Case studies

22 August, 2016

The story of a city through a poet's eyes

Dr Sinéad Morrissey, School of Arts, English and Languages

Whatever accolades and achievements come Sinéad Morrissey’s way, one will always stand out. In the summer of 2013 she became the city of Belfast’s first Poet Laureate. It was a fitting tribute to someone who is acclaimed as one of the most gifted of the new generation of Northern Ireland poets and has made enormous contributions to Belfast’s cultural life.

One of the most significant of these was the part she played in the success of Land of Giants, the spectacular event staged at the Titanic slipway as part of the celebrations to mark London 2012. Sinéad, Reader in Creative Writing at The Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry in Queen’s School of English, explains how she became involved: ‘The creator and director of the show, Mark Murphy, contacted me and said he wanted a poet to do the writing in order to honour our literary tradition. For me it was a wonderful opportunity to tell the story of Belfast through history – I’m drawn to historical subjects anyway – and to write about the people of the city. That’s where my focus is.

‘It was the first time I had written anything to be performed essentially as a theatre piece. Part of it was in my voice, part of it was sung, part was in the voices of actors. To hear what I’d written being broadcast to that kind of audience in that kind of setting was spectacular.’

It was an event which drew on the wider community and many local organisations for its success. Five choirs took part, one of them with a particularly rich heritage – the Harlandic Male Voice – and the response from all of them to her work was enthusiastic. This was echoed in the reaction of the man behind the show, Mark Murphy: ‘She produced the most elegant, tender material, touching in an intuitive way. It was perfect.’

While Land of Giants was a new association for Sinéad, it was not the first time she has been involved in artistic collaboration. In 2002, the Ulster Museum commissioned a major anthology, A Conversation Piece: Poetry and Art, in which the poem Eileen, Her First Communion was her response to the Lavery painting of the same name. She would later use the image as the cover for her collection Between Here and There.

And in 2012, also as part of the Cultural Olympiad, she was one of a number of outstanding poets, among them the late Seamus Heaney, Wendy Cope and Carol Ann Duffy, chosen to write poems inspired by the works of Titian and which were exhibited during the major Titian exhibition at the National Gallery.

Sinéad has been an important voice in contemporary poetry for 15 years, winning many prestigious awards. At the time of writing, her most recent collection, Parallax, is on the shortlist for the 2013 Forward Prize for Poetry. Her new role as Belfast’s Poet Laureate is giving her the opportunity to develop her relationship with the city in a series of artistic duties and activities during the term of office of the current Lord Mayor, Councillor Máirtín Ó Muilleoir. There will be new poems, outreach work to focus on the ‘hidden’ Belfast, engagement with ethnic groups, the young, the vulnerable. Sinéad believes that her students at Queen’s will also benefit from this and from her varied collaborative experiences. ‘Some of them are astonishing, so talented, much more accomplished than I was at their age. I teach them a variety of approaches, taking on different kinds of poems, trying your hand at all kinds of voices and subject matter. All this is part of a branching-out.’

She says, ‘I feel hugely honoured to be Belfast’s first Poet Laureate. It’s a city with an extraordinary literary tradition, especially in relation to poetry, and I’m excited about being able to celebrate and explore the city and poetry further.’

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