Back to top

The Belfast Group Writing Workshop

Stephen Enniss

The following history of the Belfast Group was written by Stephen Enniss, circa 2000. At the time Enniss was Modern Literature Curator in the Special Collections Department (now the Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library or MARBL) and worked with Chuck Spornick, the Director of the Lewis H. Beck Center for Electronic Collections (now part of Emory’s Center for Digital Scholarship) to create the original “The Belfast Group” website. Small, silent changes have been made to this essay to update it based on new information about the Group and the collections.

In 1963 Philip Hobsbaum, a recently-arrived lecturer in English at Queen’s University, Belfast, organized a writing workshop made up of students, faculty, and a number of writers from the local community. The group was patterned after a similar workshop that Hobsbaum had organized first in Cambridge, then in London, between 1955 and 1962. The Group, as it has come to be known, met regularly during term at No. 4 Fitzwilliam Street, Philip and Hannah Hobsbaum’s home near the university.[1] Three years later, when Hobsbaum left Belfast for the University of Glasgow, Seamus Heaney assumed responsibility for organizing the meetings, which moved to his and Marie Heaney’s home on Ashley Avenue. Later Michael Allen and Arthur Terry, both lecturers at Queen’s, played organizational roles as well.[2] The Belfast Group lasted, with occasional interruptions, for nine years. It finally ceased altogether in 1972 at a time of political upheaval in Northern Ireland and at a time when a remarkable number of the participants had published their first collections and launched promising literary careers.

In the early years, the Group was directly shaped by Hobsbaum. Writers were invited—and, on occasion, uninvited—by him, and the sessions followed a format that he put in place. Typically the featured writer would give him a selection of new work, and Hobsbaum would then make a further selection for presentation at the Group meeting. He would then pass on the poems, short stories, or other work on to either Cilla Craig, the Secretary in the English Department, or his wife, Hannah, who would type and make copies on the department’s Roneo duplicator. These Group sheets, as they have come to be known, would be distributed to the members, and the following Tuesday (later Monday) the Group would meet at 8:00 in the evening to hear the featured writer read his or her work. While the emphasis was on new poetry, short stories and other prose work was also welcome. Arthur Terry, Professor of Spanish at Queen’s, presented verse translations from the Catalán, and Stewart Parker read from his experimental prose.

An image of a Group sheet authored by Seamus Heaney. It has drafts of the poems “Boy Driving His Father to Confession” and  “To a Wine Jar”

Hobsbaum reports that the first half of the Group meetings was always devoted to the work of a single writer, and that those present would discuss each piece immediately after it was read. Hobsbaum set an example for text-based, close reading that some found intimidating. Jack Pakenham, a school teacher at the time, has written “woe to any unsuspecting poet who could not stand over every single word written” (Dugdale et al. 58). Michael Longley recalls that while he expected sharp criticism, he was “surprised by the ferocity of Hobsbaum’s attack” (Dugdale et al. 57). At the close of the reading and discussion, there would be a brief break for coffee and biscuits, before reconvening for an open session where anyone could read work they wished to share. Philip Hobsbaum recalls Arthur Terry reading Robert Lowell in the second half of a Group meeting, and Michael Allen remembers Marie Devlin (later Heaney) reading her own poems.

After Hobsbaum’s departure for Glasgow in 1966, the Group continued to meet under the direction of Seamus Heaney. Later Arthur Terry and Michael Allen shared this organizational role with Heaney, and the Group moved variously between the Heaney’s home on Ashley Avenue (which was demolished decades later, in 2002) and a nearby pub on the Lisburn Road, the Four in Hand. The format of the meetings remained unchanged, though at some point coffee was replaced by pints. Among the new writers who joined the Group meetings in these later years were Paul Muldoon and Ciaran Carson.

There has been much disagreement about the importance of these Group meetings and the role they played in the emergence of a new generation of poets from Northern Ireland. Derek Mahon has insisted he was not a Group member at all and that he only attended one meeting when he happened to be in Belfast visiting Michael and Edna Longley. For his part, Michael Longley has written that he never altered even one semi-colon as a result of Group discussion (though Longley Group sheets show that he revised a number of poems—among them “Christopher at Birth,” “Elegy for Fats Waller,” and “Gathering Mushrooms”—and presented them more than once). What is not in dispute, however, is that a remarkable number of the participants went on to become highly accomplished writers. Many of the poems collected in Seamus Heaney’s first published collection, Death of a Naturalist, were first read aloud in Group meetings, among them “Digging,” “Personal Helicon,” and “Blackberry-Picking.” Similarly the Belfast Group provided a forum for early work by James Simmons, Michael Longley, Paul Muldoon, and Ciaran Carson. For each of these writers, the Group provided an early audience, for some their very first. As Seamus Heaney has put it, “What happened Monday night after Monday night in the Hobsbaum’s flat in Fitzwilliam Street somehow ratified the activity of writing for all of us who shared it” (Dugdale et al. 62).

