JOHN HEWITT ON HIS CHOSEN GROUND Jack McCann

Long, long before our Historical Society was thought of, and the only tourist boards were diving boards, Mary Stone of Cushendall was a one-woman historical society and her wee shop a tourist information centre. The forties were fast fading away when she brightened my day, and my life, by telling me that there was a poet come to live above in Layde, by the name of John Hewitt. I hadn’t heard of him before but when I read his poem ‘Fame’ in the new year 1951 edition of ‘The Bell’, I knew the Glens of Antrim had found a new voice. Mary Stone summed up the poem in a sentence:

“Now there’s a poem about poets for you”

Did she mean Wordsworth, Milton, Byron? No, she meant James Stoddard- Moore (Dusty Rhodes)  and Dan McGonnell, a tramp and a butcher !  For John Hewitt knew that in their day, like his ‘Rhyming Weavers’, these were poets of the people. It came as no surprise to me that poets flourished in the Glens. I had bought my first poem in Cushendall sixty years ago. It cost me a penny: or should I say I got it with a pennyworth of Red Rose toffees in McAlister’s of Shore Street: it was printed on the sweetie bag:

“It will be all the same, all the same, a hundred years from now.

No good a-worrying, no good a-flurrying, no good a-kicking up a row:

For you’ll not be here and I’ll not be here when a hundred years have gone

but somebody else will be well in the cart and the world will still go on”.

And wasn’t it in Cushendall that a local police sergeant saved the life of the poet G. K. Chesterton? Sergeant Dan Connell was on duty in the village on a Sunday afternoon in the summer of 1932 when he espied the poet in the company of a priest. Being a bookish sergeant rather than one who might book you Dan immediately saw the poet’s dilemma. The priest was a rabid tee-totaller and the pubs were shut on Sunday. He approached the pair and invited both to his home Maryville, where his good wife Mamie made tea for the priest while Dan opened a bottle of Bush for the poet and himself. Chesterton raised his glass:

“Sergeant Connell you have saved my life. This pussy-footing priest would have drowned me in tea ere dusk”.

Little wonder then that John Hewitt felt at ease here in the Middle Glens. Let me explain. Of the nine Glens, two, Glenarm and Glencloy, lie away to the South while Glenshesk and Glentaisie lie together to the North. Between there is a cluster of five glens, Glenariffe, Glenballyeamon, Glenaan, Glencorp and Glendun — The Middle Glens. When John sent me his first draft of the original ‘Day of the Corncrake’ his sub-title was ‘Poems of the Middle Glens’. I persuaded him to change this to ‘Poems of the Nine Glens’ to extend our readership and our horizons: but John knew his horizons. From the Coskib beyond his cottage he could see four of the five Middle Glens, one of our finest panoramic views; and in ‘Sunset over Glenaan’ he tells us what he saw: 

“I stop to name the peaks along their dark array.

For these are more than mountains, shouldered clear

into the sharp star-pointed atmosphere,

into the sunset. They mark out and bound

the utmost limits of my chosen ground..”

In the later glossy edition of ‘The Day of the Corncrake’ John’s poems are matched with paintings by Glensman Charlie McAuley. Some 90% of Mc’Auley pictures are of people and places in the Middle Glens and, as with Hewitt’s glens poems, from a handful of miles from his own front door.

John first holidayed in the early nineteen forties with his brother-in-law Andy Millar: first in Andy’s house in Dalriada, Cushendall and later in a cottage Andy had between the Layd road and the sea. While staying with Andy, John discovered the gate-lodge to Glenville House and in due time rented it: He didn’t forget the man who introduced him to the Glens, and in the first edition of The Corncrake he expressed gratitude to Andy Millar for his interest in the publication.

The gate-lodge was no mansion, primitive maybe. It is now modernised and only the date remains unchanged – 1707. Yet it was only with the launch of the first ‘Day of the Corncrake’ that I realised just how tight things had been for John and Ruby in those cottage days. The launch took place in the Glens of Antrim Hotel, courtesy of my sister Sheelagh who then ran it, a pleasant if unpretentious seaside hotel. John told me it was his first time in the place but went on to say that betimes when he and Ruby were passing by on their way to the cottage he’d suggest that when they got a bit of money they’d go to the Glens Hotel for a good meal. Life in the cottage was frugal maybe but it was happier by far than the tourist’s trip. Their unobtrusive style of life brought Ruby and himself closer to Glensfolk that holidaymakers. So we don’t find John lounging or lunching on the coastal strip but up in the hills getting to know the country people of whom he wrote:

 “I know the level you accept me on,

like some strange bird observed about the house

or sometimes seen out flying on the moss

that may tomorrow or next week be gone,

liable to return without warning

on a May afternoon and away in the morning”.

When he was there he tasted country life to the full and in 1947 we find him:

 “Footing turf on high Barard, the hip

of that long mountain, Trostan, it was cold

and wet, and every hair on sleeve or wrist

was globed with water, and the tangled grass

shod each chill foot with moisture”.

In 1949 he and Ruby were hay-making in the low meadow just across the road from the Cottage and he tells us this was the fourth year they had laboured there. The haymakers were chatting, waiting for the farmer, when John and Ruby joined them.

“We join them now and slip into the talk

as cautious bathers first dip toe and foot

before they dare the stranger element.”

He goes on to tell us how when the tall farmer comes and calls for action

“We rise and take his orders, life the laps,

and drop them shaken in a circled heap,

then fork them up to him as slow he rises

tramping and turning on the growing rick”.

Between times in 1948 it was gathering praties in the upper field, bending and picking and flinging the tubers…

“kind by kind, Kerr’s Pinks and Arran Victors as they come ‘.

