The 1970’s was tough times. Republican Belfast was under military
occupation. This blog flitted from house to house. Sometimes for just one night,
never to return again. Not even a sight of the family who provided the shelter.
In and out of back doors. Other times there was the chance to
stay in the one place for longer periods. One such house backed on to an
RUC barracks. British troops came and went on a regular basis. Our paths
crossed regularly. Timing is everything. I stayed there off and on,
despite a number of narrow escapes, for ages. It was a lucky house.
It was there that I made the acquaintance of some books which had an
enduring appeal to me. One was CALL MY BROTHER BACK by Michael McLaverty,
another OVER THE BRIDGE by Sam Thompson - a play not a book. During that
period I also became aware of the writing of Seamus Heaney. Once
travelling on a bus down the Falls Road, my head buried in DEATH OF A
NATURALIST, I was confronted by one of the British Army’s notorious
Parachute Regiment. A patrol had boarded the bus as it made its way
citywards. The heavily armed terrorist stared at me for a second before
questioning another passenger behind me. Everybody on the bus heaved a
sigh of relief when the Brits disembarked. Heaney became a sort of
talisman for me from then on.
Decades later rambling through the City Cemetery with Tom Hartley in what
was a fore runner of his Graveyard Tours and another very fine book
WRITTEN IN STONE, we came on Sam Thompson’s grave. In 1959 the directors of
the Group Theatre refused to stage Over The Bridge because of the way it
highlighted sectarianism. Jimmy Ellis left the group set up his own
company and went ahead with the play in 1960.
During this year’s Féile An Phobail all of these strands from the past came
together again. In what was a commendable initiative Tom had organised a
rededication ceremony for Sam Thompson’s grave. Seamus Heaney was also in
town to speak at Féile about Michael McLaverty. He and other
contemporaries of Sam Thompsons, including Sam’s son Warren and Jimmy
Ellis gathered with the rest of us in the City Cemetery in the mizzley
soft rain for a poignant little event. Afterwards Seamus and Marie Heaney
went off with Danny Morrison to visit Saint Thomas’ School where Seamus
and Michael McLaverty used to teach and the rest of us adjourned to Saint
Marys College where he was to give the McLaverty talk.
And a wonderful talk it was too.
Michael McLaverty is a brilliant and under acknowledged writer. Over the
years I must have given dozens of copies of Call My Brother Back to
friends as an introduction to his work. His other novels, and particularly
his collections of short stories are among the best I have ever read.
Michael was head master in Saint Thomas’ when Seamus arrived there as a
young teacher. By then Seamus was getting some recognition for his
poetry. Michael, an established author, actively encouraged him. He gave
him books. Advised him on literary matters. And befriended him and Marie.
Seamus’ visit to Sam Thompson’s grave, the walk around Saint Thomas’, his
first time there since 1961, and the talk in the big hall in Saint Mary’s
where he told us he first saw his wife Maire were emotional moments for
this wonderful poet and thoroughly decent man. His tribute to McLaverty,
because that is what it was, was peppered with humorous little insights
and telling observations.
The audience and this blog was enthralled. And then he read us some of his
All in all a very fine event in a day of fine events in very fine Féile.
And this blog was pleased to be there.