On Beginnings In Little Magazines

a Response and Look into Threshold and Honest Ulsterman's Early Years in the HUMAN Archive

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In 1957, when we went up to Queen’s — or in my case across to it from the Shankill on a BSA 250cc motorbike or the Waterworks bus — where on earth could my wet-behind-the ears poetry go to make it into print, and where could I go to find out where to send it? Len Fulton’s Directory of Little Magazines hadn’t come out until 1965, and it was issued in its little chapbook form way over there in California, not Ulster or Northern Ireland. And what about my verse evolving under the influence of English Metaphysical and Spanish poets from Gongora to Lorca in the new Oxford Book of Spanish Verse. If my peculiar (what Jimmy Simmons called) “precious” pokes at the page were to go anywhere, it would be into a “little magazine” for, as Norman Levine, the Canadian novelist, said, “We all began in a little magazine”. What he said was very true at the time he said it because there were few publishing houses in the British colonies that would publish their own writers in the 1940ies or the 1950ies.

The role of launching the careers of neophyte authors was left to the “little magazines”.

I refer to “British colonies”, and while Northern Ireland had the constitutional status of a kingdom within the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, it operated and behaved culturally like a colony of England and English Literature. Who could study English and Irish Literature together in the English Department at Queen’s University Belfast? The degree offered was in English Language and Literature. Besides, what was an Irish, a Northern Irish or an Ulster literature?

So, little mags in the “colonies” and “Northern Ireland” had this double duty of launching native verb-bred writers and creating an independent literary identity for the places they came from — the task of putting names and faces on new passports for prose, poetry and play writers that would take their work around the world.

But during the 1940ies and 1950ies, what notable little mags existed in Northern Ireland to do the job, let alone in Canada or Australia?

Even in the Free State, The Dublin Magazine, which had featured the great greats like Beckett, Padraic Colum and Paddy Kavanagh in the 1920ies and 30ies, was defunct by the time Ireland became a Republic in 1949. It wasn’t pulled from the dead lead of a printer’s grave until 1975. In 1948 there was RANN, A Quarterly of Ulster Poetry, edited by Barbara Hunter and Roy McFadden. It existed for a brace or two of years before expiring. In London, England, to which a great many streams of writing flowed, The London Magazine, only got going in 1954 under John Lehmann’s editorship and then from 1961 Alan Ross’s until his death in 2001.

Was there ever a thing called The Belfast Magazine?

No, there wasn’t.

So, in Northern Ireland, in Ulster, where could all those crowding onto the threshold to get a foot of verse or a line in as a published poet, playwright, fiction or non-fiction writer?  No place until 1957 with the eponymic Threshold, a literary magazine founded and edited by the redoubtable Mary O’Malley on Derryvolgie Avenue off the Malone Road, where in 1951 with her husband, Pearse, she had already set up the Lyric Player’s Theatre in the stables at the back of her home. This wonderful woman and literary ostler, who had already installed a stable of plays and Irish playwrights at the Lyric, took literary critics and historians, poets and prose writers into the pages of Threshold magazine.

In its 1957-year, Threshold embraced the little mag’s double duty with a mind to answering questions about who are the Irish writers, where and what do they write about and what is Irish Literature through the publication of critical and historical articles about Ireland’s native theatre, plays, poetry and fiction while featuring some poems, short fiction and non-fiction.

Across the world in Canada, where the West Coast is as separate from Upper and Lower Canada (Ontario and Quebec) as Ulster is from England, 1957 was an important year for literary magazines. A ruction created by the Canadian Poet Earle Birney ended up with two Departments at UBC: Creative Writing and English, and two magazines. Unlike Threshold, where the critical and creative went into the same volume, the purely creative writing went into Creative Writing’s Prism (Earle Birney later expanded Prism’s remit beyond Canadian writing into a Prism international); the critical and historical writing on Canadian Literature (CanLit) went into the English Department’s eponymous Canadian Literature. Both magazines were set up with grants of $1,500 from the University of British Columbia’s Faculty of Arts.

Incidentally, a small mag called Tish (an anagram for shit spelt with a twist) and the group around it rebelled against the “Brit-beat” content of Prism. Its poets were almightily influenced by “Black Mountain” poetry, also by Charles Olson, one of the poet-prophets and founders of a new guiding poetics. The New American Poetry edited by Donald Allen became a bible of poetic innovations to follow. But to put it bluntly, an old literary empire loudly eschewed was replaced by a new one. More distinctly Canadian archetypes and models for that time were Earle Birney, Al Purdy and Dorothy Livesay. Margaret Atwood was barely into her first chapbook.

Across the Georgia Strait and Salish Sea, not to be outdone by UBC, Robin Skelton and John Peter, in the English Department at the University of Victoria, got the funding together to found The Malahat Review in 1967. Three years after its inception I got this reply to my submission of a story from John: “I’m not going to have the wool pulled over my eyes by somebody who can write well.” The story was, to say the least, fantastic (in genre, if not in quality).

On Canada’s opposite, East Coast, there were little lit mags older than Prism: The Dalhousie Review founded in 1921 at Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia. From the end of the Second World War in 1945, The Fiddlehead in Fredericton, New Brunswick, was a going concern. When I first published in it, Fred Cogswell was the Editor. Fred, like Auden, believed poetry was a game anyone can play.

The oldest of all Canadian magazines were in Ontario (with its capital, Toronto, seen from B.C. the way Catalans evil eye Madrid and Castille).

