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Louis MacNeice

Louis MacNeise

Carrickfergus (1937) County Antrim, Northern Ireland

I was born in Belfast between the mountain and the / gantries / To the hooting of lost sirens and the clang of trams: / Thence to the Smoky Carrick in County Antrim / Where the bottle-neck harbour collects the mud / which jams / The little boats beneath the Norman castle . . . .

TIMELINE


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Lifepath
MacNeice was born on 2 September 1907 in Belfast the third child to the Reverend John MacNeice and his wife Lily. The Reverend, a graduate of Trinity College, had been ordained in the Church of Ireland. In 1908 he was nominated as minister to St. Nicholas Church in Carrickfergus, and the family relocated to this port on Belfast Lough.   Reverend MacNeice emerges as a Home Rule supporter against the political background of the 1912 Ulster Covenant. On 17 December 1914 Lily MacNiece died of tuberculosis. Louis, his brother Willie and sister Elizabeth are raised by a series of governesses. In 1916, Willie who has Down’s syndrome is sent to an institution in Scotland. The Reverend MacNeice marries Georgina Beatrice ‘Bea’ Greer on 19 April 1917. Though a Quaker, she is a member of his congregation at St. Nicholas. From a wealthy local family, she had lived in Seapark, a house on Belfast Lough and a mansion near Regent's Park London. Lois MacNeice is enrolled in November 1917 at Sherborne, a boarding school in Dorset, and excels in Greek and Latin studies.  In May 1921 during his last term MacNeice recalls a conversation with the school's headmaster on the political situation in Ireland:

On the Twelfth of July Powys came into my dormitory and said, “What is all this they do in your country today? Isn't it all mumbo-jumbo?”  Remembering my father and Home Rule . . . and the black file of mill-girls and the wickedness of Carson and the dull dank days between sodden haycocks and foghorns, I said “Yes it was.” And I felt uplifted. To be speaking man to man to Pows and giving the lie to the Red Hand of Ulster was power, was freedom, meant I was nearly grown up. King William is dead and his white horse with him. . .(1).

MacNeice wins a classical scholarship to attend Marlborough College in Wiltshire. He enrolls on 15 September 1921, and during his years at Marlborough he was invited to join the secret 'Society of Amici. His contemporaries include Anthony Blunt and John Betjeman, and in 1926 MacNeice enrolls in Merton College, Oxford on a 'Postmastership Scholarship.' He considers himself as an ‘aesthete.’  After completing his final examinations, MacNeice marries Mary Beazley on 21 June 1930 in Oxford Town Hall's Registry Office. Mary is of Jewish descent; the match had caused some consternation to both their parents, none of whom are in attendance at the ceremony.

MacNeice commences position in 1930 as Assistant Lecturer in Classics at Birmingham University. In 1934 MacNeice's son Daniel John is born and he joins E.R. Dodds in Dublin, where they both meet W.B. Yeats in Rathfarnam. The train journey from Belfast prompts the poem Train to Dublin.  In 1935 Mary leaves Louis and their son, and in 1936 MacNeice travels with Anthony Blunt to Spain in March prior to the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, and then in October takes up a lectureship in Greek at Bedford College, London.

MacNeice is commissioned in 1937 by Longsman publishers to write a book on the western isles off the Scottish coast, and in 1938 return to Spain for a visit. In 1939 he publishes his epic poem Autumn Journal. In 1940, MacNeice takes up a visiting lectureship at Cornell University, but returns to London in 1941 and is recruited by the BBC to write broadcasts to support the British war effort. He marries Heidli Anderson, a singer and cabaret actress, and in 1943 a daughter named Brigid Corinna is born to the couple.  In 1947 MacNeice travels to India to report for the BBC the British withdrawal and the subsequent partition of Pakistan.

Source

(1) Jon Stallworthy Louis MacNeice (London: Faber and Faber 1995) p. 71.

 

 

Louis MacNeice’s literary geography is marked by a constellation of places linked by journeys which impart a sense of in-betweeness, longing and desire.   Such sentiments seem to have characterized his life and travels as an academic, poet and writer-reporter for BBC Radio. As a boy in Carrickfergus, a small port on Belfast Lough in County Antrim, the comings and goings of people, freight, troops and war material from the harbor to the Northern County section of the Midland Railway, impressed themselves on his budding poetic consciousness.  In the 1926 poem Reminiscences of Infancy, MacNeice wrote:

Trains came threading through my dozing childhood
Gentle murmurs nosing through a summer quietude,
Drawing in and out, in and out, their smoky ribbons,
Parting now and then, and launching full-rigged galleons
And scrolls of smoke that hung in a shifting epitaph.
Then distantly the noise declined like a descending graph,
Sliding downhill gently to the bottom of the distance
(For now all things are there that all were here once);
And so we hardly noticed when that metal murmur came.
But it brought us assurance and comfort all the same,
And in the early night they soothed us to sleep,
And the chain of the rolling wheels bound us in deep
Till all was broken by that menace from the sea,
The steel-bosomed siren calling bitterly (1).