The Group published no magazine and produced no anthology of the kind the London Group did, but it was always closely allied with the Belfast-based literary magazines of the time. Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley edited the Northern Review from 1965-1969 and, as a result, they were well-positioned to solicit new work of other Group members. The contributors notes to the early issues of the magazine read like a roll call of Group members; present are John Bond, Philip Hobsbaum, Stewart Parker, Paul Smyth, Arthur Terry, and Joan Watton (later Newmann), in addition to Heaney and Longley themselves. Similarly the inaugural issue of Harry Chambers’ Phoenix magazine contains poems by three Group members: Heaney, Longley, and Iris Bull. Even after Chambers took the magazine with him to Manchester, he continued to publish a generous sampling of new work by Group poets. In 1968 James Simmons founded the Honest Ulsterman, the longest running literary magazine to come out of the North, and he too turned often to Group members to fill the new magazine. While there was no formal linkage between the Group and these publishing ventures, the Group certainly contributed to the new sense that there was enough literary activity in the North to justify such efforts.

The participation of so many talented writers ensures that the Group will remain of lasting interest to scholars and literary historians. These pages collect a substantial amount of documentary information on the history of the Belfast Group, including biographical notes on the participants (well-known and obscure), a catalog of all known Group sheets, and fully searchable electronic texts of Group sheets by Seamus Heaney, Philip Hobsbaum, Michael Longley, Paul Muldoon, James Simmons, Ciaran Carson, and Brendan Kennelly.

The original Group sheets, from which these electronic texts have been prepared, are housed in the Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library (MARBL) at Emory University and in the Belfast Creative Writing Group file of the Queen’s University Library’s Special Collections. (One Group sheet from Jack Pakenham is in private hands.) While the large majority of sheets are not dated, some do include handwritten notations with date, place, and time information. When present, this information has been provided here. Typically, Group sheets were produced on a cyclostyle duplicator on uniform paper measuring 8 x 13 inches (20 cm x 33 cm).

  1. ^ In The Ulster Renaissance, Heather Clark notes, “Various sources list [Hobsbaum’s] address as 4 Fitzwilliam St., though Hobsbaum says his flat was number 5” (54 fn.45).
  2. ^ After Philip Hobsbaum’s departure for Glasgow, the Group meetings were organized at various times by Seamus Heaney, Arthur Terry, and Michael Allen. There was a suspension of the Group meetings in the 1967-1968 year (Michael Allen to ____, 4 Oct. 1968, Irish Literary Miscellany, Robert W. Woodruff Library, Emory University), followed by a full year interruption in 1970-1971 while Heaney was at the University of California at Berkeley. The Group finally ceased meeting altogether during the 1971-1972 school year.

Works Cited

Clark, Heather. The Ulster Renaissance. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. Print.

Dugdale, Norman, et al. “The Belfast Group: A Symposium.” The Honest Ulsterman 53 (November/December 1976): 53-63. Print.

Back to top

The Original Site (circa 2000)

Alice Hickcox

The Belfast Group website originated in the mid-1990s as a collaboration between Emory University’s Special Collections (now the Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library or MARBL) and the Lewis H. Beck Center for Electronic Collections (now part of Emory’s Center for Digital Scholarship). Steve Enniss, Modern Literature Curator for Special Collections, and Chuck Spornick, Director of the Beck Center, together came up with the idea of publishing the drafts of poems that were read during the Belfast Group’s meetings. Many of these drafts were held by Special Collections as typescripts or “Group sheets.”

A screenshot of the circa 2000 website for the Belfast Group

View an archived version of the original site on the Internet Archive.

Enniss gathered the permissions of many poets, including Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, and Paul Muldoon, to publish their drafts. In addition to the Group sheets held in Emory’s Special Collections, he also gathered copies from Queen’s University Belfast, which held the Group sheets that belonged to Philip Hobsbaum, who originally convened the Group in Belfast. Ennis then provided the Beck Center with copies of the Group sheets for which permissions had been obtained.