Dwarfing others in years of publication, The Queen’s Quarterly (out of the other Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario) dated back to 1893 and included commentary on contemporary affairs and literature as well as poetry, memoir and fiction.It is still going. By far its junior, and in broadsheet format, but now extinct, The Canadian Forum’s founding year was 1920. One of my first publications, “The Final Vegetable” about my hatred of over-boiled cabbage, was in Volume Vol. XIVIII, No.575, 1970. Note the No. 575.

Ontario and Toronto had a contemporary of PrismThe Tamarack Review was founded in 1956, by Robert Weaver (a scion of CBC and its literary program, Anthology). I never did make it into Tamarack. The Poetry Editor, when I ended up in a group with her for drinks at a League of Canadian Poets’ AGM, told me ‘I used strange phrases she couldn’t understand’, and I felt like I’m sitting there in a weird version of “Galway Bay”:‘And this wee lig from the Shankill writin’ poems/ Speaks a language that the strangers do not know’.

But what about Canada’s southern sibling and ex-colony Australia?

The two most prominent, long-running literary mags are the Meanjin Quarterly, which began life in 1940 (I got in there in 1974), and the younger Overland with a first issue in 1954. While down-under, I’ll add that I had a longish association with Les Harrop, the editor of Helix, starting with poems and judging a competition in its No. 4, 1979. Les wondered if I was due for a sabbatical at UBC’s Creative Writing and might come edit Helix while he was on leave. I had to say a no-thanks, being too tied up with family and the Creative Writing Department to do that.


The question is — in 1957, the year of my ascension (as an erratic, motor-bike riding) student to Q.U.B. English — did the young Ulster or Irish writers crowding at the Threshold manage to get in with their word horde?

Did they get in anywhere else?

In 1958, you’ll find W.R. Rodgers (Threshold Volume 2, No. 4) lamenting the likes of Richard Murphy, John Montague and other younger poets being left out of The Oxford Book of Irish Verse and bemoaning the anthology’s definition of Irish being too wide, and he makes his point blunt and lively by spearing two of those worthies who were included: “ Darley and O’Shaughnessy were certainly born in Ireland but, so far as their poetry goes, they might as well have been born on the moon.” And in a later issue

But was Threshold any better 

I’ll trawl through its first year of publication (Volume 1, Numbers 1-4, 1957) to see who’s notably young and where contributors come from.

{You can hop skip and jump through this long trolling, using the highlighted ages and/or locations of writers and ignore my elaborations on the contents and the connections they make for me in my own history and identity.}

Volume 1, No. 1, 1957

· “Ruth” by Mary Becket provides an opening story. After the author’s name, her provenance is made clear by a bracketed (Dublin), even though she was born, bred and educated in Belfast, she was living in Dublin. Her story segues to Six poems by a twenty-eight year old T.P. Flanagan from Enniskillen (more famous later as a painter, set designer and teacher); then Andre Rouyer writes from (Paris) “In Quest of W.B. Yeats” and is translated from the original French by John Boyle (Belfast); Rudolf Klein (twenty-six, theatre and opera critic in London) via “The Gargoyle Theatre” takes a look at the  1956 London season to see if the London theatre is as dead as the critical clamour claims, having been killed off by “second-rate thrillers and third-rate farces”. In the next feature, forty-nine-year-old Roger McHugh (Dublin) expounds on the various iterations of an Irish myth in “The Literary Treatment of the Deirdre Legend”. Next on the bill, “Shaw’s Heartbreak House”, that underappreciated play by J.B.S, is given a corrective evaluation by a twenty-seven-year-old UCD lecturer John Jordan (Dublin). A lone poem in Gaelic, “Eitinn” (no English translation)  by thirty-year old Pearse Hutchison (in Dublin) graces the next page. Verses in Gaelic switch to a biographical profile and tale of an apprentice to partner in the Harland & Wolff shipyard, “William James Pirrie”, told thoroughly and admiringly by R. D. Collison Black thirty-five, QUB Lecturer in Economics. (I have to confess a deep interest in this because most of the men in my family worked in “The Yard”, and much, much later than in Pirrie’s time, my niece (my senior by six months) was a lady-tracer in the department where Pirrie was once Chief Draftsman. What’s more, I have a book of poetry centred on the building of the “Reinas” for the P&O Line: Queen of the Sea, Oberon Press, Ottawa, 1976, printed in Baird’s, Belfast, on linen paper). The graphic arts find a place in the last two items of Threshold, Volume 1, No. 1. (I flinch at calling a sculpture a plastic art. It makes me think that it’s recyclable with a little stamped into its base.) Eilis McCarthy (his pen name, Cork) creates a graphic tribute to a sculptor and Cork man, the Stone Mad “Seamus Murphy, R.H.A” with a commentary on Murphy’s work and photographs, and there’s another visual arts piece by John Hewitt (Belfast), Deputy Director of the Ulster Museum at the time. His “Portrait of a Young Man as the Artist” starts with young twenty-five-year-old painter, Basil Blackshaw, born in Glengormley House, Co. Antrim, then moves into the historical and contemporary art scene in Ireland and England working in various directions of connection from the “Ulster Unit” group of artists.

