The Strangers’ House: Writing Northern Ireland by Alexander Poots - review by Malachi O’Doherty

Malachi O’Doherty

Et in Ulster Ego

The Strangers’ House: Writing Northern Ireland


Twelve 223pp $30

It was Michael Longley who said that he and the generation of poets who emerged in Belfast in the 1960s and 1970s did not want to be branded as ‘Ulster poets’: ‘There was no group, there was no school, there was no manifesto.’ Alexander Poots accepts the reluctance of Northern Irish poets to be treated as representatives of a region. Nevertheless, he identifies a common feature of their work: a shared feeling of homesickness. His first example of this is Tom Paulin’s sense of dislocation when he visited London. Expecting to be received as British among British people, he discovered that he was more akin to migrants from former colonies. 

Poots takes us through the lives and works of several Northern Irish writers, from C S Lewis, Forrest Reid and Louis MacNeice up to present-day authors, and finds in all of them a discomforting sense of Northern Ireland not being a real place. (This resonates with former Taoiseach Charles Haughey’s dismissal of Northern Ireland as a ‘failed political entity’.) For Northern Irish writers, it was easy to conjure up alternative universes. Forrest Reid, a gay man who idealised younger men and their bodies, created an Arcadia in which his fantasies could be freely indulged. Lewis created Narnia. 

The starting problem for such writers, Poots argues, is that Northern Ireland has been mythologised by rival communities. No good writer is simply going to reproduce propaganda – to depict the territory as either an oppressed colony fighting for freedom from Britain or a stolid Protestant bastion holding its own

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