Celebrating the centenary of novelist Brian Moore, Belfast's literary genius

Today marks the centenary of the birth of Brian Moore. Placing the novelist's work within the Belfast of 2021 may be the best way to fully understand his genius, writes James Doyle

Belfast-born Brian Moore is regarded by many as one of the 20th century's great novelists

LIKE Northern Ireland itself, Brian Moore was born in 1921, on August 25 at the family home on Clifton Street, in north Belfast, as - according to family legend - the sound of gunshots could be heard.

The centenary of Northern Ireland's greatest novelist is an opportunity to celebrate the origins of those novels in Moore's youth in Belfast and to assess the enduring understanding of the north that Moore left.

Brian Moore emigrated to Canada in 1948, but Northern Ireland remained central to his imagination until his death in 1999. He once wrote: "Belfast and my childhood have made me suspicious of faiths, allegiances, certainties." Those suspicions made him one of the great writers of the 20th century.

Brian Moore came from an eminent Belfast family. His father, James, was a surgeon at the Mater Hospital while his uncle was Eoin MacNeill, a founder of the Gaelic League who, as chief-of-staff of the Irish Volunteers, attempted to call off the 1916 Rising.

It was a devoutly Catholic family, a faith he questioned as a teenager, and would go on to question in numerous novels. Brian unhappily attended St Malachy's College but failed his final exams, which destroyed his father's hopes that he would go on to a medical degree at Queen's University.

In 1940, when he was 19, Moore joined Belfast's Air Raid Precautions Unit and after his father died in 1942 Brian took the opportunity to leave Northern Ireland.

He joined the British Ministry of War Transport and served in France, Italy and North Africa. Near the end of the Second World War, Moore visited Auschwitz as it was liberated and he returned to Poland after the war with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration.

In 1948 he emigrated to Canada and rarely returned to Belfast afterwards.

Moore's early writing revolved around his own experiences of growing up, especially his rejection of Catholicism and the conflict, as a result, with his father.

An early short story, A Vocation, recently published in The Dear Departed, depicts a young schoolboy on a religious retreat: "The world was sweetie shops, Alexandra Park, the Antrim Road, Royal Avenue, Newington School, Miss Casey's garden, and the big pond in the waterworks. All these things were part of Belfast and Belfast was in Ireland."

His first novel, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, the story of an unhappy Belfast spinster, was published in 1955 and another 19 acclaimed novels followed.

Brian Moore was shortlisted for the Booker Prize three times and was a major influence on Seamus Heaney and Brian Friel, and he continues to be an influence on today's writers, such as Lucy Caldwell and Jan Carson.

They react to Moore's greatest achievement, to quote the critic John Self: "The rare appearance of my home city of Belfast in real works of literature."

Moore's imagination was formed in Belfast and his early novels, as well as several of his short stories, are vivid descriptions of the city, while capturing its atmosphere of dour repression and the perennial frustrations of its people.

Carlo Gebler has said of Judith Hearne: "It's fiction, but Moore hasn't made anything up."

The Emperor of Ice-Cream by Brian Moore, published by Turnpike Books

Two of Moore's Belfast novels, The Emperor of Ice-Cream and The Feast of Lupercal, are now being published in new editions for a new generation of readers who may not be familiar with them.

Over the last 20 years, it can sometimes seem that Moore has been forgotten in his native city.

Vittoria Cafolla, of Paradosso Theatre who organised an enthralling programme of events commemorating Moore, points out, "there's not even a blue plaque".

There may be no need for a plaque. Moore's early work is embedded in Belfast's streets and many of the centenary celebrations link Moore's work back to Belfast's pubs and those streets.

The Lonely Passions: Brian Moore's Centenary Festival included a walking tour from north to south Belfast, led by Hugh Odling-Smee, exploring locations from Moore's novels and his life, and tonight there will be readings from Moore's novels in The American Bar.

The Feast of Lupercal by Brian Moore, published by Turnpike Books

There have also been showings of rarely-seen movies based on Moore's novels, while a reading of the stage adaptation of Moore's novel The Emperor of Ice-Cream, which was last performed by the Abbey Theatre in 1977, took place last night at St Joseph's Church in Sailortown.

Placing Moore's work within the Belfast of 2021 may be the best way to fully understand his genius.

Turnpike Books is publishing a new edition of The Emperor of Ice-Cream. It is Moore's most autobiographical novel, where the young hero, Gavin, joins Belfast's Air Raid Precautions Unit.

When Gavin is dressed in his uniform, his aunt describes him as "dressed up like a Black and Tan" and Gavin's father cannot forget his hatred of England, even in its opposition to Hitler.

At the end of the novel, as Belfast is destroyed by German bombs, Gavin harbours hopes that a new world would be built.

This is accompanied by a new edition of The Feast of Lupercal, which focuses on the stifling religious atmosphere Moore grew up with, and which he rejected.

In this novel, Diarmuid Devine is a teacher, a bachelor destined for a life of loneliness, until he meets Una and a possible future appears. However, their relationship is dominated by their sexual innocence and misunderstanding until fear of scandal forces Devine to choose between Una and conformity.

There is also a new edition of a lesser-known Moore novel, The Revolution Script, which demonstrates how much Northern Ireland and its politics remained in Moore's thoughts at a pivotal moment of Northern Ireland's history.

The Revolution Script is a documentary novel describing the real-life events of October 1970 in Montreal. A political group called the Front de Libération du Québec kidnapped the British Trade Commissioner and killed Québec's Vice-Premier.

Moore recreates these events and asks: who are these young revolutionaries? He finds that Québec's separatists connect him to his own past: "I found them to be young, ex-Catholic, nationalist... a mixture I had known back in Ireland."

The celebration of Brian Moore will continue throughout 2021 and, appropriately, will culminate at the museum dedicated to his old friend, the Seamus Heaney HomePlace, in November.

There will be a showing of the movie of Moore's most famous novel, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, which stars Maggie Smith and Bob Hoskins, and, on November 27, there will be a wide-ranging discussion of Moore's life and work with, among others, Sinéad Moynihan, who has played a leading role in organising the centenary celebrations, and Gerald Dawe.

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