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Irish Poets of the First World War - John Hewitt

John Hewitt (1907-1987)

John Hewitt was a Northern Irish poet, art historian, art collector and political activist. He was only seven years old when the First World War broke out, but some of his poems, such ‘The YCVS and the Ulster Division’ touch on his memories of this period and reflect on the ways in which it impacted on Northern Irish society.

Hewitt was born in Belfast on 28 October 1907. He started writing poetry while he was a schoolboy at Methodist College Belfast. He filled notebooks with hundreds of poems, experimenting with lots of different styles. His early poems were either highly socialist or highly romantic.

After finishing school, Hewitt studied at Queen’s University Belfast, graduating with a degree in English. He then trained to be a teacher. In 1930, he was appointed as Art Assistant at Belfast Museum and Art Gallery. As part of his job, he gave public lectures on art. At one of these lectures, he met Roberta ‘Ruby’ Black, who was also a committed socialist. They married in 1934. He also became the secretary of The Ulster Unit, a group of artists who modelled themselves on London based Unit One and described their work as ‘avowedly and demonstrably modern’.

During this period, Hewitt became increasingly involved in socialist causes. He co-founded a left-wing journal and joined first the Northern Ireland Labour Party and then, later, the Independent Labour Party.

His writing began to mature. He became heavily influenced by Chinese poetry. He also started to explore the work of earlier Ulster poets, such as Richard Rowley, Joseph Campbell and Æ. He became an expert on the subject completing an MA thesis on the work of Ulster Poets in the nineteenth century in 1951 and publishing three books. He published the first collection of his own poetry, No Rebel Word, in 1948.

Hewitt used his poetry to address the tortured history of his native province. His mature poems (from 1932 onwards) explore the contradictions between his love for the Northern Irish people and the landscape, his interest in the Ulster dissenting tradition and the agony of the bloody conflicts that have plagued the land. Hewitt was advocate of the cross-sectarian idea of ‘regionalism’ as means of establishing personal identity, as opposed to traditional sectarian concepts based on politics or religion. He rooted his own regional identity within the island of Ireland and famously described himself as Ulster, Irish, British, and European. Hewitt reached out to all the citizens of Ulster in his pursuit of the arts and social justice.

In 1957, he moved to Coventry in England to take on the role of Art Director at the Herbert Gallery and Museum. He felt that he had been passed over for promotion in Belfast because his supposedly ‘communist’ and ‘pro-Catholic’ ideas were unacceptable to the Unionist establishment. He returned to Belfast on his retirement in 1972 and was appointed as the first writer-in-residence at Queen’s University in 1986.

John Hewitt remained a committed and active socialist. He opened The Belfast Unemployed Resource Centre (BURC), which provided and continues to provide support and educational training for people out of work. The John Hewitt bar, which helps to fund the centre’s activities, opened in 1999 and was named in the poets honour.

Hewitt died in Belfast on 27 June 1987 and donated his body to Queen’s University for medical research. He had no funeral, but a week later 300 people gathered in the Lyric Theatre Belfast to remember and pay tribute to him.

The YCVS and the Ulster Division

Surprised one day, I watched Belfast’s Lord May
borne on gun-carriage, when Young Citizen
Volunteers in grey first took the air,
mere lads they looked, too soon they would be men.
And, some months later, we went down to see
our khaki soldiers marching to the docks
to sail away for France to keep us free;
our cheering then my memory often mocks.

For later still, as days limped past or flew,
the newsboys yelled hoarse tidings down the street
of Jutland’s victory, Dardanelles’ defeat,
and, propped on crutches, men in sloppy blue,
approached with awe, would tell us stories from
the shell-ploughed fields of Passchendaele and Somme.