John Hewitt is the "conscience of the planter tradition". The "father figure" to a shelf of Irish poets that includes Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley. W.B. Yeats wrote, "I owe my soul to Shakespeare, to Spenser, and to Blake". Heaney can surely write that of Hewitt. By his own words Hewitt was "troubled into utterance". Troubled by the terror and tensions of his Northern Ireland.
He used the written word - an "incredible instrument, half wand, half weapon" (Martin Amis) - to address these troubles and to articulate a greater context and vision. In a verse portrait Robert Greacen said John Hewitt 'defined the issues of our time... [and] tried to break the mould of bigotry.' He flew "out and beyond those radar systems" of Protestant and Catholic. Offered a creative hand where others gave a clenched fist.
Our troubles today, like then, are eclectic.
Troubled identities. We need John Hewitt more than ever to remind us that we have a fluid and heterogenous tradition. A colourful, multi-layered Ulsterness, Northern Irishness and Irishness. Hewitt knew, as Conor Cruise O'Brien knew, that 'recklessly idiosyncratic notions' of identity are unhelpful and dangerous. The rising Northern Irish poet Nick Laird has carried on the Hewitt tradition:
"Where Northern Ireland is concerned, the diagram is Venn, and there are many, many circles overlapping."We need more of this.
Troubled politics. We need John Hewitt more than ever to help us articulate a frustration and a passionate moderation. As Colum McCann said: "The peacemaker must show the tenacity of a fanatic." This is really important. Obama said to us in summer 2013: "We need you to get this right." And Colum McCann again:
"If [the peace process] falters, it will be a disaster not only for us but for the rest of the world… The presence of peace in Ireland is a lifeline, however tentative, to Syria, to Ukraine, to Colombia… To lose the process now would be an international crime that reaches backward and forward both."Hewitt wrote: 'This is my country, never disavoved/ when it is fouled shall I not remonstrate?' Well shall you?
Troubled economics. We need Hewitt more than ever to encourage the young, able and creative to embrace our plural world and push back against those who are committed to single-chrome illiberalism. Troubled, Hewitt wrote in 1970:
'Our friends in BudapestTroubled emigration. David Fitzpatrick wrote in 1984: "Growing up in Ireland meant preparing onself to leave it." Fintan O'Toole in 2014: "We do emigration better than we do anything else. We are the world champions are fecking off." But this is no laughing matter. As Mary Robinson said:
days later also, puzzled, queried why,
when the time's vibrant with technology,
Such violence should still be manifest.'
"There was a sense of hopelessness in that there was no choice but to emigrate. There was the extraordinary loneliness of families breaking up - at that time a visit home every two or three years was as much as there was. I think I’ve been worrying about the issue of emigration ever since. Seeing the loss of it, learning at school and being aware of the devastation of the famine, but also feeling that it was part of an Irish demoralised sense of ourselves. That was the way it was. You got on the boat or plane or train. There was an inevitability about it."Today forced emigration continues. Forced by economic circumstance, but also by social circumstance. As it's been said: "Loyalists are doing a grand job of demonising Unionism and encouraging educated Protestants to leave NI."
Troubled today, we need our young people to speak out, like Hewitt, passionately, fluenty and forcefully.
In 2010 I was troubled into utterance. Troubled by the absolute absence of opportunities for young people. Deeply chilled by a system that needed experience to get work, but couldn't offer work to get experience. Troubled by the searing indifference of politicians to that absence of opportunity. I began to speak out with my brush and palate, then with my written words. I learnt both were an "incredible instrument, half wand, half weapon." These were the tools by which I would articulate my troubles and my frustration.
This exhibition, 'Troubled into Utterance', features work that captures and expresses those troubling experiences. It is mixed medium and runs from June 1 - June 22, opening at 7pm on Monday June 2. The John Hewitt (@TheJohnHewitt) is located in the Cathedral quarter of Belfast.
By this exhibition I want to encourage other young people to speak out passionately and remonstrate against the political madmen and the economic madness.