Frank Ormsby: the mad desire of an optimistic Ulsterman

One of the golden generation of Belfast poets (Heaney, Longley and Carson) who liked their poetry with a pint, he marks his 70th year with a new collection

Frank Ormsby: “Fervour” seems an apt description for what Ormsby has been undertaking in his lifelong commitment to poetry. Photograph: Lynne Russell

Frank Ormsby: “Fervour” seems an apt description for what Ormsby has been undertaking in his lifelong commitment to poetry. Photograph: Lynne Russell

 

The meeting with poet Frank Ormsby is, appropriately enough, in the John Hewitt bar in Belfast city centre. The walls are festooned with pictures of local writers and artists. A photograph of the wonderful Armagh painter, JB Vallely, is on the wall beside us. Vallely, brush in hand, is at his canvas; Ormsby has a pint of Guinness on the wooden table; two artists from different genres with a common aim, to draw out the unexamined life.

Hewitt (1907-1987) was a respected poet in the city and one who led the way for many others. Ormsby, who celebrates his 70th birthday this year, is one of the generation who followed in Hewitt’s wake. Indeed, he knew Hewitt and admits, with a little embarrassment, that he once did “a hatchet job” on one of Hewitt’s pamphlets. Hewitt wrote to complain about the review, Ormsby wrote back to apologise and they became acquaintances.

He belongs to that golden generation of Belfast-based poets – Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, Ciaran Carson

When Ormsby married, he lived around the corner from Hewitt in the city’s university area. Hewitt sent delft and furniture to furnish the newlyweds’ flat. Hewitt did not bear him a grudge. Ormsby had an application in with the Arts Council for a poetry pamphlet; Hewitt supported him and “swung it in my favour”.

Looking in very good form – despite some health issues and a lifetime in the trenches of teaching – Ormsby is in familiar surroundings. He belongs to that golden generation of Belfast-based poets – Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, Ciaran Carson, for example – who quite liked their poetry with a pint. The Hewitt, the Egg and the Crown, well-known city watering holes, all get a mention in Ormsby’s latest collection, The Darkness of Snow (Bloodaxe Books).

For two decades the Eglantine Inn
was our spiritual home, or for you, Ciaran, spirituous home,
poetry one of the fervours of our lives,
our mad desire to capture nothing less
than the perfect lyric.

The collection’s haunting cover is by the contemporary Romanian artist, Adrian Ghenie, entitled It could be anywhere. A man with a rifle can be seen hunting someone against the dirty snow. It might be the Balkans; it might be Belfast
The collection’s haunting cover is by the contemporary Romanian artist, Adrian Ghenie, entitled It could be anywhere. A man with a rifle can be seen hunting someone against the dirty snow. It might be the Balkans; it might be Belfast

“Fervour” seems an apt description for what Ormsby has been undertaking in his lifelong commitment to poetry. He has written – quietly, diligently and effectively – for more than 40 years now. His first full collection, A Store of Candles, was published in 1977 and The Darkness of Snow marks the latest chapter in that “mad desire” to pursue perfect poems.

Fermanagh is here, as is a series on the visual arts, the poetry scene in Belfast, personal illness and the stain of violence on humanity. The collection’s haunting cover is by the contemporary Romanian artist, Adrian Ghenie, entitled It could be anywhere. A man with a rifle can be seen hunting someone against the dirty snow. It might be the Balkans; it might be Belfast.

Teaching and editing were constants in his life. He spent his entire career as an English teacher at the Royal Belfast Academical Institute, one of the city’s oldest schools. He devoted 20 years to editing The Honest Ulsterman, one of the North’s leading literary magazines. He has also edited Poetry Ireland Review and still co-edits The Yellow Nib, an annual poetry journal produced with The Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queen’s University.

(In his role as editor, he has helped many a young poet on their way. In that regard, The Irish Times must declare an interest. Books Editor Martin Doyle admitted that he once “darkened Ormsby’s door with some awful juvenilia when I was at Queen’s in 1985-86”. I had better luck and have two poems included in Ormsby’s The Hip Flask: short poems from Ireland. Alas, my wife was not so lucky. She entered a poetry competition, aged 14, which Ormsby judged and was given second prize. Second prize? Ah, Frank, Frank, Frank.)

I stopped bothering myself with this identity stuff a long time ago

What then of identity? The book blurb describes him as “Northern Irish”. Is he Irish, Northern Irish? Does one detract from the other or add to it? “When I think of these matters at all – which is not often – I think of myself as both an Irish and a Northern Irish poet. I stopped bothering myself with this identity stuff a long time ago,” he says.

He can certainly be described as a Fermanagh man. Born in 1947 into a house with no running water and no electricity, he was raised in Irvinestown. Books were young Ormsby’s pleasure and education his path to another life. He was educated at St Michael’s in Enniskillen, went to Queen’s University in Belfast in 1966 and has been in the city ever since.

Yet, he has never left Fermanagh; its people and its landscape still inform his work. Equally pleasing too is the fact that Fermanagh has not forgotten him. His poetry was celebrated as part of the BBC Proms at Castle Coole in Enniskillen at the beginning of this month and he was guest of honour in front of 6,000 people. Fellow Fermanagh man and actor Adrian Dunbar – he of Line of Duty fame – read two of Ormby’s poems while a specially commissioned piece of music by Graeme Stewart, A Lull Between Showers, was performed by the Ulster Orchestra. As it happens, Stewart is a former pupil of Inst, a fact that gives Ormsby great satisfaction. It must have been a great night? “I was really pleasantly surprised,” he says modestly, “it was very unexpected.”

He is able to work for long hours at a time but, sometimes, suffers from hallucinations

It was certainly a rare honour for any poet. That said, all is not entirely joyous in his life. He has both diabetes and Parkinson’s disease. The medication for Parkinson’s, he says, is having odd side-effects. He is able to work for long hours at a time but, sometimes, suffers from hallucinations. “Nothing sensational,” he says, “like waking up in the middle of the night as a child and imagining the bathrobe on the door looks like a monk.”

He writes candidly and humorously about his illness:

My brother and I at a wedding:
enough tremors between us
to rival the air-conditioning.

It would be enough to make the strongest of us morose but he does not surrender to self-pity: “I think I am temperamentally optimistic. It takes a lot to demoralise me or to get me down.”

  • Yes, Frank Ormsby is that most unusual of beings – an optimistic Ulsterman.
  • The Darkness of Snow will be launched by Michael Longley in the Ulster Museum, Belfast, on Thursday, September 28th at 6.30pm
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