Ciaran Carson obituary: Gifted poet who drew the streets of Belfast with his words

Prominent member of ‘Belfast Group’ of poets which included Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley and Paul Muldoon

Many of Ciaran Carson’s poems captured the local lived experience of the Troubles with a sharp caustic lyrical force. Photograph:  Cyril Byrne

Many of Ciaran Carson’s poems captured the local lived experience of the Troubles with a sharp caustic lyrical force. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

Born: October 9th, 1948  
Died: October 6th, 2019

Ciaran Carson, one of the most talented Northern Irish poets of his generation and a gifted translator of works from Irish, Italian, French and Spanish into English has died following a short illness.

A member of Aosdána and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, Carson was one of the “Belfast Group” of poets which included Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley and Paul Muldoon. He published 14 collections of poetry including The Irish for No, Belfast Confetti, The Twelfth of Never and For All We Know. His prose writings included The Star Factory, a memoir of Belfast, Shamrock Tea (which was long-listed for the Booker prize) and translations of The Tain, The Midnight Court and Dante’s Inferno (for which he won the Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation prize in 2002).

Carson was deeply influenced by poet Louis MacNeice but equally by classical poetry of Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Mallarme

Literary awards include The Irish Times Literature Prize for Poetry in 1990 for Belfast Confetti, the TS Eliot Prize for First Language: Poems in 1993 and The Forward Poetry Prize for Breaking News in 2003. His last collection of poems, Still Life – which he wrote since a diagnosis of cancer in March 2019 – will be published later this month by The Gallery Press.

Carson was born on the lower Falls Road in Belfast and grew up in Andersonstown speaking Irish as his first language. Following his schooling at St Mary’s Christian Brothers grammar school in Belfast, he studied English at Queen’s University. Heaney was one of his tutors and poets, Medbh McGuckian and Muldoon were fellow students.

For more than two decades, he worked as an officer with the Arts Council of Northern Ireland with responsibility for traditional Irish music and latterly literature. His book, Last Night’s Fun: About Time, Food and Music (1996) is a brilliantly inventive book on traditional Irish music which intertwines scholarly explanations of the tunes and stories of traditional music with the joyous and spontaneous experience of playing music with friends.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, he travelled all over Ireland, playing the flute and the tin whistle in pubs, often accompanied by his future wife, Deirdre Shannon – herself a gifted fiddle-player. The couple married in 1982 and have three children, Manus, Gerard and Mary.

While Carson’s debut poetry collection, The New Estate, was originally published by Blackstaff Press in 1976, it was for his later collections – particularly The Irish for No, Belfast Confetti and The Twelfth of Never – that he gained greater prominence. Many of his poems captured the local lived experience of the Troubles with a sharp caustic lyrical force.

Carson was deeply influenced by poet Louis MacNeice but equally by classical poetry of Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Mallarme. One critic described Carson as a poet of infinite variation and musical intensity with poems whose stunning, dynamic arrangements of words will continue to disturb, question, complicate and push at the limits of form and meaning, story and history.

A dapper presence around Belfast – he lived latterly off the Antrim Road – Carson had a taste for handmade suits and shoes, antique tweed jackets, silk shirts and subtle ties

He dedicated Belfast Confetti – with its inimitable lines “Suddenly as the riot squad moved in, it was raining exclamation marks, nuts, bolts, nails, car keys. A fount of broken type” – to his father, William Carson. Carson senior was a postman and Irish language enthusiast from whom Ciaran inherited his love of Irish, a flair for traditional music and storytelling and a respect for education as a way of making a mark in the world. His mother – also an inspiration for his poems – worked in the linen mills.

In 2003, Carson became professor of poetry and the first director of the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queen’s University Belfast. During his tenure there, his generosity of spirit and rich imagination inspired a new generation of poets.

A dapper presence around Belfast – he lived latterly off the Antrim Road – Carson had a taste for handmade suits and shoes, antique tweed jackets, silk shirts and subtle ties. A true cosmopolitan with a deep love of languages, he interrogated his surroundings, drawing on a wide frame of intellectual and cultural references. It was often said that he drew the streets of Belfast with his words. Carson himself said writers had an ethical responsibility to use the right word. And, he relished the company of other writers who enjoyed both the humour and mystery of everyday life. He faced his death with a stoic realism, spurred to write one last collection of poems inspired by his native Belfast and the Northern Ireland conflict that formed him and other poets of his generation.

Ciaran Carson is survived by his wife, Deirdre, their children, Manus, Gerard and Mary, his sister Caitlín, and brothers, Pat, Brendan and Liam.