Belfast Telegraph

Tributes to late Belfast poet Ciaran Carson, who inspired so many with his ‘inventive and roomy imagination’


Ciaran Carson in Belfast in 1999
Ciaran Carson in Belfast in 1999
The late Ciaran Carson photographed last week

Acclaimed Belfast poet, novelist and translator Ciaran Carson has died at the age of 70.

Born in 1948 in Raglan Street in the lower Falls Road to an Irish-speaking family - his father William was a postman and his mother Mary worked in the mills - he was educated at St Mary's Christian Brothers' Grammar School and Queen's University from where he graduated in English.

In an interview Mr Carson told how his parents met when his mother went to an Irish class given by his father. When they married they decided that Irish would be the main language in their home, making them, as far as they knew, one of only four families in the whole of the city to speak mainly in Irish.

There were five children in the family and they learned English largely from playing in the street.

Mr Carson had been ill for some time with lung cancer and according to his son Gerard he passed away peacefully yesterday morning "surrounded by his loving family".

He added: Such an amazing person who I learned so much from and will miss very dearly. RIP Dad".

There was an immediate outpouring of tributes to a man whose work won him multiple awards and led to him being recognised as one of the finest writers to emerge in Northern Ireland.

Mr Carson was a member of Aosdana - an Irish association of members of the arts set up in 1981 - and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. He was one of the so-called "Belfast Group" of poets in the 1960s which included Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley and Paul Muldoon.

During his career Mr Carson published 16 volumes of poetry and also wrote a number of novels and books about traditional Irish music.

He worked in the Arts Council of Northern Ireland from 1975 to 1998 with responsibility for traditional music and, more latterly, literature.

In October 2003 he was appointed Professor of Poetry and Director of the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen's University, Belfast.

Damian Smyth, head of literature and drama at the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, led the tributes to Mr Carson.

"Ciaran Carson wrote some of the best poems written in English in our time, among the very best ever written in Ireland; his inventive and roomy imagination found a way to write about Belfast in particular which made the city uniquely his own, street by street; his legacy in The Irish For No (1987), Belfast Confetti (Irish Times Literature Prize (1990), First Language (TS Eliot Prize) 1993), Breaking News (Forward Prize 2003), and other poetry collections, have gone straight into the common culture for good," he said.

"His work in translation was pioneering, finding geniuses congenial to his own in other languages to share his powerful vision, the very epitome of international transaction and exchange.

"His achievements in prose - Last Night's Fun, the novel Shamrock Tea (longlisted for the Booker Prize), and his astonishing memoir The Star Factory - are also lasting wonders.

"It is recognised that his pocket guide to Irish Traditional Music remains, 35 years after publication, a classic introduction.

"He was also a writer who brought his native Irish language in the 1970s right into the mainstream of Northern Ireland culture in particular, always with big-hearted hospitality.

"Several generations of poets and writers in Belfast have saluted his influence through his stewardship of the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queen's after a long career as Literature and Traditional Arts Officer of the Arts Council, where briefly I had the pleasure of being his colleague.

"His was one of the few indispensable, humane, open-handed and bountiful imaginations through the blackest days of our recent history, raising our common idiom repeatedly to fresh nuances of compassion, new dimensions of discernment and feeling.

"He was a great writer in every sense of that word and his passing is a huge loss to us all."

Professor Kevin Rafter, chair of the Arts Council in Dublin, said: "It is with immense sadness that we learned of Ciaran Carson's death today.

"He was a writer of extraordinary talent, imagination and range. While known primarily as a magnificent and prolific poet, his prose work was equally exceptional - as was his work in translation."

In addition to his many gifts as an artist, he was also a wonderful teacher, a terrific encourager of readers and writers, Prof Rafter added.

"He was witty and wise, and his commitment to the word on the page was there to his final days," he said. "He will be profoundly missed."

Belfast Telegraph columnist Malachi O'Doherty said that while Mr Carson's passing was "not unexpected", it had "touched many of us deeply". He added: "Ciaran talked about mortality without any raging 'against the dying of the light', which he said would be pointless since there was nothing he could do about it.

"And he said that the poems he wrote during his months with cancer were something good to come out of the experience."

Senior lecturer at Queen's Dr Philip McGowan worked with the poet and writer and called him an "absolute original".

"True intellect, fantastic poet & writer & tin whistler. Formidable force. Friend. The very definition of genius," he wrote on Twitter.

Poetry NI said they were "shocked" to hear of Mr Carson's passing.

"He undeniably made Northern Ireland a richer place with his poetry," the organisation wrote on social media.

Mr Carson's last poetry collection, Still Life, is due to be published next week (October 16).

He is survived by his wife Deirdre and their children Manus, Gerard and Mary.

Mr Carson and his wife met through traditional music - he was playing a flute and she a fiddle - and in the Seventies and Eighties they were often to be found playing in pub back rooms all over Ireland.

Once asked what he would like to be his epitaph in 10 words or less, he said: "Happy to Meet and Sorry to Part. It's the name of a jig which I've been playing on the flute for at least half my life. Lovely jig it is too."

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