On the CS Lewis tour at the Old Rectory where CS Lewis' Grandfather lived.
Literature looms large in Northern Ireland life, with the region’s rich literary heritage and places that inspired a multitude of writers.
Why not pencil in a trip to unearth their stories? You’ll discover authors of wonder words, creators of childhood heroes and Nobel Prize-winning literati.
Literary giant and Northern Ireland’s world-famous son, Seamus Heaney (1939–2013), is widely regarded as one of the major poets of the twentieth century.
Nicknamed ‘Famous Seamus’ at home and often mobbed by ‘Heaneyboppers’ on his travels, he achieved that rare feat for a poet – respect from the critics and literary establishment, and great popularity with the wider public.
Heaney wrote prose and criticism, edited several widely used anthologies and produced 12 volumes of poetry, including Human Chain, his final collection. His groundbreaking translation of the epic Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf (2000) became a best-seller. Always accessible and approachable, his work finds significance in the everyday and delights in the possibilities of the English language. The Northern Irish poet won a breathtaking list of honours and awards throughout his career, topped by the 1995 Nobel Prize for Literature.
Heaney was born on a farm in County Londonderry and the impact of these surroundings on his work is immense. The places he immortalised are celebrated at the Seamus Heaney HomePlace in Bellaghy – where he came from, where he wrote about, and where he is buried. Books, personal artefacts and a collection of manuscripts and first editions are among the items on display.
The status of Samuel Becket (1906– 1989) as a genius of world literature was confirmed when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1969 “for his writing, which—in new forms for the novel and drama – in the destitution of modern man acquires its elevation”.
The avant-garde novelist, playwright, theatre director and poet spent his formative years in Northern Ireland, attending Portora Royal School in Enniskillen, also attended by Oscar Wilde. Beckett also taught for a time at Campbell College in Belfast.
Long before he left Ireland for Paris, Beckett was a moody Portora schoolboy, his scholarly promise outshone by his sporting prowess – he excelled at cricket, rugby and boxing during his school years.
The Portora boy went on to create an immense literary legacy and he is credited with redefining modern theatre. His work for the stage included Krapps’ Last Tape, Waiting for Godot, his best-known play which evoked the futility of modern life, as well as Happy Days, also the title of an international literary festival dedicated to him in Enniskillen.
The annual festival is a major cultural event bringing together local and international audiences and artists, usually featuring world and UK premieres of Beckett’s major and lesser-known works.
Few authors of fantasy literature are as beloved as the Belfast-born C.S. Lewis (1898–1963).
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the first of Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, is a classic of children's literature and was a triumph at box-offices around the world as a film adaptation.
Lewis was an intellectual giant and he made major contributions in children's literature, fantasy literature, literary criticism, poetry and popular theology that brought him international renown and acclaim.
He wrote more than 30 books, including The Four Loves, The Screwtape Letters, and Mere Christianity, but he is probably best known for his magical world of Narnia, which was inspired by the places and landscapes of Northern Ireland.
The place where he was born, the church he was Christened in, the landscapes and landmarks that influenced him, and the house where he got so much inspiration for his books are among the many places that can be explored in his native land.
Having reached a vast audience, Lewis’ legacy endures, and on the fiftieth anniversary of his death in November 2013, he was honoured with a memorial stone in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey.
Highly regarded poet and playwright Louis MacNeice (1907–1963) was born in Belfast and spent part of his childhood in the seaside town of Carrickfergus. One of his poems vividly recalls his time there.
He was part of the Auden Group, which included W.H. Auden and Stephen Spender, known as the ‘Thirties poets’. MacNeice influenced other Northern Ireland poets including Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley and Paul Muldoon.
He is buried in Carrowdore, a small village on the beautiful Ards Peninsula in County Down. Fellow Ulster poet Derek Mahon wrote an elegy for MacNeice entitled ‘In Carrowdore Churchyard’.
Regarded as the most important Irish playwright since Beckett, Brian Friel (1929–2015) is also known as the Irish Chekhov.
Friel addressed themes such as language and meaning, faith and authority and his work was performed in theatres across the globe. His first major stage success was Philadelphia, Here I Come! In 1992, he won three Tony Awards for Dancing at Lughnasa, which was later made into a film starring Meryl Streep.
Born in County Tyrone, he moved to Derry as a child and later to Glenties in Donegal. His work is celebrated regularly in Northern Ireland’s theatre productions and literary festivals, and a new cross-border Lughnasa International Friel Festival was inaugurated in August 2015.
Internationally recognised novelist and screenwriter Brian Moore was born and grew up in Belfast. His first novel, Judith Hearne, appeared in 1955 and placed his home city firmly on the world literary map. It has since achieved the status of a modern classic, aided by the film, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, starring Maggie Smith and Bob Hoskins.
His fan club extended from Graham Greene and Alfred Hitchcock to Barry Humphries. Before he died in 1999, Moore wrote 20 novels, saw five made into films, achieved three Booker nominations (The Colour of Blood, In Lies of Silence, The Doctor's Wife) and won numerous awards. Most of his books have never been out of print.
A genius with the English and Irish languages, novelist, playwright and satirist Brian O'Nolan grew up in Strabane, County Tyrone. A bronze statue commemorates him in the town centre.
Better known under the pseudonym Flann O’Brien, his place alongside Joyce and Beckett as a major literary figure was assured on the publication of his first novel, At Swim-Two-Birds, a book about a man writing a book about a man writing a book. His many satirical Irish Times columns under the name of his journalistic alter ego, Myles na gCopaleen, are legendary. As is his Irish language novel An Béal Bocht (The Poor Mouth), regarded as one of the greatest Irish-language novels of the twentieth century.
