Obituary: Dr Michael Allen
Dr Michael Allen, a founding member of the ‘Belfast Group’ of writers that included Seamus Heaney and Bernard MacLaverty, has died. He was 75.
Michael Allen, who was born in England and grew up in Wales, joined the English department at Queen’s University Belfast in 1965, where he worked as a senior lecturer in American and Irish literature until his retirement in 2001.
For more than 40 years, he was a vital presence in the cultural and literary life of Northern Ireland, an unassuming man who gave extensively of his time to others, and who nurtured the talents of several generations of writers and critics.
He was an original member of the ‘Belfast Group’, the writers’ forum that fostered the work, from the mid-1960s onwards, of some of Ireland’s leading poets, novelists and playwrights, among them Heaney, MacLaverty and Stewart Parker. He also taught the poets Paul Muldoon, Ciaran Carson and Medbh McGuckian when they were undergraduates at Queen’s.
In Preoccupations, Heaney acknowledges Michael Allen as ‘the reader over my shoulder’. At a reading in Belfast last year, Muldoon paid tribute to him as the greatest poetry critic he knew.
A close friendship with Michael Longley is beautifully captured in the poem ‘Level Pegging’ by Longley, written on the occasion of Michael Allen’s retirement from Queen’s: ‘you / Who over the decadeshave washed down / Poetry and pottage without splashing a pageyou have looked after me’.
Michael Allen was, for Longley, and for other poets, too, the first and most trusted reader, the man whose subtle and astute judgments on literature were often inspirational.
His critical essays on contemporary Irish poetry, particularly on the work of Longley, McGuckian, Heaney and Muldoon, both set the standard and opened up the way for other critics to follow him.
As the poet Leontia Flynn put it, ‘he gave me the best ideas I had’. He was a brilliant, scrupulous and warm-hearted teacher, whose generosity with his time and attention were exceptional.
He once said of himself, “I suppose when I met good poetry I was able to recognise it.” But he did much more than this.
Medbh McGuckian describes him as “the first person in my life who could really explain what a poem was”. In characteristically self-effacing fashion, he devoted much of his life to helping others recognise good poetry, too, the man-behind-the-scenes and often unsung hero to whom students, writers and friends will be forever indebted.
Michael Allen was a scholar and a gentleman, greatly admired by the many academics worldwide who have read his critical writings, much loved by those lucky enough to have known him and to have been taught by him.
His humanity, warmth, and critical intelligence have been at the heart of literary and cultural life here for four decades and his passing marks the end of an era in Northern Ireland.
He is survived by his wife, the classical scholar Maureen Alden, his two children, Catherine and Matthew, and his two grandchildren.