My memory of a reading in 1971, when two great Ulster poets defined the culture of the Planter and the Gael

A letter by Barry Fitzpatrick:

By Letters
Saturday, 4th June 2022, 8:48 am
Letter to the editor
Letter to the editor

When Congressman Richard Neal invoked the phrase ‘The Planter and the Gael’ last week, I immediately knew its derivation, before encountering a controversial Irish News cartoon on the subject. I have in my hand a treasured item, a copy of the Arts Council anthology of the same name, co-signed by the two great Ulster poets, John Hewitt and John Montague, from a poetry reading in, if my memory serves me well, the Boulevard Hotel, Newry in April 1971.

The Foreword states, “In the selection of his poems each poet explores his experience of Ulster, the background in which he grew up and the tradition which has shaped his work. John Montague defines the culture of the Gael, John Hewitt that of the Planter. The two bodies of work complement each other and provide illuminating insight into the complexities of the Province.”

Dredging through the recesses of my memory, I would like to be able to say that it was a celebratory event. However, as their interview in the early 80s (The Crane Bag, Vol. 4, No. 2, The Northern Issue (1980/1981)), helpfully resurrected by Mick Fealty on Slugger (May 26, 2022) sets out, that celebratory mood, which was reflected in their first tour in November 1970, had been replaced by a sense of despondency, self-evident at the Newry reading.

The sadness of this was that, other than the hosting of French exchange students a few years earlier, I can think of no other event where students from the nationalist and unionist traditions had come together, one of the purposes of the tours.

Nonetheless, the exercise was a noble endeavour and, in my opinion, whatever misgivings they expressed in that interview, the title reflected that nobility of purpose. A flickering flame of hope and mutual respect had, in five short months, been extinguished.

It would appear that it was in that original spirit that Peter Robinson, as recounted again by Mick Fealty, invoked the phrase in a speech in the United States in 2006, repeated by Martin McGuinness in the assembly in June 2008.

Whatever else might be made of the congressman’s interventions, he should not be deprecated for doing likewise.

Barry Fitzpatrick, Belfast BT15