Female northern poets celebrate joint publication of four new collections

Joanne Sweeney talks to the women behind four new poetry collections who take their inspiration from subjects as diverse as social reformer Mary Anne McCracken, a 17th century monk and scholar and the current refugee crisis

Poets Maureen Boyle, Maria McManus and Ruth Carr ahead of the launch of their new poetry collections Picture: Hugh Russell
Joanne Sweeney

NEW collections from four women poets from Belfast will be launched together next weekend, giving a boost to contemporary northern poetry.

The poetic quartet consists of Medbh McGuckian, Ruth Carr, Maria McManus and Maureen Boyle, all established poets and well-known names to readers on both sides of the border.

Their respective works – McGuckian's Love, The Magician; Feather and Bone from Carr; McManus's Available Light, and The Work of A Winter by Boyle are published by southern publisher Arlen House, which prides itself as being Ireland's oldest feminist press.

For Medbh McGuckian, her book is the latest in a career which has spanned 18 full collections, the last, Blaris Moor, published in 2015. A lecturer in creative writing at Queen's University Belfast, she won the Forward Poetry Prize in 2002.

The women are all literary friends and supporters of each other's work and are delighted that a chance of having their work published has been made possible – with National Lottery funding made available by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland – in the light of reduced arts budgets and declining book sales.

"To have these books coming out is a real boost to poetry on the island generally but particularly to women poets from the north," Maria McManus says. "When you are an artist, the work has to go out into the world – that's why we do it."

McManus published her first book, Reading the Dog, in 2006 and her second, We are Bone, in 2013. She then took matters into her own hands, taking her poetry 'out into the world' as one of the poets behind The Poetry Jukebox in this year's Belfast International Arts Festival.

"This collection is my way of looking at a lot of things which are bothering me now – the refugee crisis, Brexit, poverty, homelessness and the consequences of violence," she says of what inspired her work.

Ruth Carr's collections There is a House and The Airing Cupboard were published in 1995 and 2008. For her new collection, she looked to two other inspiring women writers for inspiration, Dorothy Wordsworth, sister of the poet William Wordsworth, and Mary Ann McCracken, sister of United Irishmen founder Henry Joy.

"What really struck me was that the two women lived at the same time, with just a year or so between each other," she explains. "One was rural, the other was urban but they were both inveterate readers and writers and never married. Both had very conspicuous brothers that they were devoted to and were stirred by the Enlightenment and were against slavery."

Despite Maureen Boyle's success and recognition in poetry competitions and awards, The Work of a Winter is her first collection. It takes inspiration from Mícheál Ó Cléirigh, one of the men responsible for The Annals of the Four Masters, a chronicle of medieval Irish history compiled in the 17th century in a friary on the Leitrim-Donegal border.

"My family used to go to Rossnowlagh every summer and I came across of the story of this monk, a lay brother really, who sent back stories he collected from walking the roads of Ireland during the summer, then writing them up in the winter," she says. "As the image of the writer is someone who also collects stories, I was taken by the notion of these lost voices and of lost stories."

:: The new poetry collections will be launched on Saturday, December 16 at 3pm at Enniskillen Castle visitor centre and at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast on Sunday December 17 from 5pm. Paperback editions cost £10 each, with a limited edition signed, inscribed and numbered hardback available at £20. The books are on sale online from The Book Depository and, and will be in Waterstones and No Alibis in Belfast.

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