The magazine was created by the late poet James Simmons in May 1968, when Paris was teetering on the brink of revolution and Northern Ireland civil war. It was subtitled "A Handbook for Revolution", in response to which the RUC raided the printers, failing to comprehend that a revolution might be a poetic rather than a Republican or Marxist one. Instead, Simmons had hoped to bring about a revolution in the way we view the world, beginning with our own corner of it. To see life, through poetry and prose, as strange, fleeting and miraculous as it really is, to aspire to free thought and see beyond "all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls" as Orwell put it. It was brave and perceptive of Simmons to go beyond tribalism and unthinking allegiances to glorious pasts that never were. In the first issue of The HU, there was a manifesto that spelt out this intention, "We expect to print writers of varied beliefs and backgrounds. Not only protestants and catholics, unionists and liberals, but humanists, anarchists, atheists, mystics, communists, etc." This openness, scepticism and subversion remains as valid today as ever. We need only turn on the news to see how much we need the individual who asks questions, who exhibits the free enquiry that has taken us from the caves to the cities, in the face of those all too certain they have the answers; the writer who sees the vast world of places, ideas and experiences beyond the shores of this island and conspires, at the risk of being accused of treason, to let it in.
The Honest Ulsterman was originally Jimmy Simmons' magazine (pictured right) and it always will be. It has been edited by others, most notably by Frank Ormsby (below) for twenty years. Anyone who takes over is essentially a caretaker of their vision. In its time, The HU published the likes of Louis MacNeice, Stevie Smith, Tony Harrison, Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, Derek Mahon, Paul Muldoon, Ciaran Carson, Medbh McGuckian, Tom Paulin, Carol Rumens, Iain Crichton Smith, Sean O'Brien and many others. It helped the North raise itself to become a heavyweight force in international writing. And it reflected, in Edna Longley's words, "the opening out towards life which is most deeply characteristic of Simmon's [own] poetry, a generous democracy of response." His magazine, as with his poetry, was an affirmation of life in the midst of destruction.
These are however changed times and there is some controversy perhaps about reviving a title like The Honest Ulsterman with its obvious gender bias. Some might claim there was an element of absurdism and satire in the name, right from the beginning. Others might suggest these are excuses to hide misogyny. There is perhaps another more fitting way to look at it, beyond the binary. In Ancient Greece, there was a Cynic philosopher called Diogenes. He used to walk around naked and refused to have possessions, believing you became a slave to them, with the exception of two items. One was a giant upturned flowerpot under which he slept. The other was a lantern, which he'd carry around lit in broad daylight. Eventually, he was asked why he did so and replied, "I'm looking for an honest man." The implication of course was that such a thing could never be found. The Honest Ulsterman has something of that strand of Cynic philosophy, with the character of the title, an honest Ulsterman, something akin to a mythical creature. Whether your preference is The HU or The Honest Ulsterman, let it be thought of, at least, in this spirit. Our remit will be a democratically-open but critically-discerning one. We will aim to demonstrate to the tiresome Jeremiahs of doom that literature is alive and well and, if it can prosper on this green rain-drenched crag in the ocean, it can do so anywhere. To show there will be stories as long as there are people to tell them, from minds which cannot function without the fables of dreams and the partial fictions of memory, these stories we tell ourselves without even realising. We will aim to showcase work that is eclectic and irreverent, surreal over genteel, work that demonstrates the power of writing to stop time and travel within it, to conjure up impossible images, enchant readers with music, raise boils on targets and appear to transcend mortality. We will aim to revive and explore buried ideas in the writing of a new generation, recognising the modern in the ancient and vice versa; from the dindshenchas poetry of places, which pre-dates psychogeography by centuries in Ireland to the immrama sea-odyssey/underworld poetry, which has connected this island to the vast world beyond for millenia. We aim to treat history and culture as a scrapyard and the future as something, as the graffiti of Paris May 1968 claimed, that contains what we put into it. All submissions of poetry and prose as well as interview, review and features proposals will be considered at firstname.lastname@example.org. We welcome onboard any writer who will join us. Honest Ulsterman is generously supported by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland Annual Funding Programme.