Volume 1, No. 2

· The short story opener, “A Bus from Tivoli”, is by Kate O’Brien, born Limerick 1897, living in England, followed by two poems by thirty-six-year-old Roy McFadden. Rudolf Klein, born 26 years ago in Prague, is back writing from London on “London Opera” and moving the issue into the performing arts; Hester Black (TCD librarian in Dublin) continues this transition into “The Theatre in Ireland before 1900”. F.J. Whitford, thirty-four and in Lisburn, turns the attention to Irish politics (tragic and comic theatre of another sort) in a profile of “Joseph Devlin”, born Hamill Street, West Belfast, 1871, and by his first birthday re-baptized by an anti-Papish riot that left that street “half-wrecked”. The young twenty-eight-year-old John Montague, previously noted as missing from The Oxford Book of Irish Verse, shows up with two poems of his. Sean Neeson, born in Belfast Lecturer in Music at Cork University, appointed Director of Radio Eireann in Cork 1927, fills us in on “National Art — The Emergence of Irish Music” and the difference between a Gaelic melody and real music, using a wickedly witty quote from the acidly witty Hazlitt to bang it home, saying Thomas Moore had “turned the wild harp of Erin into a musical snuff box”. (Tom Paulin has a book on Hazlitt, where you can read all about the man.) Esther Skouboe from Denmark is working on a book about Ireland in Ireland. She tells us about “Denmark and her People”. R.D. Collison Black, thirty-five, Dublin, UCD Professor weighs in on “Irish History and the Great Famine” while Thomas P. O’Neil (thirty-six, Assistant Keeper of the National Library, Dublin) continues to look into it with “The Queen and the Famine” Elizabeth Boyle is represented by an extract from a very poetic BBC radio play, “The Exiled”, with an aged Hugh O’Neil as the main character. For an issue finale, John Montague’s article “The First Week of Lent — a Political Snapshot” portrays the staging, the players, and the audience at an Eamon De Valera Fianna Fail rally in College Green and a Fine Gael one under the columns of the Post Office in Dublin.

Volume 1, No. 3

· The short story in this issue, “Witness”, is by J.J. Campbell (forty-five, Belfast). He wore many scribbler’s hats: editor, radio script writer, freelance journalist, broadcaster, researcher on education in Ireland, forty six years old at the time his same story won the BBC Short Story Competition and £50 in 1956.In the same vein of poetic dramas as Elizabeth Boyle’s, John Hewitt has long, verse drama in Volume 1, No. 3, “The Bloody Brae,” set in the 18th Century and very strong on the Ulster Scots dialect and its rustic characters. Padraic Colum, writing on “The Nation and the State” in the next piece, defines the difference between the two. His argument that the land, customs and history make up the nation intrigued me because he was thinking in the context of Eire, the Free State. Canada’s indigenous peoples whose whole identity lies with their traditions and land in their different territories embraces the same definition to lay legitimate claim to being the country’s First Nations. Twenty-nine-year-old, UCD Lecturer Denis Donohue’s “Flowers and Timber — a note on Synge’s poetry” responds to Donald Davie’s essay, “The Poetic Diction of John Millington Synge” and to Davie’s point that Synge doesn’t get away from poetic diction, as he wanted to, but only substitutes one sort of diction for another. To Donohue, Synge is not substituting one for another, but using two poetic dictions: one, coarse and demotic; the other refined and mannered (or as Davie describes it, “using words of romantic glamour”). As I read Donohue’s appreciation on Synge’s “The Passing of the Shee” to demonstrate this use of the two, I’m nodding and giving it the nod because the same “note” could be made on the way I (and most Irish poets) speak and write. We have easy recourse to the fine and poetic, plus an abundant native resource in the coarse (koorse, in my mother’s pronunciation). Line after line, we play off the rough and the smooth against each other. John Hewitt ladled on the sweet and sour of it in his verse play narrative, “The Bloody Brae”. Thirty-seven and somewhere in Co. Down doing historical research on industrial sites, E.R.R. Green writes on “James Murland and the Linen Industry”. Murland and family had their first spinning mill in Castlewellan, but what brought the piece into line with a memory of mine was the change-over from using dry yarn to wet for the spinning looms and consequently in need of “coolers”, as we called them, by the mill side. I climbed the brick walls into the one for the Great Northern Flax and Spinning Mill at the bottom of Northumberland Street, corner of the Falls Road. That water was exhausted of all oxygen and only newts lived in it. Also, my mother began work in a linen mill at age eleven (circa 1905), and my father served his apprenticeship as a fitter in Mackie’s putting together the looms. In Desmond Ryan’s “Padraic Pearse, St. Enda’s College, and The Hound of Ulster” from the opening sentence — “In May 1913, P.H. Pearse wrote an article on St. Enda’s in An Craobh Ruadh, a bilingual magazine published by the Gaelic League in Belfast” — I learn that there were little magazines being published in Belfast way back before the First World War. At the time of this publication, Desmond Ryan was living in Swords, north Co. Dublin, running a poultry farm with his wife. Joseph Gilmour (his pen name), a Cork balletomane, takes us on a tour with “The Cork Ballet Company” and its history twenty years senior to the Abbey Theatre’s. After that, and like the Antrim men and women in John Hewitt’s verse play, the Mayo get going, but not as deeply into the dialect, in a complete radio play, Granuaile, broadcast by Radio Eireann and written by a forty-five-year-old, lawyer, poet and dramatist in Dublin, Donagh MacDonagh. It begins as a tale being told of the O’Malley’s of Mayo, then segues (as radio plays can, going anywhere in a word or the drop of a name) to Gráinne Ní Mháille, her sea raider heritage and her whetting the sword at sea with her dad. A few bars of Music and into a raid on a ship for Spanish gold that makes her the Chief ashore. CHEERS. MUSIC and she’s the terror of the Spanish and English, now, off Galway’s shores. MUSIC and here’s a besieging English force under Galway’s walls that she destroys. She’s been married young to the O’Donnell O’Flaherty, O’Flaherty of the Wars, who we’re told about and who supposedly absorbs her power, then dies. Second Hubbie is Sir. Richard Bourke, on account of whom she submits to English rule then reneges, for which there’s A brave burst of Elizabethan music and she’s over parlaying with Elizabeth 1 Regina’s. More MUSIC and more MUSIC and on to the summing up and singing of her legend. (*How many little magazines do you find that print radio plays or extracts from plays? Threshold’s connection to the Lyric Theatre gave it this bonus content for readers, which is so much easier to read than unbroken line after line of prose, a play’s movements having more in common with the strophes of poetry, not to mention how in the minds of actors they are made up of lines that the actors have to learn.) To end the issue “Dublin’s Theatre Festival” gets a review by Gabriel Fallon, one time Abbey actor and producer, part time lecturer UCD and reviewer, but a man very interestingly involved in that Dublin theatre scene (https://www.dib.ie/biography/fallon-gabriel-joseph-a2999) .

