Digital Literary Atlas of Ireland,


John Hewitt

John Hewitt

The Bloody Brae (1936) Ulster, Northern Ireland

‘Heaven is here, and Hell is here beside it…
And violence breeds like the thistle blown over the world.
…Hate follows on hate in a hard bitter circle –our hate, the hate I give, the hate I am given: We should have used Pity and Grace to break the circle.
…The metal has cooled and set and is harder to break:
Whenever the Irish meet with Planter’s breed, there’s always a sword between and black memories for both.
…I only need a lamp to guide my landing –that lamp is forgiveness… And the hand which could hold that light would lift it up, If I could throw my voice above winds and water; but I cannot alone; I need your help in the asking'


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John Harold Hewitt was born on 27 October 1907 at 96 Cliftonpark Avenue, Belfast. He was the second child of Robert and Elinor, after a daughter, Eileen who was born in 1907. In 1912  he began his education at Agnes Street National School, a Methodist elementary school where his father was principal.  In 1913 he heard James Larkin speak in York Street. The following year he attended a political rally at Six Roads Ends in Ballygrainey, Co. Down,  addressed by Unionist leader James Carson. He also witnessed the Harland and Wolff shipyard strike in 1919. Hewitt  attended the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, and  in 1920 enrolled  in Methodist College, where he spent four years and developed a passion for cricket.

During the summer of 1924 he began writing poetry –in which his feel for, and perception of- a sense of place was strongly influenced by the cultural and physical landscapes of  Ulster. In October  1924  Hewitt enrolled in Queen’s to read a BA in English and in 1927 he undertook a teacher training course in Stranmillis College. He graduated from Queens in 1930 and was appointed as an art assistant with the Belfast Museum and Art Gallery. He married Roberta Black in 1934 and inaugurated the Ulster Unit's first exhibit at Locksley Hall. A regular of the Brown Horse Tavern literary circle Hewitt  co-founded a progressive periodical entitled the  Irish Democrat  in 1937. 

With the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939,  Hewitt attempted to enlist, but as a local government official he was in a reserved occupation, so he joined the Donegall Pass branch of the civil defence. During the war he lectures on art, literature and Marxism at army camps and bases in Northern Ireland. Hewitt's travels over Ulster during this period influenced the regionalist perspective which would come to mark his political and aesthetic perspectives.

In 1943 he was promoted chief assistant of the Belfast Museum.  Hewitt’s adherence to socialist politics and left wing groups,  and his civil liberties activism did not endear him to the Unionist leadership.  In 1953 his application for directorship of the Belfast Museum and Art Gallery was denied.  In 1957 he accepted a position to become art director of the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry in England, and left Northern Ireland in self imposed exile.


Sense of Place

John Hewitt’s writing provides an  alternative mapping of Ulster,  a place so often subsumed by the projections and contestations of constructed Irish and British nationalist identities. Selections of his works speak to intimate perceptions of landscape, to the multiplicity of identities resident in the province  and are firmly rooted in the intricate and often contested relationships which have marked the history, as well as the physical and cultural topographies of the region.  In this regard, in his poem, The Ram’s Horn  (1949) Hewitt offers a lamentation:

I have turned to the landscape because men disappoint me . . . I live best in the landscape, being at ease there; the only trouble I find I have brought in my hand. (1)

An example of Hewitt’s  sense of topographical poesis can also be found in The Touch of Things (1933):

I know the touch of things: the play of mind
Upon the smooth or ragged surfaces:
Have reached rich ecstasy merely by thought
Sent skating over glaciers of sense:
Admire in a logical, intellectual way
The pattern a tree makes leaning across a window.

This poem dramatises, as Terrence Browne observes ‘the mind in the act of perception, the heart finally fulfilled by what sensation and thought have offered to it.’ (3)   In The Little Glen (1942) Hewitt's verse comprises a word portrait which suggests an intimate knowledge of the landscape of upper Antrim:

Stepped off the road in a hollow place
too rough for lovers, seldom vexed by children
until the clustered blackberries are ripe,
the blackthorn blossom and the gaudy whin
offer a dappled interval of peace. (4)

In 1936 Hewitt commenced writing a poem-play cycle entitled The Bloody Brae, which was based upon a massacre of Catholics by Cromwellian soldiers at the Gobbins in Islandmagee in 1642.  His verse attempted to speak to the sectarian divide cleaving the province:

Whenever the Irish meet with Planter’s breed, there’s always a sword between and black memories for both.
. . . I only need a lamp to guide my landing –that lamp is forgiveness . . .
. . . And the hand which could hold that light would lift it up, If I could throw my voice above winds and water; but I cannot alone; I need your help in the asking. (5)

