Anne Hailes: Neil Shawcross's tribute to Belfast's writers is a wonderful gift to city

Neil Shawcross with his Thomas Cairnduff painting

I'M SURE Thomas Carnduff would be impressed to know he features in this years Belfast International Arts Festival – 132 years after his birth. ‘The Shipyard Poet' as he was known is one of 36 writers selected by artist Neil Shawcross to feature in a unique exhibition which opens in The Titanic on Wednesday October 24 under the title Writers of Belfast.

Neil has chosen a number of local scribes, composers and playwrights and he presents them as he sees and interprets their work, each illustration painted in acrylics as a book cover, reflecting his love for Penguin Books. Apparently the Botanic Avenue War on Want bookshop is one of his sources of these out-of-print books, sold in the 30s for 6d. in Woolworth stores.

Brian Moore's The Emperor Of Ice cream depicts the Blitz, Sam Thompson's Over The Bridge features determined little figures striding across a high gantry on to a ship, a windswept cottage visualises Medbh McGuckian's 1991 poetry collection Marconi's Cottage and the strength of Thomas Carnduff is captured in a looming figure and the chains of the shipyard.

This poet of the people hasn't got the recognition he desired. He was born in 1886 at a time of growing prosperity in Belfast but also rioting around the unsuccessful Home Rule Bill. Thirty eight years later, working as a labourer with Harland and Wolff, he published Songs From The Shipyards And Other Poems which he dedicated to his comrades and the days and night of toil spent together.

Thomas was often to be found in the public libraries engrossed in literature. A member of the Independent Orange Order, he later developed left-wing attitudes to the political and cultural problems faced by Belfast during the depression years.

This was mirrored in his poetry and then his plays, the first, Workers, premiered at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. Now his life's work is there for all to see in the Shawcross exhibition which, it is hoped, will find a permanent place in Belfast once the festival is over.

Seven-foot-high book covers

The Writers of Belfast has been two years in the making and is Neil's tribute to the likes of Sir Van Morrison, John Hewitt, Marie Jones, Neil Martin and Padraic Fiacc, a visual story of our history with images from the shipyards to Linenopolis and from the Blitz to The Troubles – even De Lorean and religious fundamentalism play a part.

A wonderful gift to Belfast City Council from the man from Lancashire who has made the city his home for the past 56 years and inspired many students when he was a much respected lecturer in fine art at the University of Ulster until his retirement 10 years ago.

Neil is a big man and so is his art; it's a fascination to sit in his studio surround by well-known people captured on canvases and more recently his works for the Belfast Festival, all over seven feet tall, all going on show at the Andrews Gallery at the Titanic Belfast before moving to the Waterfront Hall.

During this free exhibition, October 24 until November 1, 9am-6pm, the city council and Belfast International Arts Festival have programmed some special and exciting events.

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Sign Language for Everyone

RECENTLY The British Deaf Association Northern Ireland, in partnership with the Ulster Society for Promoting the Education of the Deaf and Blind, hosted an Evening of Remembrance and Celebration at Jordanstown School.

It was a happy event marking the annual International Week of the Deaf with the theme this year being 'With Sign Language, Everyone is Included'. There was plenty of ‘jazz hands' as this is the way many deaf men and women show appreciation rather than clapping.

During the evening memorial benches were unveiled. The first of four is to the memory of the late Bob McCullough, a passionate campaigner for the best possible education for deaf children and adults.

A highly respected journalist, he produced the weekly 'Deaf Talkabout' column in the Belfast Telegraph for 27 years and he was the recipient of numerous awards including the highest of all, the British Deaf Association's Medal of Honour.

A second bench is to remember Francis Maginn who was born in Mallow, Co Cork, in 1861, one of the first Irish deaf students to study at Gallaudet College in Washington DC. Francis was instrumental in establishing the British Deaf and Dumb Association, now known as the British Deaf Association, he was Missioner to the Adult Deaf and Dumb of Ireland which became the Ulster Institute for the Deaf in 1961 and he was voted as the 'Greatest Deaf Briton' in a poll carried out by the BBC's See Hear programme.

A third bench was unveiled for James Anderson, an inspirational blind educator. James, who lost his sight in early childhood, was the first blind student to graduate with a degree from Queen's University Belfast. He set up a Braille unit at Crumlin Road Prison with the prisoners producing Braille material for blind children at Jordanstown School.

The final bench remembers a tragedy when, on May 7 1856, six deaf children perished in a fire at the school for deaf children in Strabane. Mrs Cecil Frances Alexander, the wife of the archbishop of Armagh and famous for writing There Is A Green Hill Far Away, All Things Bright And Beautiful and Once In Royal David's City, gave the funds from her first publication of hymns for children to help build and support the school.

The seats will remain in Jordanstown as a constant reminder of such important people and events within the deaf community.

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