Volume 1, No.4

· The issue kicks in with a slyly funny story, “The Load of Leaning”, by a thirty-five-year old Michael Phelan from Co. Laois (at the time, living in Dublin, a civil servant). It’s about the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s uses as a plain tool as well as of learning, also as a hilarious and abominable instrument of strife between an autodidactic man and his wife. Three poems by Thomas Kinsella follow (he’s twenty-nine in Dublin), then an article, “Seed, Root and Stem” by Janet MacNeil (fifty and in Lisburn), looks into comedy and tragedy and how different nationalities respond to both, and in particular to Irish humour, instancing a German Jew from New York, who — sitting beside her in the Abbey Theatre — can’t get the excitement and the laughter in the audience at The Playboy telling how he’s killed his father — “… in Ireland it is a joke when you kill your father…?” the German Jewish gentleman from New York asks Janet. Next, on the menu, something historical, “Citizen Tone” by (Dublin born, but Belfast resident) John Boyle; after that, “The Shelter Belt”, a novel-in-progress extract by Benedict Kiely (from Omagh, forty-eight and down in Dublin, working as literary editor of a daily newspaper). Rudolf Klein is there again with his “London Commentary” on its theatre scene. Two poems come all the way from California and a Thomas Parkinson (thirty-seven, poet and Yeats scholar), also a Prof at University of California, Berkeley (who may, incidentally, have brought in Seamus Heaney — not yet the famous Seamus — for the 1970-71 academic year). Another non-fiction article drew me in, “Sharman Crawford of Crawfordsburn” by the Head of History at St. Malachy’s College, Brian A. Kennedy. It drew me to a man and a past that I never knew existed in a big house, on a sweeping slope, above a beach between Carnalea and Helen’s Bay, where I swam and looked up at it. I trespassed often in its tropical garden, which had flora that I also never knew existed before I entered it. If I had only picked up Volume 1, No. 4., admiration for the liberal who married into that house and its name, who fought for universal franchise, tenants’ rights and who emancipated his own… if only, the house and what it meant would have inflated and lifted into the sky for me to wonder at and salute. As my father, a rifleman, did, for he had served under a Crawford the First World War. The Robert Gordon Sharman Crawford, Colonel Commanding the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles, perhaps. That my father had a connection in the house, I knew, for he brought me up to the house for a bandage on a bleeding, badly skinned knee, long before 1957. John Hewitt’s “Letter to the World” ends Volume 1. He goes into a history of English poetry, its poets, and their relationship with the language of the times, its readership, magazines and books. His opening about what his grandmother did with poetry in magazines that she liked could apply to many poetry lovers, except for most the cutting out of the verses and storing away is in memory, or does scanning, and the cut and paste, bring us back digitally to the ways of John Hewitt’s grandmother, who “used to take scissors to any magazine or newspaper and cut out a poem or a stanza if she liked it, folding it away in a little black pouch in her silk garter: little snip-snippets of Whittier and Tennyson and George MacDonald, to be hoarded, sought-out and unfolded when the mood was on her and the need deep.”

Threshold’s volumes after 1957 continue to be concerned with Irish literary history and identity, its music and theatre. But I’ll tell you what caught my eye as I read them in the archive. Brian Moore in Volume 2, No. 2, the Summer issue of 1958, with a memoir of growing up in a house and a language suffused with God, the Bible, the catechism, and everyday living under the omniscience of religion in the family and household, which I believe was in Carlisle Circus, Belfast.

In Threshold Volumes 2 and 3, international literatures and writers begin to emerge, an article by the doyenne of Canadian verse, Dorothy Livesay, covers Canadian Poetry in Volume 3, No. 1. Volume 3, No.4 has John Hewitt, the Poetry Editor, lamenting the lack of your Ionescu, Betti, Anouilh and Beckett playbooks in the London bookstores, and defending Bertold Brecht’s experimentalism in theatre against parochialism in “About Bertold Brecht”. His review of Honour’d Shade, Norman McCaig’s anthology of Scottish poetry celebrating the centenary of Robert Burns’ birth, which backended the issue, glosses over contributions by the known poets’ and takes particular note of the new ones, such as George Mackay Brown. This boded a different tack at Threshold after Mary O’Malley left the tiller. More and more younger writers fill the pages under fresh editorships that began with John Boyd and Volume 5, No. 2, Autumn/Winter 1961/62. That was the last numbered by Volume and Issue. Brian Friel graced it with a short story, “The Potato Gatherers”.

