Coming of age as a poet: Tim Atkinson on Ireland’s other Larkin

“I went to Belfast, and things reawoke somehow”

Big Jim might be better known (with good reason) but his English namesake Philip Larkin spent five vital years in Ireland in the 1950s, coming of age as a poet and enjoying what he described as “The best writing conditions I ever had.” Who knows how much larger his poetic legacy might have been had he enjoyed those conditions longer?

Born on August 9th, 1932, the lugubrious librarian and poet of provincial England fell under the spell of William Butler Yeats as a young man. That wasn’t to last; but Larkin’s fondness for Ireland was. He was sub-librarian at Queen’s University from 1950-1955. The man who became (unfairly) branded “the hermit of Hull” was anything but in Belfast. In charge of the issue-desk by day, he then “wrote between eight and ten in the evenings” in his high-windowed attic rooms in Elmwood Avenue before meeting colleagues in the SCR bar. After closing time he then “played cards or talked with friends until one or two.”

Ambitious, both in his professional and literary careers, he moved back to England to take up the post of university librarian at Hull, remaining there for the rest of his life. But Ireland was always more than a memory. Two years after leaving he was back in Belfast as best man at his friend Alec Dalgarno’s wedding at St George’s Church in the centre of the city. At first amused to discover that the officiating priest was called St John Puke, Larkin was later alarmed by the cleric’s lack of self-control at the wedding reception. The priest insisted on loudly proclaiming “a stream of sentimental verbiage so nauseating as to be laughable,” Larkin confided to a friend. “At times I wondered if as best man I ought to knock him out, but he had apparently played rugger for Ireland in his day and was built on the general lines of Spencer Tracy and Tom Teevan (both of whom he strongly resembled) so I decided against doing so, perhaps wisely.”

In 1969 Queen’s awarded Larkin an honorary D Litt, and though he stayed in Belfast for just one night in July, he and his partner Monica Jones returned later that summer for one of their longest holidays, staying with friends at Westport in Co Mayo and paying a visit to the capital that was to inspire the poem Dublinesque just a year later. Describing a funeral procession, the poem ends with the half-heard name of the deceased, as sung by the mourners, as well as with one of the most succinct, emotional punch-lines imaginable:


A voice is heard singing

Of Kitty, or Katy

As if the name meant once

All love, all beauty.

Late Larkin was very pro-Thatcher and anti-trade unions (which would have enraged Jim). Because of this, Jonathan Raban once described the Belfast Larkin as a Loyalist. But his attitude to the Orange marches he witnessed was nothing if not nuanced and a short, unpublished poem referring to Ian Paisley as the “Pope” of Ulster seems to be less than supportive of July 12th bonfires and marches:

See the Pope of Ulster stand,

Spiked shillelagh in each hand,

Vowing to uphold the Border,

Father, Son and Orange Order.

That may be doggerel, but what Larkin was writing in the Belfast years was the poetry that was to make his name. It marked the end of a period of doubt and inactivity. “After finishing my first books,” he writes, “I thought I had come to an end. I couldn’t write another novel, I published nothing . . . Then in 1950 I went to Belfast, and things reawoke somehow. I wrote some poems,” he remarks, modestly, and “felt for the first time I was speaking for myself. Thoughts, feelings, language cohered and jumped.”

Those thoughts and feelings, that language, jumped to form The Less Deceived, Larkin’s second collection but the first to receive widespread acclaim. Although published in Hull by the Marvell Press, many of the poems had their genesis in Ireland. Some were written directly in response to experiences in Belfast. Church Going, for example, was inspired in part by a visit to a ruined church outside the city:

A serious house on serious earth it is,

In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,

Are recognised, and robed as destinies.

And that much never can be obsolete,

Since someone will forever be surprising

A hunger in himself to be more serious,

And gravitating with it to this ground,

Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,

If only that so many dead lie round.

“One cannot overstate the effect that the move to Belfast had on his work,” writes Richard Bradford in his book The Importance of Elsewhere – “it wrought the transformation of Larkin from frustrated novelist to the finest English poet of the late twentieth century.”