Famed nineteenth century writer William Carleton was born in Clogher, County Tyrone. He is acclaimed for his depictions of life in Ireland throughout the early 1800s and later through the years of the Great Famine. The Black Prophet (1847) was based on the famine and is typical of the novelist’s realism in writing about Irish rural life.
Carleton’s great initial success came in 1830 with the appearance of the first series of his Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry, probably his best known work. The William Carleton Society organises the William Carleton International Summer School every year in and around Clogher.
Sam Hanna Bell
Novelist, short story writer and broadcaster Sam Hanna Bell is known primarily for December Bride, his 1951 novel depicting rural County Down life. Regarded as a classic reading of Northern Irish life, the book was made into an acclaimed film in 1990.
Bell was born in Glasgow in 1909 to an Ulster Scots family and moved to the Strangford area in 1921.
He published several works of fiction, including The Hollow Ball (1961), A Man Flourishing (1973) and Across the Narrow Sea (1987), as well as a number of short stories.
Distinguished novelist and short story writer, Michael McLaverty was born in County Monaghan, partly raised on Rathlin Island and moved to Belfast’s Falls Road as a child. His experiences of displacement and of the tension between city and country shines through in the masterful short novel Call My Brother Back (1939). It describes the uprooting of 15 year-old Colm MacNeill from Rathlin to Belfast in the grip of the Troubles of the early 1920s.
McLaverty's writing draws on the people and places where he lived, visited and worked. As principal of St Thomas' Secondary School in Belfast in the 1960s, Seamus Heaney was one of his staff.
Contemporary Northern Irish Writers
A host of contemporary Northern Irish writers continue to keep the literary flame alive. Here's seven you need to know.
Born in Belfast in 1961, Glenn Patterson is one of Northern Ireland’s foremost novelists. His first award-winning first novel, Burning Your Own (1988) explored wittily what growing up meant in strife-torn Belfast in the 1960s and 70s.
His novels have included Fat Lad and That Which Was. Patterson is also known for his articles and journalism work, including the collection of non-fiction prose, Lapsed Protestant. In 2012, his first feature film, Good Vibrations, co-written with fellow Belfast writer Colin Carberry, told the story of Belfast impresario Terri Hooley and the punk scene in Belfast in the late 70s.
One of set of younger Northern Ireland-born writers, Maggie O’Farrell has established herself as a powerfully insightful author of contemporary fiction. Her novels include After You’d Gone and The Hand That First Held Mine, winner of the 2010 Costa Novel Award.
She was also shortlisted for the Costa in 2013 for Instructions for a Heatwave, which depicts a family confronting marital breakdowns, illiteracy and loss, all set against the famously broiling summer of 1976 and the Troubles in Northern Ireland. O’Farrell’s seventh novel, This Must Be the Place (2016), is regarded by many as her finest yet.
Michael Longley had gained international acclaim as one of the greatest poets writing in the English language today. With a career intertwined with his friend and contemporary, Seamus Heaney, Longley is a leading figure in the literary and cultural life of Northern Ireland.
He is renowned for the quiet beauty of his compact, meditative lyrics on themes of love, death, war and nature. Longley has published 10 collections of poetry, including 2014’s The Stairwell, regarded as a book by a major poet writing at the height of his powers. Longley was born and still lives in Belfast.
Dublin born Jennifer Johnston is the grand dame of Irish literature and spent most of her writing career in Derry~Londonderry, where her rarely performed Three Monologues plays were a triumph during the 2013 UK City of Culture.
Johnston’s first novel, The Captains and the Kings (1972), remains a classic and through the years she has written many masterful works such as How Many Miles to Babylon? (1974), The Railway Station Man (1984), The Illusionist (1995), The Gingerbread Woman (2000) and A Sixpenny Song (2013). She has won many literary awards over her career, including a Lifetime Achievement gong from the Irish Book Awards.
One of the finest writers to come out of Belfast in the last 50 years, Bernard MacLaverty’s early novels Lamb (1980) and Cal (1983) were both were made into major films, with the author providing the screenplays. The bestselling author is known for using words with beautiful precision, evident in his Booker and Whitbread shortlisting for his 1997 novel, Grace Notes.
Born in 1942, the political and cultural conflicts of Northern Ireland often form the backdrop to his work. MacLaverty is also regarded as a master of the short story form. He has published several short collections of short stories, most of which are gathered into Collected Stories (2013).
Playwright and actress Marie Jones is one of the most successful theatre artists to emerge from Northern Ireland. Her best known play, Stones in His Pockets, was a smash hit. First staged in Belfast, it went on to critical acclaim on Broadway and the West End and has been performed in 30 countries worldwide.
Jones, who went to the same school as music legend Van Morrison, is a master of the earthy and can make audiences rock with laughter and cry with tears. She writes about what she knows, Belfast where she was born and bred and where she still lives.
Martin Lynch is known for theatre productions that emanate from his strong social conscience. Born in Belfast in 1950, has been a leading Northern Irish writer for over 30 years.
Lynch is adept at holding a mirror up to Northern Ireland’s political and social history, warts and all. He burst onto the literary scene in 1981 with his play Dockers, attended by scores of real Belfast dock workers during its run. His plays are occasionally controversial and often full of black humour. Lynch’s best known works include The History of the Troubles According to My Da, and Dancing Shoes - The George Best Story.