1962/63 saw Roger McHugh as Editor begin the plain numbering of issues with a No. 17. The switch precedes a rotation of editorships between McHugh, Roy McFadden, Patrick Lynch and Michael Mitchell or Michael Mitchell alone.

Jumping ahead to No. 20, guest edited Brian Friel, the frontispiece is very forthright notice of an upcoming treat for Threshold readers:

“The Spring issue, a double number,

will be an anthology of outstanding

Short Stories, Verse and Belles Lettres

by Ulster Authors,

written in the past two decades.

The Editors are

Sam Hanna Bell and John Boyd

Friel chose a work in progress piece by Maurice Leitch, where you’ll find Yarr, a thick and sorry-for-himself Ulsterman. The in-progress progressed and came out as the published novel Poor Lazarus. I have to confess I made a note of this because Maurice is my cousin by marriage.

And what a pair of Editors, Sam Hanna Bel and John Boyd were!  With their taste choosing who’s on the menu, No. 21, Summer 1967 is a bumper issue of authors, Michael MacLaverty, Louis MacNeice, Brian O’Nolan, (two Threshold debut poems by) Seamus Heaney, Brian Moore, Maurice Leitch, Roy McFadden, Joseph Tumelty, James Simmons, Stewart Parker, Robert Graecen, Joyce Carey, Derek Mahon, Seamus Deane, Benedict Kiely.

Now, that it has let in the talented horde, time to leave Threshold for those who toiled in ignorance of it in 1957 and on into the sixties.


In 1957, we gathered at Queen’s in strange and exciting tutorials run by Larry Lerner, the poet and prose writer from South Africa, whose poetry book, Domestic Interiors, and novel, The Englishman, were in the works for release two years later. Three years later, while still bowing our bonny wee brains to the gods of English Literature in Honours English at the Department, we got our beginning in the littlest of little magazines in 1960, Gorgon, published by the Queen’s English Society and edited by a D. Oliver. It sported pieces by an S. Heaney, S. Deane, and G. McWhirter. S. Heaney does not cross Threshold’s pages until the summer 1967 issue and G. McWhirter, the Autumn issue of 1975.

Gorgon was a decade ahead of a similar publication at Trinity, where the spirit of The Dublin Magazine was resurrected and rebaptized as The Dubliner. Its lifeline, I have to say, was longer than Gorgon’s.

While I’m down South in memory, I have to mention Atlantis, founded in Dublin by Seamus Deane in 1970. It soon suffered the fate of its namesake, and a poem of mine “The Champion Riveter” in 1972 didn’t help keep it afloat for long. Seamus told me the poem was very unlike the (‘precious’, whimsical, or surreal?) poem of mine, “To the Whiteness of Ivory” in Gorgon.



While talking of Dublin little mags, Cyphers can’t be overlooked. Since 1975 it has been eclectically edited by poets the likes of Pearse Hutchinson, Leland Bardwell, Macdara Woods, and among the current, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, who was angry at me for confusing my Cyphers’ 1980 publication with the 1972 Atlantis piece in the cover letter of a submission. I cited Seamus Deane as the Editor of Cyphers, which he never was. Shows I have a great mind for forgetting and offending.

The Heaney and McWhirter firsts:

At the time we literary toddlers crept into Gorgon, we were oblivious to so much around us in the world of little magazines or even at QUB. The same as Seamus, I didn’t know that Philip Larkin was in its Library or had left after living across the street in a university residence.  Here’s Seamus 53 writing about The Belfast Group and our great unawareness in The Honest Ulsterman, Nov/Dec 76, No.:


Had I gone up the Malone Road from Queen’s and down Derryvolgie Avenue, I would have found Threshold, or across the water to England in 1957, The London Magazine. I mentioned it and a date for its beginning, 1954. I didn’t have to-do with LM and Alan Ross as editor until Vol.17, No.8, February 1978 with a poem. A story and translations came later. The last acceptance of some poems about my wife came in a lovely postcard from Alan, God bless him. He died shortly after, and the poems were lost in his future issue papers.

Further North in England Jon Silkin, the poet, started Stand magazine in 1952. It’s still going. My first date with Stand was in 1997, forty-five years later. I have a longer poem in it, later, and two in No. 204, 2014. It has a very interesting to handle 5⅝”X8” landscape design.

However, if you were a science fiction writer there was New Worlds. From 1936, after three years of life as Novae Terrae, John Carrell scrubbed the stuffy Latin and renamed it New Worlds in 1939. It had a spotty career through the fifties, but thrived in the sixties when the luminaries Michael Moorcock, Brian Aldiss and J.G. Ballard took over the managing and editing.

Of course, in the U.S. there was a plethora of little magazines and the mother of all small poetry mags, Poetry, founded in 1912 and first edited by that “old spinster woman”, as the then, just-as-old, Tom (aka Tennessee) Williams called Harriet Monroe. He wasn’t able to recall her name when talking about the early publication of his poems in that little magazine to a group of aspiring poets and playwrights at UBC’s Creative Writing Department in 1980.

