Gerald Dawe: Belfast poet and academic who explored the everyday with wit and plain speech

Part of the so-called Coleraine Cluster of writers, Dawe explored a less-voiced north Belfast lower middle-class upbringing

Gerald Dawe: was equally devoted to emerging writers north and south, as a teacher, anthologist and publisher

Born: April 22nd, 1952

Died: May 29th, 2024

Gerald Dawe, who has died aged 72, was a poet of Northern Ireland’s liberal Protestant tradition, even while plying his trade from Galway and Dublin. He was equally devoted to emerging writers north and south, as a teacher, anthologist and publisher, and for many years was fellow and professor of English at Trinity College Dublin.

He attracted comparison to Derek Mahon, exploring a less-voiced north Belfast lower middle-class upbringing. Nostalgia, for Dawe, was coping with loss in the present – frequently loss of home. Memory is not just about the past, but finding a route into now, poetry “an artful way of making that happen”.

READ SOME MORE

Dawe probed religion in his 1991 collection Sunday School. Sin was “on the gable ends and on the big churches, part of the landscape”, as he told a 2024 BBC documentary, but also lost force from phrases such as “It’d be a sin to go out on a night like that” (from the poem Sin). Sermons held less allure than Belfast’s people and places. “Whatever was played on the bandstand/ we never listened”.

His last volume, Another Time: Poems 1978-2023 (2023), distilling 45 years of his poetry, is a model of straightforward syntax, exploring the everyday with unadorned quatrains and Belfast’s plain speech. His wit, never distant, sparkles in his 1989 poem Ode to My Inhaler.

Besides 14 volumes of poetry, he published 10 collections of essays, and anthologies including The Cambridge Companion to Irish Poets (2018). His Earth Voices Whispering: An Anthology of Irish War Poetry 1914-45 (2008) stands among Ireland’s most important anthologies in the last half century, juxtaposing figures such as Francis Ledwidge and Eva Gore-Booth to show how world wars haunted contemporary poetry.

His edited book of essays Across a Roaring Hill (1985, with the critic Edna Longley) pioneered the idea of a Protestant imagination in modern Ireland, tracing a mental world from Yeats and the Irish Literary Revival to Louis MacNeice and later Mahon and Michael Longley.

In 1986 he started a small literary magazine, Krino. Then, with Patrick Ramsey of Fortnight magazine, in 1990 he founded Lagan Press, after a back bar conversation in Lavery’s pub in Belfast. It had two rules: to feature Northern Irish writing, and to not make money, as Ramsey recalled; on the second it surpassed wildest expectations. After publishing 200 books by new writers, Lagan Press merged in 2013 into the Verbal Arts Centre in Derry.

Gerald Dawe a ‘champion of the outsider’ with ‘inspiring’ passion for literature, memorial toldOpens in new window ]

Born in north Belfast, where the city’s blitz remained etched in landscape and conversations, Dawe was the son of Gordon Dawe and Norma Fitzgerald Bradshaw, and raised, along with his sister, by his mother, grandmother and great-grandmother in what he described as a “house of women”.

Their street, wedged between Cave Hill and the Lough, was a “world of small gardens, minute backyards”, but a variegated one, with Jewish refugee families, an Austrian breeder of pedigree poodles and a Catholic house where Dawe became “almost a foster son”, he recalls in his memoir A City Imagined: Belfast Soulscapes (2021).

He attended Orangefield boys’ secondary school two buses away in east Belfast, where the writer (and Beirut hostage) Brian Keenan was a contemporary, and where Van Morrison had also been a pupil. On the encouragement of the English head, the actor Sam McCready, Dawe joined the Lyric Youth Theatre, and was briefly part of a rock band called The Trolls. He sent his first poems to Longley, a Belfast poet he admired, who replied with encouragement.

After a short spell in London, he studied English at the New University of Ulster (now Ulster University), under the critic and novelist Walter Allen, and fell into the so-called Coleraine Cluster of writers, who met in local bars, hosting readings by Mahon and Seamus Heaney. The friendships from poets including Thomas Kinsella “set me up for a writing life in the academy”, he later reflected, even when “such an option seemed like a fantasy”.

After a stint as an assistant librarian at Belfast Central Library, Dawe received a research grant and went to study at University College, Galway, where he wrote an MA thesis on the Victorian Irish writer William Carleton.

President leads tributes to much-loved poet Gerald DaweOpens in new window ]

In Galway he met Dorothea Melvin, whom he married in 1979. With her, he had a daughter, Olwen, and a stepson, Iarla. Dorothea brought him a second-hand Smith typewriter for £16. On it he wrote his first collection, Sheltering Places (1978), followed by The Lundys Letter (1985), the first of his poetry volumes to be published by the Gallery Press.

He lingered in Galway as a lecturer, choosing to commute when in 1988 he moved to a lectureship at Trinity College Dublin. In 1992 the family decamped to Dún Laoghaire, in South Dublin, and Dorothea became head of public affairs at the city’s Abbey Theatre.

At Trinity, Dawe was appointed a fellow and professor of English, establishing Ireland’s first creative writing master’s programme, and in 1997 became the founding director of the Trinity Oscar Wilde Centre for Irish Writing. Retiring in 2017, he remained supportive of new talent and engaged with other writers during a lengthy period of suffering from cancer. He was awarded the 2024 Lawrence O’Shaughnessy poetry award by the University of St Thomas, Minnesota.

In 2023, he donated more than 1,000 of his own poetry books, pamphlets and programmes to the Dún Laoghaire public library, the dlr Lexicon, which hosted the exhibition Cultural Belongings: The poetry of Gerald Dawe, previously presented at Linen Hall Library in his other hometown, Belfast.

He is survived by Dorothea, Olwen and Iarla, and his sister Pamela.