My abusive relationship with Belfast: ‘I was a woman and a Prod. How could I be a poet?’

In No Word For ‘Stay’, Moyra Donaldson has curated a jukebox of Troubles poems to give the silenced a voice

It is too simple
To say I miss you.
If there were a language
That could not say 'leave'
And had no word for 'stay'
That would be the tongue
For this strange country.
From Strange Country, by Seamus Deane

I had no hesitation when Maria McManus asked me to co-curate the 11th incarnation of her innovative Jukebox project, gathering work from poets with lived experience of Northern Ireland’s conflict.

My own creative journey progressed against the backdrop of the Troubles as far back as I can remember, so it felt a perfect fit. I knew that the poems would express loss, grief and remembrance, but what I didn’t expect was my own visceral reaction to them.

I didn’t expect to be emotionally drawn backwards into those decades of darkness, when the air we breathed was choked with fear, grief and despair; when the names of towns, villages and bars were also the names of atrocities. It was naïve of me to imagine that it would be an intellectual task, not an emotional one.


The curation was commissioned by the Centre CultureI Irlandais in Paris in anticipation of the publication in December of Whatever You Say, Say Nothing (after Seamus Heaney’s poem of the same name) by French photographer Gilles Peress, a documentary fiction of photographs and documents portraying the Northern Ireland conflict.

Peress photographed the British army’s massacre of civilians on Bloody Sunday in 1972 and returned in the 1980s to document more of the seemingly endless conflict. All those years when no word could stay the tide of violence.

When I told an old school friend about this project and its title, No word for ‘stay’, taken from the Seamus Deane poem, Strange Country, she laughed – said that staying in the North during the Troubles was like staying in an abusive relationship. She herself had moved away after university, first to London and then on across Europe. Looking at the photos taken by Peress, I thought about what she said. These black and white images transported me back into the ’70s and ’80s.

I lived in Belfast from 1974 until 1980, four of those years as a student. I came from a strict, religiously observant Presbyterian family and moved to a student flat against my mother’s wishes, wanting to throw off the restrictions I had grown up with. It was a turbulent time in my personal life, but I knew I wanted to be a writer. Actually I already was a writer, albeit a fledgling one. I had been writing stories and poems since childhood. When I was in sixth form, I had won the Belfast Telegraph Short Story Competition.

Of course I enjoyed the freedom, nights in the Club Bar, parties – but for a variety of reasons, some personal, some societal, I had little belief in myself and the days were dark. Fear and violence everywhere, the backdrop for everyday life – and there didn’t seem to be any positive reference I could find for myself, either politically or artistically. No women poets that I could find as contemporary references in NI.

There was no sense from anyone I spoke to that a woman could be a serious poet. I felt it was stupid of me to have thought I could. I was also constantly being told, in myriad ways, that my cultural background was without value. Coming from a unionist background, I was the enemy. I wanted to be a writer, but there did not appear to be any interest in a voice like mine, a young woman, a Prod. I agreed; what did I have to say that would be relevant?

When I emerged from QUB in the late 1970s, with my BA in English language and literature, and later moved up the north coast, to the New University of Ulster, as it was in those days, to do postgraduate studies in social work – I had stopped writing and lost all confidence. I no longer thought that I had anything of value to say; never mind the ability to say it. I was silenced. No wonder I didn’t feel at home in this country of mine and there was nothing to convince me that a united Ireland would feel like home for me either.

NI was a brutal place, a bigoted, violent, sexist and repressive society and yet I never thought about leaving. Looking back now I wonder why. I can see why my friend compared it to an abusive relationship.

For me, Anna Burns’ brilliant, Booker-winning novel Milkman, captures to perfection the claustrophobic nature of the time. One of the scenes from it that has stayed with me, is where Middle Sister is attending her French evening class and Teacher forces the class to look out the window at the sunset and describe its colour.

“It seemed to our minds that no, what she was saying could not ever be true. If what she was saying was true, that the sky – out there – not out there – whatever – could be any colour, that anything could be anything, that anything could happen, at any time, in any place in the whole of the world, and to anybody – probably had too, only we hadn’t noticed. So no. After generation upon generation, fathers upon forefathers, mothers upon foremothers, centuries of being one colour officially and three colours unofficially, a colourful sky, just like that, could not be allowed to be.”