In the U.S. there were even older oldies dating from the 19th Century: The North American Review (the oldest, 1815); The Yale Literary Review, if you take it back to its origins as The Christian Spectator, it dawns in 1819, or transformed as The New Englander in 1842 before the incarnation in its current name in 1892. (I wonder if George W Bush ever read it or subscribed?) The Sewanee Review also has 1892 as a foundation date. In 1935, a reader could buy an issue of The Southern Review and the list of the littles is long, and very long in the literary tooth in those United States.

Poetry spawned a brace of namesakes elsewhere.

Poetry Wales had a first issue in 1965. Grace Perry, in 1968, founded Poetry Australia along with South Head Press. In rejecting my submission of poems, she wrote, “I can’t quite like these,” and I didn’t get a POETRY Australia editor to like them until 1978 when Les Murray was filling in for Dr. Grace. There was once a Poetry Canada Poesie and a poem of mine went into the bilingual (English and French) Fall 1979 issue; later, a longish one into a Poetry Canada Review, Volume 4, No. 2, Winter 1982/83; during the nineties, two pieces appeared in the Volume 14, No. 2 of a Poetry Canada, published in an unwieldy broadsheet (my copy of which, like myself, is slowly disintegrating). From its names, you can guess at whether the magazine evolves through a Canadian language identity crisis and focus or the editor’s — or simply a move, Montreal and Quebec to Toronto, Ontario. 

However, what about Poetry Ireland (Review), which is soon to be archived with Threshold and HU? It doesn’t make an appearance until 1981, but soon at the HU Archive, you will be able to access it.

And Poetry Ulster?

It never happened.

Instead, Ulster got blessed by a little magazine with a much different name, a declarative attention-getter, The Honest Ulsterman, edited by James Simmons. Its Number 1 appeared in May 1968.  The creative word-horde of Ulster and Ireland, making it into print in Threshold at the time, would find yet more room in HU after the longest editorial manifestos known to man about men talking to men honestly. Number 1 lets in a lot of poets and poetry, Jimmy Simmons’ own included with Stevie Smith, Derek Mahon, Brendan Kennelly, Michael Stephens, W. Price Turner and the soon to be ubiquitous, Gavin Ewart. Lots of reverence and irreverence, sweet and sour verse, and wouldn’t you know, Mary O’Malley writing on Theatre.

So, in Belfast, as Jimmy pushed HU onto the literary slipway in a spirited launch for readers to climb on board, far from sinking like the Titanic, the magazine soon made it to the other side of the world where I began to read and contribute, not to Jimmy’s taste, but eventually to Michael Foley’s. He took two poems. They’re listed on page 15 before Seamus Heaney’s second appearance on page 16. On page 15, the archive shows a second run of Michael Foley’s Editorial, “The Art of Not Caring” — perhaps my page 15, like the famous fish, is the one that got away? But no, the two missing poems are actually caught in the Jan/Feb 1970 Issue No. 21, preceded by a short prose introduction to the whereabouts of my writing.

That repeated editorial, echoing E.M. Forster’s desire “to care and not to care” … its idea of caring but insulating yourself from the caring by not caring, I agree with, and I also endorse his first editorial, diametrically different from Jimmy’s first, where Michael invites satire and laughter into HU as a way to cope with the situation in Northern Ireland, in writing and in life.

As to Jimmy’s… I have scratched my head more times than enough, wondering why he put honesty front and centre in HU’s shop window. Polonius’s advice to Laertes, to speak indirectly and ‘by indirection find direction out’, was surely anathema to Jimmy. He wanted “men speaking honestly to men”, likely as not because of the Ulster or Irish habit of talking aslant, probing delicate matters indirectly, letting suspicion about the answers simmer. All the politesse, barely disguised deferrals of distaste, all that I’m guessing or the simpler, ‘whatever you say, say nothing’ provoked his declaration with HU’s blunt name and blunter editorial, his manifesto for honesty.

· Still, in a divided society with cleft identities, you get a forked tongue.

· Coming from his own direction and obsession, Seamus Deane Day chose to have a field day, letting people hear men and women talk out both sides of their Ulster/Irish mouths through poetry in The Field Day Anthology and in the cultural and political discussions of the Field Day Papers on a field far different from Finaghy’s. The venture invited competing analyses of Irishness, Irish and Ulster writing and the nature of the Ulster dilemma or dilemma of its nature. A task Threshold had also been fulfilling since 1957.  Not unexpectedly, Jimmy attacked Deane for being too clever and showing off in a review of his first academic book, Celtic Revivals: Essays in Modern Irish Literature, in the Spring/Summer issue of HU, 1986. Jimmy did say he liked the Field Day papers, and of course, little magazines are forums for opinions on books and writers.

Friends will write friendly reviews while foes send editors sinkers. Rainer Schulte, the editor of Mundus Artium, a magazine of international literature in translation, heard me opine unfavourably on Robert Bly’s translations in Twenty-Five Poems of Neruda. This was in the spring 1971 when he was in Vancouver for a joint reading with Seamus (Heaney) at UBC. He asked me if I would review the book because he had a thing in for Bly and his translations. I fancied myself as a translator from Spanish since I was translating Octavio Paz and corresponding with him on his long poem, Blanco. Cocksure, I sent my review with my reservations on Bly’s twenty-five Neruda’s, but Rainer must have had second thoughts, as I came to have, and he didn’t publish it. (Think what would the Iron John man have done to me?) Seriously, my relief at a non-publication stemmed from slowly learning that there are more ways than mine to approach a translation.