This poem ‘offers a map of the mythic terrain of the MacNeice country that was to remain essentially unchanged for the rest of his life. The trains that pass from the high ground to the west - from garden to cemetery - on their way to the low ground by the sea, and back again, have unmistakably feminine associations’ (2).    In Train to Dublin composed in September and October 1934, MacNeice writes about the landscape which surrounds the Carrickfergus train station:

I give you the smell of Norman stone, the squelch
Of bog beneath your boots, the red bog-grass,
The vivid chequer of the Antrim hills, the trough of dark
Golden water for the cart-horses, the brass
Belt of serene sun upon the lough. . . (3).

Lines in MacNeice’s various pieces can be connected as threads of a poetic constellation that has several loci, and are anchored by fleeting senses of history and place, both past and present. In his 1937 poem Carrickfergus, MacNeice excavates the archaeologies of heritage and tradition which comprised his boyhood milieu:

Our lights looked over the lough to the lights of Bangor
Under the peacock aura of a drowning moon.
The Norman walled this town against the country
To stop his ears to the yelping of his slave
And built a church in the form of a cross but denoting
The list of Christ on the cross in the angle of the nave.
I was the rector's son, born to the Anglican order,
Banned for ever from the candles of the Irish poor;
The Chichesters knelt in marble at the end of a transept
With ruffs about their necks, their portion sure (4).

MacNeice grew up during the First World War and in Carrickfergus impressions of the conflict merge with his first journey away from home to Sherborne a boarding school in England:

Somewhere on the lough was a prison ship for Germans,
A cage across their sight.
I went to school in Dorset, the world of parents
Contracted into a puppet world of sons
Far from the mill girls, the smell of porter, the salt-mines
And the soldiers with their guns (5).

MacNeice would eventually settle in London, but his travels took him to Iceland, the Outer Hebrides, Barcelona and Madrid during the Spanish Civil War and New York City.  In 1939 he published Autumn Journal which provides a sobering portrait of the political and cultural landscapes of Ireland:

The land of scholars and saints:
Scholars and saints my eye, the land of ambush,
Purblind manifestos, never-ending complaints,
The born martyr and the gallant ninny;
The grocer drunk with the drum,
The land-owner shot in his bed, the angry voices
Piercing the broken fanlight in the slum,
The shawled woman weeping at the garish altar (6) .

Autumn Journal is an epic work that captures the deep sense of foreboding which colored the atmosphere of pre-war Britain in the late 1930s.  The poem is an affective travelogue and its depictions of the German bombing of Barcelona, foreshadows the blitz which will descend upon London’s glittering streetscape during the Second World War: 

Nelson stands on a black pillar,
The electric signs go off and on-
Distilleries and life insurance companies-
The traffic circles, coming and gone,
Past the National Gallery closed and silent
Where in their frames
Other worlds persist, the passions of the artist
Caught like frozen flames . . . (7).

MacNeice was recruited as scriptwriter by the BBC in 1941 to aid Britain’s war effort; some critics have felt that this affected his poetic sensibility; but MacNeice’s phenomenal perspectives run through all of his writings whether they captured as poetical observations or biographical snapshots. Sailing from Belfast Lough on the ferry back to England in 1938 he jotted down his impressions of the sea and skyscape, creating an image which seems to evoke the wider constellation of places linked by the canon of his collective works:

‘Then the cranes and quays fell away and the channel opened into the lough -a single line of lights on each side - like a man stretching his arms and drawing a breath. Cassiopeia was tilted in her deckchair over Antrim; Arcturus over Down’ (8).

Sources

(1) Jon Stallworthy,  Louis MacNeice (London: Faber and Faber 1995) p. 131-132.

(2) Ibid.

(3) Louis Mac Neice, Collected Poems, (Ed.) Peter McDonald (London: Faber and Faber 2007) p. 17-18.

(4) Ibid., 55-56.

(5) Ibid.

(6) Ibid., 51-52.

(7) Louis MacNeice, Autumn Journal (London: Faber and Faber 1939 [1998]) p. 66.

(8) Jon Stallworthy, Louis MacNeice, 221-222.

 

 

 


Last updated 8 March 2016 by Digital Literary Atlas of Ireland, 1922 - 1949 (Email).