When I came back to writing in the ’90s, I came in through the nascent community arts movement, through writing groups where it was possible to see that there was not just one narrative, or two; that every voice, every story had validity. I found my voice and began to believe in myself, in the value of what I had to say. I remembered what I had known as a troubled teenager – poetry was home for me.

As well as starting back to write poetry again, I became involved with the Community Arts Forum and helped to set up the NI Creative Writers Network. Publishers like Lapwing and Lagan Press opened their doors to the more marginalised voices. Over the years the concept of many stories and voices has grown exponentially. In many ways the arts scene in NI is unrecognisable compared to what it was back in the day when I found myself silenced.

This is one of the reasons that I find the Jukebox project so exciting. Maria McManus has been such a positive force in bringing this diversity of voice and story and viewpoint out onto the streets; amplifying the quiet voices. And the poems in this curation – 20 poets speaking of their lived experience; each voice different and important, each articulating an aspect of our painful history, allowing us to see how it resonates into today. Helping us all to look to the future.

In Pat Barker’s powerful novel, Silence of the Girls, the female characters of the Iliad get to tell their stories and it’s the same in this curation. These days you’d expect nothing less of course, but because women’s voices were seen as mostly irrelevant in the North of my youth, I am particularly satisfied to hear them ring out clearly now.

Jean Bleakney’s Postcard 1998 takes us to that year when the Good Friday Agreement was signed, but when there were also the Drumcree riots, where it felt as if we were finally tipping into all out civil war; when three small boys, the Quinn brothers, died in a loyalist arson attack on their house; when 29 people and two unborn children were killed and 370 injured in the Real IRA bombing of Omagh; when another generation learns to grieve.

Leontia Flynn’s poem The Radio, resonates with me as a mother of the same generation as the mother in the poem – as it will for any mother – trying to act as a sentinel, trying to keep the worst of the news, the worst of the world away from our children.

Joan Newmann’s A Stay in Musgrave Park Hospital skilfully juxtaposes the normal with the abnormal, the state in which we all lived in those days; we were a country of part people.

Dennis Greig, who with his wife Rene kept the spark of poetry alive through all the years with Lapwing Press, reflects on the tongue’s limits and it is also wonderful to hear the voice of the great and sorely missed Ciaran Carson, with Belfast Confetti, his fusillade of question marks

There is a particular sense of our shared humanity in Damian Smyth’s A Sweet From Gerry Tully, reminding us of the marks that violence leaves behind, not only on bodies but also in towns and psyches. Reminding us how important it is to bear witness.

Derek Mahon’s recording of Everything Is Going to Be Alright is like a prayer, an affirmation – the poet’s voice and the birds singing in the background; all the more poignant now.

We are encouraged to believe that change comes from above, that it is our politicians who bring about change, but in reality, change comes from us; from individuals and communities who take steps towards each other, towards understanding each other. These are not poems of comfort or solace, rather they encourage us to hear each other; to better know ourselves and others. That is one of the things poetry does.
Belfast International Festival & Centre Culturel Irlandais online for this free panel discussion on Saturday, October 17that 6pm with Prof Cliona Ní Ríordáin (Sorbonne Nouvelle, Paris) and poets Paul Muldoon, Moyra Donaldson and Gail McConnell. This event is introduced by poet and artistic director Maria McManus. Images by kind permission of Crispin Rodwell. Book here.
All of the poems on the No Word for Stay curation are available online
from 3pm on October 17th. Listen to poems by Celia de Fréine, Ciaran Carson, Joan Newmann, Dennis Grieg, Damian Smyth, Gerald Dawe, Padraic Fiacc, Alan Gillis, Michael Longley, Frank Ormsby, Lorna Shaughnessy, Jean Bleakney, Moyra Donaldson, Colette Bryce, Paul Muldoon, Kate Newmann, Gearóid Mac Lochlainn, Leontia Flynn, Gail McConnell, and Derek Mahon.
Supported by: Arts Council of Northern Ireland, EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum , Poetry Ireland, Dublin UNESCO City of Literature, Fáilte Ireland & The Crescent Arts Centre Belfast