· Another little magazine devoted to translation, Modern Poetry in Translation, has a great pedigree and high profile. It was founded in 1965 by Danny Weissbort in collaboration with Ted Hughes, his friend from their Cambridge days and time as co-editors of the student mag, Saint Botolph’s Review (circa 1956). Naturally, MPT was somewhere I sent my efforts from Spanish, and sometimes I was asked to provide a translation of a poet I was doing whose work fitted a theme. Rainer Schulte would also ask me to do translations for him at Mundus Artium, but he sent very specific texts of the poet’s poems, or on one occasion, it was a prose writer, Carlos Fuentes, whose typed manuscript he sent (“Deed”, Volume III, No 3 Summer 1970, Latin American Fiction). Both magazines travelled, Modern Poetry in Translation from London to the MFA Program in Translation at Iowa with Danny as Director, and Mundus Artium from Ohio to the University of Texas Center for Translation Studies with Rainer as Director. Although Mundus Artium is defunct (not Rainer). Modern Poetry in Translation returned to London and England and has gone through three or four generations of editors since.

Okay, “men talking honestly to men” in The Honest Ulsterman, but what about the women?

Stevie Smith being the only woman in The Honest Ulsterman No.1 reminds me of a radio program on Ulster poets that I did for CBC’s Anthology, Toronto, Fall 1981. John Hewitt was a participant, as the interviewer I put this question to him at one point, “Are there no women poets in Ulster?” John replied after a pause, “Oh, there was one, but she died.”

He was having me on, I think, but alas didn’t Stevie Smith go and die too, three years after the launch of HU No.1.

Jimmy was only half-right when he said he wanted “men talking honestly to men”, and he probably knew already, the other half talk more and more honestly. As David Watmough, a Cornish-Canadian and scion of Vancouver’s gay literary scene, said about the extended care home he was in, “The men don’t talk, I have to talk with the women. They do.”

· A quickie through the first ten issues of HU turns up these names after Stevie Smith’s in No.1: Hazel Martin with two poems in No. 3 and Laura Simmons with one; Fleann O’Connor, one in No. 4; no women in No.5; likewise No.6; a poem each by Amy Castellano and G. Magee in No.7; Kate Middleton in No. 8 with her three “Mourne Songs”, and the two others, “Back of Bingnion” and “His & Hers”(a set that hits me where I lived for two years in the Mournes (1962-64), teaching in Kilkeel, one of those years under Slieve Bingnion as Kate spells it); zero women in No. 9, but a couple in No. 10: Frances Mulhern and G. Magee.

Still, the galaxy of big male-name Ulster and Irish writers — Friel, Heaney, Longley, Mahon, Maxton, Montague, McGahern, Stewart Parker Anthony C. West, peppered with British stars, Tony Harrison, Wes Magee, Stevie Smith and you-see-him-here/ you-see-him-everywhere Gavin Ewart in No.’s 1 to 10 — made HU’s name.

The 1968 of HU’s beginning was a banner and a big headache year for me. I dove headfirst into the business of a little magazine, PRISM international, by becoming Managing Editor and servicing two or three years of neglected subscriptions, which amounted to the same dollar figure as the mag’s proposal for support from the new Canada Council grants. With double the money, the magazine put on double the number of pages and its fatness gave it financial and editorial heart failure. The crisis required a transplant from UBC Creative Writing’s grad students. They took over the management and editorship in 1977, and I became Advisory Editor for the next twenty-five years, sitting in on the Editorial Board meetings, arbitrating and setting page limits for production. I also introduced a one-year grad course, Managing and Editing a Literary Magazine; at the end of that first year learning about it, editors for the following year’s issues of PRISM were elected by the outgoing year’s Editors, along with those who had completed the course and sat in on the Editorial Board meetings.

I chose never to vote, just sit in that highchair and umpire the back and forth.

As with Jimmy Simmons, the impulse of founding editors is to publish what they favour and what they find wanting or missing in the current spectrum of lit mags. “Now, we’ll publish the really good writers!” I quote the first graduate Editor-in-Chief of PRISM international, whose rampant personal taste was corralled by her Fiction and Poetry Editors.

In Vancouver, British Columbia. the waning sixties and waxing seventies saw a bonanza of little mag launches. On four different floors of a house on 7th Avenue I was one set of fingers typing Contemporary Literature in Translation (C.L.I.T.) onto gestetner for its first issue with A.P. Schroeder as its Editor. Across on the Prairies, a so-called traditional but new Journal of Canadian Fiction spurred Janie Kennon and Wayne Stedingh to answer it with The Canadian Fiction Magazine in 1971. (Note the italics, so you don’t miss the distinction.) The Canadian Fiction Magazine would feature the fantastic and experimental. Later, however, the obnoxious “The” was dropped.

Pierre Coupe, a UBC Master’s Student in English (but with a thesis of poetry featuring Superman) snagged a job at Capilano College in North Vancouver and The Capilano Review got going; likewise, Creative Writing grad David Evanier — Event, at Douglas College in New Westminster, both mags 1972, Issue No. 1 babies.

It seemed the new regional colleges would lose face without the prestige of a literary magazine, and… there was that Canada Council funding!

