“Do you know the work of John Hewitt?” I asked my sister, who used to live in Belfast.
”I know The John Hewitt,” she replied, “I used to drink there. You would see people like Martin Lynch and other writers there. It was a place where thinking people would gather.”
”I was thinking of the poet, not the pub,” I said. “I was looking for one of his poems, the one about Christmas.”
”Did you try putting a line of it into Google?”
”I did, hardly any of his work is online.”
Hewitt was a contemporary of Louis McNiece but never commanded a comparable fame. Perhaps McNiece’s advantage was to have reached a wider audience. In Ulster, Hewitt seemed on the wrong side of history. An intellectual who was progressive in his politics, he was far removed from the strident Protestant evangelical politics of the community from which he had come. A Protestant of small “u” unionist views, he was far removed from the Catholic nationalism of the other community. John Hewitt lived in a sort of no man’s land, politically and theologically.
Hewitt’s poem Christmas Eve, which still remains unfound, tells of his memory of going to church with his father on Christmas Eve. He captures the frosty night and the welcome at the door and a sense of the excitement of the moment. The poet wishes that he could still believe the tale, that he felt that the stories that provided half the stuff of art had become as dated as blackboard and slate. Hewitt’s sentiments are similar to those of Thomas Hardy in his Christmas poem The Oxen, except Hewitt’s lines seem bleaker; it is not just a tale that is lost, it is an entire tradition.
Perhaps John Hewitt’s sense of having lost a foundation tale is an expression of the feeling of many Ulster Protestants. The stridency and religious fundamentalism of the prominent politicians is reflective of only one part of the community. Among the others, there must be a sense of being a John Hewitt, of being in a no man’s land. People who did not vote for the Democratic Unionist Party, people who were among the majority in Northern Ireland who voted to remain within the European Union, find themselves belonging in no-one’s camp.
Hewitt’s poem is a tale of a lost faith. The tale of many of his co-religionists is a tale of a disappearing identity.