In his Foreword to the Belfast Poet Dennis Greig’s Morning in Belfast, which I published in 1983 under my imprint Pretani Press, John Hewitt wrote on 10th April 1983, “I first encountered the name of Dennis Greig in 1977 in the booklet Worklines, Belfast working class poetry 1930-1975. Last Autumn I was introduced to him by his friend Dr Ian Adamson, that effective exponent of our Ulster Identity, Since then I have been able to give some attention to a significant body of Greig’s work.”
John Harold Hewitt (28 October 1907-22 June 1987), born in Belfast, 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).
As the 1920s moved into the 1930s, Hewitt’s writing began to develop and mature. Firstly, his role models (including Vachel Lindsay) became more modern; secondly, he discovered in Chinese poetry a voice which was “quiet and undemonstrative but clear and direct”, and which answered a part of Hewitt’s temperament which had been suppressed. Finally, and most importantly, he began his lifelong work of excavation and discovery of the poetry of Ulster, starting with Richard Rowley, Joseph Campbell and George William Russell (AE). This research culminated, in part, with the publications of Fibres, Fabric and Cordage in 1948, Rhyming Weavers and other Country Poets of Antrim and Down (based on his MA thesis, Ulster Poets 1800–1870 of 1951) in 1974, and a book called The Rhyming Weavers in 1979. All of these publications and more, were based on his interest in the Ulster rhyming Weaver poets of the 19th century, such as Henry Mac Donald Flecher, David Herbison, Alexander Mac Kenzie, James MacKowen and James Orr.
John was also made a Freeman of the City of Belfast in 1983, and I was delighted when he asked me to attend. I sat with the great Paddy Devlin. I have since been honoured to attend similar ceremonies for Van Morrison and my other friend Michael Longley. And like these other two great Bards of Ulster, John was 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 mediocre 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, like myself describing himself as “a man of the left”, and was involved in the British Labour Party, the Fabian Society and the Belfast Peace League. My father John Adamson was a founder member of the Northern Ireland Labour Party and stood for election in North Down . Like most of my own family John Hewitt 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.