Canadian Correctional Services also had a magazine, Words from the Inside, which I edited for two years (1973 and 1974). I found out that bank robbers topped CCS’s hierarchy of inmates and not unusually, its writers. I was succeeded as Editor by A.P. Schroeder (the aforementioned Editor of C.L.I.T.). Andreas/Andy was doing time at Matsqui Minimum Correctional Institute in the Fraser Valley for importing the socially omniscient, but still, egregiously illegal pot of that era. (Read his memoir, Cutting it Rough for full details.)

Those seventies in Ulster with HU?

Throughout 1969 and into 1971 HU appears in two-monthly issues with incredibly high-quality content for the rate it came out at. The majority of magazines I cite, like the Meanjin and the Queen’s (of Kingston, Ontario) were/are quarterlies, even if they don’t say so on the cover.

Michael Foley, who took over as Editor from James Simmons at the end of 1969, maintains the pace of production as Editor (that two monthly, six times a year, unbroken) into the Nov/Dec. issue of 1971. HU’s pace only begins to slow to a three-month span between issues in 1972 when the first of them appears for March/April/May 1972 and (appropriately for the first in the 3-month transition) as No 33. This also marks the move to the joint editorship of Michael Foley and Frank Ormsby. It revives two-monthly for Sept/Oct 1972 (where Michael hands over the sole editorship for Frank to anchor), also for Nov/Dec 1972 and Jan/Feb 1973, No. 37, after which it settles into a three-monthly publication schedule.

In his first Nov/Dec 1972 editorial, Frank talks about being searched by the military numerous times in the past two weeks. He examines his awfully vicarious sense of being somehow involved in the action without being part of it, and he decides if he boasted about it, he would be like the woman, whose friend’s laundry was destroyed in the blitz.

Or I’d say, like my sister-in-law, who, after coming down the Shankill from Bisley Street and dashing through a cousin’s door on Northumberland Street, became famous in the family for exclaiming in the wake of any explosion up the Road, “It almost got me this time.” Her sister-in-law, my sister in Craig’s Terrace did have the front of her house blown in and its bricks come tumbling down to her feet in the back scullery and yard she had renovated into a kitchen and bathroom. ‘They almost got her that time’, and there I go, telling about it from thousands of miles away and falling into the trap of vicarious involvement that Frank was scrupulously examining in his editorial. He’s fair enough to say that these reactions might be described as a way of coping for those living closer to events in which they are not directly involved but cannot totally ignore.

Then, he asks himself how is he coping with what’s going on around him?

The how-to-cope and what reaction he prescribes by the end of the editorial is very interestingly poised between Jimmy Simmons’s menu of honesty and Michael Foley’s satire and laughter. In the process of getting to it he thinks about a gut-honest reaction of hitting back, attacking things as they are out of anger, attacking the politicians responsible for the terrible things seen and read about every day in the 1972 media, but “they (the politicians) would just absorb it”.

What way to attack then?

With ridicule because the absurdities in the situation are abundant and “easy to detect”? To scourge with “the definitive joke” and laughter, Michael Foley’s approach? Frank believes that in that course of action “laughter helps but does not cope with everything”.

I will quote the last two paragraphs of his editorial because they take us back to Polonius’ advice to Laertes on how to proceed in high and dangerous circles:

In the end it is a question of staying aloof as far as possible, an essentially defensive struggle against infection. Silence, exile and cunning are still attractive alternatives, perhaps more so than ever. One can easily avoid the obvious excesses; recognition and avoidance of the subtler traps is immediate employment for cunning.

Speaking of exile, Michael Foley has emigrated to England. I intend to continue with the magazine for as long as possible, and welcome contributions (with S.A.E.) Address:56 University Street, Belfast, BT7 1HB.

The 70’s saw another new generation of poets in HU, not only Paul Muldoon and Frank Ormsby, Tom Paulin, Tom MacIntyre and the late Ciaran Carson succeeding Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, Derek Mahon and Seamus Deane. The winter 1975 issue is a Christmas present of stars, the Andrews (Motion & Waterman), Luis Cernuda (Spain, translated by Arthur Terry), Knute Skinner (USA), R.S. Thomas (Wales), Norman MacCaig (Scotland), Anne Stevenson (England), Fleur Adcock (New Zealand), and home-grown Kate Middleton (who I have admired already). Three great women in one issue, where there is just the odd one or two in others, some hidden behind initials, P.J. Magee using hers — who can tell if she’s he or he’s she, there being few notes on contributors in those early issues. My wife hovers over those because she loves poets’ little histories at the back of issues, under their contributions or somewhere to find out who is this poet who wrote that.

For my part, HU No.33 begins something dear to me and much enjoyed, the first commentary of Jude the Obscure, who authors the HU Business Section of the issues. Jude the Obscure became a feature anonymity, and much around the same time, my brother Ernie would traipse over to Frank Ormsby’s house at 56 University Street to take out a Christmas present subscription to The Honest Ulsterman for me ‘in exile’ in Canada like Michael Foley in England. My brother loved The Honest Ulsterman’s name, for there could be nobody more honest than my half-brother, Ernest Douey.

George McWhirter ‘s translation of Homero Aridjis’s Self-Portrait in the Zone of Silence appeared from New Directions in February 2023. Rodolfo Ortiz translated McWhirter’s essay, “Posibles e imposibles en traducción”, on working with José Emilio Pacheco and other Latin American writers, for La mariposa mundial, No 27, La Paz, Bolivia, 2022.

This issue is supported by The Foyle Foundation.