Ciaran Carson, 1948 – 2019

Last Sunday, the inimitable poet and musician Ciaran Carson died after an illness.

Born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, into an Irish-speaking family, poet Ciaran Carson attended Queen’s University, Belfast. He held the position of traditional arts officer of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland from 1975 to 1998 and was appointed director of the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queen’s University in 2003.


Carson was the author of a number of collections of poetry, including The Irish for No (1987), winner of the Alice Hunt Bartlett Award; Belfast Confetti (1989); First Language: Poems (1994), winner of the T.S. Eliot Prize; Breaking News (2003), winner of the Forward Poetry Prize; For All We Know (2008); On the Night Watch (2010); and Until Before After (2010). Wake Forest University Press has published his work for American readers, including The Midnight Court (2006), a translation of the 18th-century Irish poet Brian Merriman’s work, and Carson’s own Collected Poems (2009).

Carson’s work is both political and personal as it engages recent history—including the Troubles and violence in Northern Ireland—and the past. In The Irish for No, Carson’s long lines encompass listings of both urban realities and nostalgic images of the past, linking memory and cartography to give a portrait of life in Belfast. The more recent On the Night Watch and Until Before After offer more personal lyrics.

Carson’s interest in traditional Irish music informed Last Night’s Fun: About Music, Food and Time (1997), a book of prose, and the history of Belfast plays in his memoir, The Star Factory (1998). Carson was also author of the novel Shamrock Tea (2001).

I had the pleasure of meeting Ciaran when he read at HomePlace to mark the first anniversary of the Centre’s opening, alongside Meabh McGuckian, Kevin Young and Paul Muldoon. He was always stylish, had a wonderful dry wit and could play a mean tune on the tin whistle, which he invariably did during his readings.

ciaran kevin
Ciaran with US poet Kevin Young at HomePlace in October 2017

Paul Muldoon read the beautiful ‘After Apple-Picking’ by Robert Frost at Ciaran’s funeral on Wednesday and the priest officiating the ceremony noted that, when asked a few years ago what his epitaph might be, Ciaran replied ‘Happy to meet, sorry to part’.

Here is my favourite of his poems, the wonderful ‘Belfast Confetti’.

Suddenly as the riot squad moved in it was raining exclamation
Nuts, bolts, nails, car-keys. A fount of broken type. And
the explosion
Itself – an asterisk on the map. This hyphenated line, a burst
of rapid fire…
I was trying to complete a sentence in my head, but it kept
All the alleyways and side streets blocked with stops and

I know this labyrinth so well – Balaklava, Raglan, Inkerman,
Odessa Street –
Why can’t I escape? Every move is punctuated. Crimea Street.
Dead end again.
A Saracen, Kremlin-2 mesh. Makrolon face-shields. Walkie-
talkies. What is
My name? Where am I coming from? Where am I going?
A fusillade of question-marks.

Ciaran’s final collection, Still Life is to be published this week and promises to be a fitting end to a towering career. Some of the poems from this collection have been published in the New York Times and show his stoic and realistic attitude to death.

How strange it is to be lying here listening to whatever it is is going on.
The days are getting longer now, however many of them I have left.
And the pencil I am writing this with, old as it is, will easily outlast their end.

Patricia Craig wrote a beautiful obituary for her friend in The Guardian this week and The Irish Times collated some very moving responses to his death from his friends and colleagues. He is a great loss to literature, both in Northern Ireland and across the world.

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