'Saint of poetry' who focused on groups with special needs


Mairtín Crawford, who has died in Belfast aged 36, spent much of his creative life encouraging writing by people with mental health problems and physical disabilities. His early death leaves a sense of promise cut short.

He was part-time tutor in creative writing at Belfast's Crescent Arts Centre for seven years. The Northern Ireland Arts Council gave him an Arts in the Community award last year to work as full-time writer-in-residence, and last autumn he was appointed director of the Between the Lines literature festival. His first collection of poetry is to be published later this year.

Michael Longley describes Mairtín Crawford as "a saint of poetry - he gave much more than he took and made things possible for lots of other people."

The crowded congregation at his funeral in St Paul's Church on the Falls Road included many old school friends and writers such as Longley and veteran poet Padraic Fiacc.

Educated at Rathmore Grammar School and Queen's University, Mairtín Crawford completed an MA in Irish writing in 1991 on the work of W.B. Yeats, Derek Mahon and Paul Muldoon before becoming a full-time professional writer.

In the early 1990s he helped run the Poetry Collective in the small alternative café Giro's and until his death edited the radical poetry journal he founded, the Big Spoon. He was production editor of the independent magazine Fortnight from 1995 until 2002 and took charge of the artistic and cultural content.

In teaching creative writing from a base in the Crescent Arts Centre, he helped aspiring writers with readings and suggestions for publication. The centre's director Liz Donnan says: "Mairtín didn't just teach a class, he paid individual attention to everybody who wanted advice. He'd be here in what he called his surgeries on Tuesdays and Wednesdays so anyone could come and show him their writing. People benefited immensely from Mairtín."

The other part of his post was work in various parts of Belfast with community groups. Rethink, for people with mental health problems, was a particular enthusiasm.

Damian Smyth, of the Arts Council, said: "A sense of mission characterised his creative life, focusing on special-needs groups including people with disabilities and mental illness."

Michael Longley, who came in to work on several Crescent centre classes with him, paid tribute to his energy and multiple talents. He recalled jokingly from his own time at the Arts Council "that Mairtín would always have four or five schemes about to be launched, and three or four would get airborne."

He was appointed in September as director of the Between the Lines Festival of Literature, an enterprise aimed at renewing vibrancy and sense of shared culture in post-ceasefire Belfast. He had already done considerable preparatory work, Liz Donnan said. The festival will take place in March and will be dedicated to his memory.

An achievement that gave Mairtín Crawford particular pleasure was the 1993 visit he organised for the venerable Allen Ginsberg, who gave two memorable readings in the Crescent Centre. The veteran American beatnik and young Belfast writer had been friends for several years. It was part of his fascination with "the idea of America", in Damian Smyth's words.

This sparked frequent research visits and a special bond with the elderly Padraic Fiacc who had spent many early years in New York.

Smyth said: "Fiacc's anarchic voice, with a firm grasp of poetic form underlying it, found an echo in Mairtín's own work and personality. Their creative exchange was epitomised in Mairtín's film Storm Bird, on Fiacc's life and times." The film was shown for the first time last year at the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival.

In 2001 Mairtín Crawford won an Individual Artist's Award for American travel to meet NASA personnel as research for a book of poetry about the concepts and implications of space flight. A number have already appeared in journals and magazines and were delivered by the poet in readings at home and abroad.

A collection with the provisional title An Alpha Child and Other Poems is to be published later this year by Lagan Press.

Pat Ramsey of Lagan said: "Beneath the surface bohemianism, Mairtín always brought seriousness both to the craft of writing poetry and the art of living life. In the continually feuding world of Belfast letters it is a testament to his lack of malice that he is mourned by so many."

Mairtín Crawford was found at his home in west Belfast with severe head injuries on January 6th and died in hospital five days later. He is survived by his mother, Florrie.

Mairtín Crawford: born 1967; died January 2004


For honour and promotion we built her.

A mining town that didn't exist. Two hundred

miles south of Kazakhstan. Baikonur. Nowhere.

Our Cosmodrome. We've launched hundreds

from here. Some you don't even know about yet.

Rockets. Spaceships. Proton. Soyuz. Gagarin.

Pride, yes - we won it from the skies and beyond.

Wild horses and camels roam our vast ranges.

We have a child. Her name is Zarya. She will live.