Both Emory and Queen’s University hold many more drafts than have been digitized.

Technical Production

The Beck Center created digital copies of the poems by re-keying the text. The Center staff experimented with encoding schemes and finally decided to encode the poems for each workshop as texts in one TEI group, and group the workshops for each poet into a single TEI file. Encoding the texts in XML allowed us to store the texts in an XML-based database and make the full text of the poems searchable. Work began on the project in 1998, and the website was launched in 2000. The website has been served by various SGML and XML databases through its time, including Pat (SGML), Tamino (XML), and eXist (XML). The encoding has been migrated from TEI version P3 (SGML) to P4 (XML) and currently, P5.

Back to top

The Revised Site (circa 2015)

Brian Croxall and Rebecca Sutton Koeser

Belfast Group Poetry|Networks began with a question: what more could be done with library data? Projects like the original Belfast Group website result in digital editions of poetry drafts, and the careful work of curators and archivists in a special collections library like MARBL produce detailed descriptions of collections otherwise known as “finding aids.” Finding aids are created to help researchers find manuscripts, photographs, and more. Like the digital drafts of Belfast Group poetry, then, finding aids are intended for human readers.

Yet finding aids are also, like the digital drafts, created with semi-structured XML. What would happen if we enhanced the poetry drafts and finding aids with even more structure? What would we learn if we created a document that had a computer as its intended reader?

This question led Rebecca Sutton Koeser to propose a project—Networking Belfast—to the Digital Scholarship Commons (DiSC) in April 2012. (DiSC became the Emory Center for Digital Scholarship in June 2013.) Networking Belfast would investigate what could be done with enhanced library data and would use the Belfast Group as a model for what researchers could learn. Funded by a portion of an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant awarded to DiSC, work on Networking Belfast began in September 2012 with Brian Croxall acting as deputy project lead and project manager.

Koeser hoped that enhancing these library data would help to answer the question of who, exactly, constituted the Belfast Group. Many of the authors who participated in the writing workshop that ran from 1963–1972 later downplayed the importance of their peers on their development, but the dedications of the works read at the workshop point to real connections among the poets. Even more importantly, MARBL holds the correspondence of many of the Belfast Group poets; although many of these letters are restricted, the finding aids nevertheless catalog the recipient of each letter. Using this information in concert with the poetry drafts, the team hoped to make the large networks and relationships of the Belfast Group visible in a way they couldn’t have been previously.

To make the data in the poetry drafts and the finding aids “readable” by a computer, the team used Natural Language Programming to add a URI (uniform resource identifier) to each proper name, place, and organization (such as a university or the Belfast Group itself). Combined with the structured XML, these URIs allow the computer to plot individual relationships. For example, anyone who had written a letter in the Heaney papers had some sort of relationship with the poet. The more letters he or she had produced, the stronger this relationship would be—by at least one measure. Of course, frequency of correspondence need not always correlate to the nature of a particular relationship. Close friends who both lived in Belfast might not correspond in writing precisely because they could have spoken in person or by phone. What’s more the project draws on all correspondence between individuals that is collected in MARBL, much of which was created after the Belfast writing workshop had ended. In short, it is critical to remember that the project’s observations depends on what the project measured, as Croxall and Koeser write in the essays that accompany this site.

In addition to developing the software and workflows to enhance the digital drafts and finding aids, the team designed a new website that would take provide additional functionality over the original Belfast Group site. The new site was named Belfast Group Poetry|Networks to convey the content of the original site (poetry) and the team’s additions (networks). The network graphs and maps that represent these networks draw on the enhanced XML and allow scholars to have a new perspective on the people in and around the Belfast writing workshop.


The Networking Belfast project began in September 2012 and was completed in July 2015. Work began with the creation of software to enhance both EAD and TEI XML from the command line and within oXygen XML. Following the release of these tools, the team deployed this software to enhance the poetry drafts and finding aids. The enhanced documents were passed through an RDF generation process to infer relationships. Simultaneously, the team produced new software for the Emory Finding Aids website that used the enhanced XML to produce RDF and exposed those data. With the new data in place, design of the Belfast Group Poetry|Networks site and its visualizations commenced. The final step of the project was the drafting of the site’s text, including analyses of what was learned from the visualizations.