Hewitt also looked to the eighteenth and nineteenth century ‘Rhyming Weavers’ of  Counties Antrim and Down as a possible source with which to root the province's literary tradition. In a series of articles for the  trade periodical, Fibres, Fabrics and Cordage (1948), he discussed their contribution to Ulster's cultural heritage.  Largely the heirs of Republican Presbyterian dissenter stock, the weavers’  aspirations for independence were tied to the radical traditions of the United Irishmen of 1798.  This 'micro-region' stood adjacent to Armagh, the most densely populated and culturally heterogenous county in Ulster during the eighteenth century. Its religious demography was comprised of Gaelic-Catholic, Scots-Presbyterian and English-Anglican, and the cultural mix gave rise to agrarian sectarian groups in which violent skirmishes between the Catholic Defenders, the Peep O’Day Boys and the Orange Order (founded in 1795,  following such a clash) played a role in marginalizing the ‘Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter’ ethos of the United Irishmen.  The weavers on the other hand were based in a more culturally homogenous region of the province, and their poetry, written in the Ulster Scots dialect, was characterized by a regional individuality and non-conformity to the larger structures of centralized political authority.  Hewitt noted of this tradition:

‘Although still colonial because of its dispersal over the Scots planted districts and its exercise by handloom weavers . . . [it] began by comparison with the English colonial, to appear a rooted activity [. . .] The bards, particularly the ‘Rhyming Weavers’, were Freemasons, members of book clubs or reading societies, and often radical and democratic in their politics and liberal in their Presbyterianism.’ (6)

He wrote in The Bitter Gourd (1945) that albeit borrowed from Scots culture, the early blooming of a Northern Protestant literary tradition faded ‘when handloom weaving went out [. . . ] the weaver poets rapidly diminished in numbers; and [consequently] the workers in the new mills and factories had little time or inclination for verse.’ (7)  The Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century copper fastened  Ulster as a jewel in the crown of the British Empire,  but  Hewitt noted that the resulting ‘Ulster ideology . . . offered the writer no inspiration.’ (8) He observed that in the shadow of Northern Ireland's industrial might, it's cultural development had withered, and the provinces' class and politcal structures ossified:

‘We have no such literary heritage, no such ancient language, Scotsmen, Englishmen and Irishmen have here in Ulster become clotted in an uneven and lumpy mixture  [. . . ] By far our most troublesome and deeply fissured problem has been, of course, the lack of integration of Ulster’s people.’ (9)

In an essay entitled Regionalism: The Last Chance (1947), Hewitt outlined  a prescription for the cultural economic and political development of the province:

‘Regionalism, as one French observer points out, begins with a revival of poetry and language: it ends with plans for the economic invigoration of regional agriculture and industry, with proposals for a more autonomous political life, with an effort to build up local centres of learning and culture [. . .] Ulster considered as a Region and not as a symbol of any particular creed, can command the loyalty of every one of its inhabitants. For regional identity does not preclude, rather it requires, membership of a larger association. And whatever that association may be [. . . ] there should emerge a culture and an attitude individual and distinctive [. . . ] and no mere echo of the thought and imagination of another people or another land.’(10)

In cultivating his own sense of regional poesis, Hewitt drew from various heritages, schools and traditions; in his poem Ulsterman (1938) he mused:

Kelt, Briton, Saxon, Dane, and Scot,
Time and this island tied a crazy knot. (11)

Hewitt’s adherence to socialist politics and left wing groups, his activism in regards to Civil Liberties and his interest in regionalism through which he explored the various strands of Ulster’s cultural fabric, did not endear him to the Unionist leadership. In 1953, he was denied directorship of the Belfast Museum and Art Gallery, and in 1957 he accepted a position to become the Art Director of the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry. Consequently, he relocated and finished his professional career in England.


John  Hewitt, ‘The Ram’s Horn,’ in Ed Ormsby (ed) John Hewitt: Collected Poems :1932-1968 (Belfast: Blackstaff, 1991) p. 67.

Hewitt, ‘The Touch of Things,’ Ibid.

Terrence Brown,  ‘John Hewitt: An Ulster of the Mind, in Gerald Dawe (ed) The Poet’s Place  (Belfast Institute Press, 1991) p.  301.

Hewitt, ‘The little glen’ [1942]  John Hewitt, 26.

Hewitt, The Bloody Brae’ [1936] Ibid., pp. 400-416.

John Hewitt, ‘The Course of Writing in Ulster,’ in Tom Clyde (ed),  Ancestral Voices: The Selected Prose of John Hewitt (Belfast: Blackstaff, 1987) pp. 66-67.

John Hewitt, ‘The Bitter Gourd’  Lagan 3: 1945,  p. 97.

Ibid., 98.

Ibid., 93; 103.

John Hewitt, ‘Regionalism: The Last Chance’  The Northman (1947),  in Tom Clyde (ed) Ancestral Voices: The Selected Prose of John Hewitt (Belfast: Blackstaff, 1987) pp. 123; 125.

Hewitt, ‘Ulsterman,’ John Hewitt,  489.


Digital Literary Atlas of Ireland, 1922 - 1949 (Email)