteenth century and settled in Ireland sometime later. His great grandfather was a staunch unionist and leading Orangeman who had signed the 1912 Covenant. This great grandfather represents Dawe’s past and a tradition that Dawe could have followed.

Gerald-the-boy went to Sunday School and church, joined the Scouts, grew up in North Belfast but attended Orangefield Boys School in East Belfast. As a kid from the Falls – Dawe and myself are coevals – the name ‘Orangefield’ always used to conjure up an apprehensiveness such was the ignorance in which we lived, in the same way, I imagine, that the words ‘Falls Road’ or ‘Ballymurphy’ probably instilled a similar fear in kids from Protestant areas.

Dawe praises his old English teacher, Sam McCready, who introduced him to the magic world of theatre, inspired him to write and encouraged him to show his poems to other people.

Politically, Dawe sees the failure of the old Stormont regime to redress nationalist grievances as “undeniably the key historical turning point”, though naturally he holds no brief for physical-force republicanism, but at Coleraine University back in 1971 did join ‘the James Larkin Defence Committee’ and played in a band called Fir Uladh which performed at anti-internment rallies. He left Belfast in 1974, “but, in a way, I only found out where it was after that,” he writes, in the experience of the emigre whose objectivity increases in direct proportion to his distance from home.

When he moved to Galway at the age of 22 in 1974 he had the self-consciousness of being not just a Northerner but also a Protestant! He observes the differences between the North and the South, and found that the people of the South showed an increasing diffidence to parvenus, whereas in the North people were less begrudging to those who did well. On the other hand, as for “the public show of its [the South’s] religion we hear so much about, it really is no more obvious and oppressive than all the innumerable churches, gospel halls, evangelical tents, monuments and epitaphs that dot the northern landscape.” Understandably, he resents the depiction of northern protestants as “dour, narrow, bigoted… cultureless,” but says that they do need to step into the actual world and recognise what has happened to and in Britain during the years of the Troubles.”

Having now lived longer in the South than in the North he says, “The political past of the Republic is part of my family now. I am a citizen of sorts.” His deepest wish “is that along the way to peace and justice the genuine common traditions and experience of northerners is reclaimed from the nightmare of the past.”

Through his writing he began to see the connection between Belfast, protestantism and poetry: “My poems cannot be anything other than what they are. The Old Testament, the legacy of British military history, customs; the attitudes and experiences and desires of all the people I grew up with in the early 1950s and ‘60s are at the very core of what I write.”

Whilst that is so he also brings his own genius to his ‘translations’ of memory and the past and like all true artists he has to be independent if he is to seek truth and beauty which is why he says that, “Poets are poets first and citizens second.”