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John Hewitt was a Belfast poet and political activist who famously described his identity as Ulster, Irish, British and European. That’s how I feel my own identity as well; I was born into a Protestant family and told I was British, then, when I visited family in England I found I was Irish. Kids in the park in England asked me why soldiers in Ireland walked the streets with machine guns and I was utterly confused. I knew that British soldiers had machine guns, but wasn’t I British too? It was the first time I felt an identity imposed on me, and it was years before I understood that imposed identity as a true one, and one which had no internal conflict with my Britishness even though the conflict outside was still happening. It is hard to articulate something like that, but as a writer it’s my view that all humans are a mass of identities- some which cause us anxiety and others which exist alongside one another without any bother, even as the outside world tells us it’s impossible. I like impossible people. It has been my great privilege, then, to have been involved as a creative writing tutor with the John Hewitt Society on their Once Alien Here programme.
In conjunction with the Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon Council and the creative network, BEAM, Once Alien Here is an initiative to bring together people who are new to writing in a free six week course. The groups I had were in Portadown, Lurgan, Keady and Craigavon; sometimes meeting in the local library or in a community centre. Over the six weeks we did a lot of talking about our identities and histories, and a lot of writing too- trying out various ways of articulating what was uniquely us– our stories, our families, our feelings about where we are from in both time and place. I cannot fully explain the position that I was in as a facilitator. Yes, I was demonstrating, as best I could, the ways in which we can explain ourselves and share ourselves with other people in writing. But I was also a witness to so many important life events- I heard about births, deaths, near-deaths, love stories, stories of tremendous hurt, revenge stories, recollections of times which are long past. One man’s father fought in the Somme. One woman’s neighbour kept a cow in her house. Two who had now known one another before the workshops found that they had played in the same abandoned estate as children, divvying up the empty ruined houses among their playmates and imagining their own alternative versions of the conflict which had led to the ruination of the buildings in the first place. I found myself in awe of the willingness to share, and of the good humour in which people spoke. No big egos here- people were really listening to one another. There was a lot of craic, much laughter, and some tears as well. But the quality of work was also wonderful. Earlier in the year I was invited to go on Radio Ulster to talk to Nuala McKeever about the project. She was so moved by the poems I read by Jennifer McCusker and Renee Smith that she asked if she could keep a copy of them. I wish I could have read many others as well.
On Thursday 5th March the various groups who had taken part in the six week programme gathered at the Millennium Court Arts Centre in Portadown to celebrate the launch of the anthology they had contributed to. One participant from each group read a short piece of work. Most people had never read from their work in front of anyone before and everyone read beautifully. With speakers from the John Hewitt Society and Armagh, Banbridge, Craigavon council it was a brilliant night to acknowledge the achievement of the participants. I hope that all of them now feel like writers, and I hope they’ll grow in confidence in their own abilities, but also in the realisation of the importance of their own stories.
The John Hewitt Society runs a week long summer school in Armagh each and applications for a bursary to attend the whole week for free will be open in April. You can find out more on their website, and I would urge everyone with even an inkling about being a writer to take advantage of what the Summer School offers. Everyone can write, and, regardless of your experience, if you have been alive until now then you have a story to tell which is unlike any other.