Then, as he walked home stiff-jointed, tired…. “more body than a mind,

my clay-brown fingers felt the weight and pressure

of the round tuber gripped against the palm.

Lord, when we die and our poor minds are bared

round what strange objects are they clenched and set?”

Strange to read that final invocation for John Hewitt was an agnostic, and in the Glens among people alien to his breed and mind, yet for him one’s faith or lack of it did not faze friendship as we find in his visit to a hill-farm when he paused outside the house and overheard

“a voice, the mother’s, giving clear the rosary, the evening prayer, and

mumbling on a lower key the voices of the family…”

and pictured every friendly face clenched in devotion of a kind alien to his breed and mind.

John was attracted to country firesides by folk-lore and fairies. Didn’t his cottage look out on Tieveragh, the fairy hill and wasn’t he living among people like John McKillop of Ballybrack. It must be fifty years ago that I heard John McKillop on the wireless being asked if he believed in the wee folk. His answer was unforgettable, ‘I’ll put it this way. He’d be a brave man would whistle a tune on Tieveragh on Halloweve night’. In that atmosphere it was no wonder John Hewitt wrote how he and Ruby were coming up the brae on such a night after a ceilidhe down at Ballybrack and saw a neighbour’s house with the front door open to the world, and the low room door open wide, with a big fire blazing on the hearth:

“And we both thought it odd that a man should keep

his house broad-open on a night like this;

a man not known to look for visitors”.

But fairies are the kind of visitor not to be turned away. Apart from fairies in that poem we have John and Ruby coming after midnight from a ceilidh, sharing a fireside with folk they worked with in the fields, listening to story-telling, song and music. John’s poem ‘The Wake’ finds him in a farmhouse on a less joyful occasion. I rate the poem as one of the finest descriptions of that folk-custom honoured in the Glens and in the final stanza a folksy moment:

“and James would rise and pass around

tobacco on a dinner plate”.

The wake that John remembered above all others in the Glens was that of Dan Hyndman in what was one of the then greatest ceilidh houses in the Nine Glens. Hyndman’s house was taken down stone by stone and re-erected at the Folk Museum in Cultra. In August 1965 at the official opening of the house in Cultra John read a poem he had written back in 1953 ‘Cushkib Fair’. It’s a long poem telling the story of the Hyndman family right down to the moment of Dan’s burial, but close reading is needed if one is to spot the unobtrusive mourners John and Ruby:

 “And next day, when the Fair was at its crest

we buried him, and laid within that grave

half the wonders of the countryside

the loads of stories, pocketful of charms

of the last hoarder of the old tradition”.

John told me that following the funeral he and neighbours went to Johnny Joe’s for an after-service drink… or two. That night he and a farmer friend made their way home, holding on to bushes betimes. When John commented that they had taken too much the farmer answered:

“Talk sense, John. Sure it’s not every day in life we bury Dan Hyndman”.

There is another building from John’s Chosen Ground to be seen at Cultra — the Turnly Market-house and courthouse. Remembering John’s involvement in the Hyndman House I am happy to have supplied the details that enabled the re-creation of the Courtroom to be effected. John had a neighbour, Cunningham, who had been before the bench in the courtroom for making poteen and the Cunningham story is told in John’s poem ‘Folk Custom’. In the actual court case the policeman told of finding scores and scores of empty treacle tins about the Cunningham farm and how when Cunningham denied making poteen he (the policeman) asked him to account for all the empty treacle tins. Cunningham’s reply was ‘I don’t like jam’.

Looking back at the poems I have quoted and mentioned it is clear that John Hewitt identified with all classes on his chosen ground. He even wrote a poem about the tinkers whom I recall camping on the Ballybrack Road. But he had one special friend in Cushendall, the good lady I mentioned in opening, Mary Stone. In her last illness John visited her in Cushendall Cottage Hospital (now closed and worthy of re-erection at Cultra for Cottage Hospitals are part of our heritage). Mary reminded him that he once wrote a poem about sunrise over Cushendall Bay. In his poem recalling the visit he says:

“That was nearly forty years ago, part of a long poem about the place.

I knew her slightly then, a small woman behind the counter of her shop:

recalled the nature of our talk with frequent visits after,

becoming my Sibyl of the Glens”.

And I must add that she was my Sibyl too. That long poem was ‘Conacre’ and in it John remembers that sunrise and how he and Ruby spent a full day together on his chosen ground from dawn to steaming porridge by lamplight. When Ruby died in 1975 I wrote to John that we with whom he shared the marvel of that dawn could share his grief. His response was typical of a man of few spoken words.

One night in the Lyric Theatre he took me by the arm and whispered ‘Very touching’. Coming from John Hewitt that for me was an accolade and I couple it in memory with the inscription on a copy of his last book ‘Freehold’ on the day of its launching in the Linenhall Library, Belfast: ‘Inscribed for my friend and supporter, Jack McCann’. What an honour, for in that book is one of my favourite Hewitt poems, ‘Ulster Names’ in which he tells us to look for him ‘On the moss between Orra and Slievenanee’.

When I was considering sites for the Hewitt Memorial I looked at that Moss, at the Cottage, at a spot near the site of Hyndman’s House, but John’s spirit led to Lubitavish and Ossian’s Grave. There we of The John Hewitt International Summer School have raised a cairn of stones, that Irish and Scottish traditional form of memorial, with the simple inscription: ‘1907—87. JOHN HEWITT. MY CHOSEN GROUND’.

(In the course of his talk Mr. McCann read several poems including ‘Ulster Names’, ‘The Wake’, ‘Cushkib Fair’ and part of ‘Conacre’.)

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