John Harold Hewitt (28 October 1907-22 June 1987), who was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, was the most significant Irish poet to emerge before the 1960s generation of poets which included Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon and Michael Longley. He was appointed the first writer-in-residence at Queen’s University Belfast in 1976. His collections include The Day of the Corncrake (1969) and Out of My Time: Poems 1969 to 1974 (1974). John was made a Freeman of the City of Belfast tonight, and I was delighted when he asked me to attend. I sat with Paddy Devlin. John was also awarded honorary doctorates by the University of Ulster and Queen’s University Belfast.
From November 1930 to 1957, John held positions in the Belfast Museum and Art Gallery. His radical socialist ideals proved unacceptable to the Belfast Unionist establishment and he was passed over for promotion in 1953. Instead in 1957 he moved to Coventry, a city still rebuilding following its devastation during the Second World War. John was appointed Director of the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum where he worked until retirement in 1972.
John had an active political life, describing himself as “a man of the left”, and was involved in the British Labour Party, the Fabian Society and the Belfast Peace League. He was attracted to the Ulster dissenting tradition and was drawn to a concept of regional identity within the island of Ireland, describing his identity as Ulster, Irish, British and European. John officially opened the Belfast Unemployed Resource Centre (BURC) Offices on May Day 1985.
His life and work are celebrated in two prominent ways – the annual John Hewitt International Summer School – and, less conventionally, a Belfast pub is named after him – the John Hewitt Bar and Restaurant, which is situated on the city’s Donegall Street and which opened in 1999. The bar was named after him as he officially opened the Belfast Unemployed Resource Centre, which owns the establishment. It is a popular meeting place for local writers, musicians, journalists, students and artists. Both the Belfast Festival at Queen’s and the Belfast Film Festival use the venue to stage events.