Where, last August, would you have found a bishop, a Japanese professor, a bus load of unemployed people from the W.E.A. in Belfast, the Provost of Trinity College, a distinguished American photographer, Sean O’Casey’s daughter-in-law, a couple of Swedish academics, as well as a proliferation of poets, journalists and entertainers?
St. MacNissi’s College, Garron Tower, was the venue; and the first John Hewitt International Summer School was the event which attracted such a variety of people to the heart of the Glens. Some came for a day, some for a week; some came for a day and stayed for a week. All were intent upon celebrating the life and work of John Hewitt —poet, regionalist, political dissenter, and one of the most courageous and distinguished figures in the cultural life of the Province in the last fifty years.
The School’s “onlie begetter”, Jack McCann, conceived of Northern Ireland’s first ever summer school within weeks of the death of Hewitt, his friend of many years. “I wanted to have something which would serve as a living memorial to the man, something more appropriate than a plaque on the corner of a house somewhere,” he explained.
Hewitt surely would have approved of the venue. The man who responded with quick delight to “bright smears of light on Garron or on the sea”, had a deep and abiding love of his “chosen ground”, the middle Glens:
“No other comer in this land offers in shape and colour all I need to torch the mind with living light.”
Although conscious of being a stranger in their midst, Hewitt also loved the people of the Glens. Their rootedness appealed to the regionalist in him, just as their appreciation of “patterned talk”, of legend and of anecdote appealed to the poet in him. Above all, their “differentness” was a touchstone for his ideas on identity, ideas which he was hammering into a coherent shape when he first came to Cushendall in the mid-Forties.
The theme of the Summer School—“An Ulster Poet and his Quest” — proved to be a richly productive seam. In the formal lectures there was almost equal emphasis on Hewitt the poet, the man of letters, and on the public man, the “cultural commissar” (in Seamus Heaney’s phrase). Several speakers, eager to locate the poet in a regional literary tradition, offered historical perspectives on Ulster writing.
Author and reviewer, Patricia Craig, expertly guided her audience through the semi-arid zones of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In a witty lecture which shared Hewitt’s own love of literary oddities and cultural curiosities, she revealed that much, though certainly not all, that was published in those centuries was dull, devotional or downright dire. Amanda McKittrick Ros had her roots here.
But there were indeed oases in the regional desert. Hewitt himself had championed the-cause of the Weaver Poets of Antrim and Down, rooted and radical men who wrote in the Ulster-Scots dialect. David Ivan Herbison, a direct descendant of one of them (Herbison of Dunclug), showed that Hewitt had saved these writers from ill-deserved oblivion, and suggested that they had been neglected more for political reasons than for lack of literary merit. His reading in the vernacular from Campbell, Herbison and Orr was something of a revelation.
The work of a more significant figure in the Anglo-Irish mainstream, Sir Samuel Ferguson, was explored by Greagoir O’Duill. In an illuminating lecture he discovered similarities between Ferguson and Hewitt, “two men formed in the mindset of east Ulster”. No rootless colonists they! In proclaiming Ferguson at his best to be a regional poet, O Duill sought to rescue him from Yeats and the National Revivalists who had, he contended, kidnapped and misrepresented him.
Professor Terence Brown (TCD) completed the School’s exploration of work by Ulster writers before Hewitt by focusing on two rather exotic literary plants, or, more accurately, transplants: Helen Wadell and C.S. Lewis. Each had opted for a kind of exile in England.
Professor Frank Kinahan of Chicago detected a note of exile in Hewitt too, but it was the unease of the “inner exile”, the man who found himself alone, the nonconformist east of Eden. He declared Hewitt to be a pastoralist of a distinctly modern kind, closer in spirit to Robert Frost, perhaps, than to W.B. Yeats. Peter McDonald explored the uses of history in Northern Irish literature, finding revealing contrasts in the work of Hewitt, MacNeice, Heaney and Paulin.
The most meticulous textual analysis of Hewitt’s work was provided by Britta Olinder of the University of Gothenburg. She illustrated her theme, the poet’s craftsmanship, by close reference to the poem “Once Alien Here”. Personal relationships in Hewitt’s writing were examined by Geraldine Watts.
Perhaps the keynote lecture on Hewitt the public man was delivered by Professor John Wilson Foster of the University of British Columbia. Hewitt was for him “an Ulster Protestant forever straddling paradox”, beset by urgent, nagging questions of identity which were held in creative tension in his work. Foster spoke of the present need for a common cultural hinterland which might one day nurture new and stable political structures in the Province. Hewitt could serve as a mentor to that process. There was sustenance here for anyone interested in ‘cultural heritage’ or ‘education for mutual understanding’ (growth industries in educational circles in the last twelve months).
A part of the cultural hinterland which helped to produce our present malaise came under the scrutiny of Tom Paulin in a lecture entitled “John Hewitt: Ancestral Socialism”. Hewitt was shown to be firmly rooted in the great tradition of Ulster Dissent. Paulin then traced the virtual demise of that tradition to the early decades of the nineteenth century. The records of the proceedings of the general assemblies of the Presbyterian Church showed these meetings to be battlegrounds in the increasingly political struggle for the soul of Ulster Presbyterians. The radicals were outmanoeuvred by the conservative forces and the dissenters increasingly found themselves alone.
And finally, Anthony Buckley of the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum shared with the School his researches into the symbolism and iconography of various Protestant sects and societies in more recent times.
Away from the lectures and discussion groups there was much to engage the interest of visitors. The School’s director, Jack McCann, conducted two memorable tours of the middle Glens. (Jack invoking Oisin and declaiming Hewitt on the slopes of Lubitavish was for some the highlight of the week!) Back at the College there was a bookshop on site, offering a wide range of Anglo-Irish literature; there were exhibitions of paintings and of old and rare books; and there were films on the Glens, on Moira O Neill, and on Hewitt himself (the splendid “I Found Myself Alone” by David Hammond and Ian Bailey).
Play-readings included Brian Friel’s “Lovers” and Hewitt’s “The Bloody Brae” — featuring again the indefatigable Jack McCann, with the Open Door Theatre Group. The McArdle brothers from Monaghan performed their highly entertaining “two-man show in three halves” based on the writings of Patrick Kavanagh. Poetry readings in the course of the week featured Frank Ormsby, Michael Longley, Sam Burnside and James Simmons.
Simmons contributed also to the music and song, as did David Hammond, Arty McGlynn, Nollaig O Casey and local fiddler, Jim McKillop. The Summer School programme had promised “a bit of crack”. There was that in plenty, right from the opening ceremony when Cullybackey tin-whistler, John Kennedy, led an informal procession of visitors through the College grounds.
Alan Warner, the distinguished academic and editor of “The Selected John Hewitt” later described the conference as “quite simply the most enjoyable literary gathering I have ever attended.” For Paul Arthur, writing in the “Irish Times”, it was “the best summer school in Ireland, and the most sober (up to a point!)” Ms. Ruth Hooley, in an article in “Fortnight” looked to the future: “This Summer School promises to be a fruitful meeting ground for those who wish to address the condition that is Ulster, be it six counties or nine.”
Sponsored by the Arts Council of N. Ireland and by the Tourist Board, the John Hewitt Summer School was the recipient of one of British Airways Tourism Awards for 1988. The citation praised the School for “concentrating travellers’ minds on one of the delights of this island — its literary heritage.”