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The Rhyming Weavers Anniversary

If you missed our half-day event celebrating the cultural and linguistic diversity of Ulster you can watch it now.

On 1 March 2024, the Languages, Literature, Culture and Communication Committee, in collaboration with Ulster University and the John Hewitt society, held an event to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1974 publication by John Hewitt of his Rhyming Weavers anthology of 18th- and 19th- century Ulster poetry.

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This event brought together a diverse array of leading experts in Ulster-Scots and Gaelic poetry from the 18th and 19th centuries. The gathering aimed to honour John Hewitt’s rediscovery of the work of Ulster poets from that period, and to discuss their profound impact and influence on the literary and cultural landscape of the province.

The celebration served as a platform for artists and scholars to engage in dialogue about the cultural and linguistic diversity of the island of Ireland, with a particular focus on the rich cultural heritages of the province of Ulster – not just with regard to literary culture, but also material culture, music, etc.

As the keynote speaker, Professor Paul Muldoon, a friend of John Hewitt and himself one of the leading Irish poets of our day, addressed the audience highlighting John Hewitt’s significant contribution to the literary landscape of Northern Ireland. Muldoon, who holds the prestigious position of Ireland Professor of Poetry, emphasised Hewitt’s groundbreaking publication, in 1974, of Rhyming Weavers and Other Country Poets of Antrim and Down as a pivotal moment in the province’s literary scholarship. It was the first book-length study and anthology to concentrate on the work of working-class poets from across the north of Ireland.

The Rhyming Weavers, many of whose communities and lives were tied to linen production in Ulster during the 18th and 19th centuries, wrote poems mainly in Ulster-Scots language and using the stanzaic form known as the Standard Habbie. This was a way of writing verse that sounded, when read aloud, like the rhythm of the poets’ looms. Hewitt’s book captures the essence of the weaving community, their craftsmanship, and the cultural significance of their work.

The event highlighted that there is a fundamental significance in the cherishing of language and literature to keep the heart of a place alive. Hewitt’s work highlighted the importance of language in affirming communal connections within Ireland and across the broader transnational landscape encompassing Ireland, Scotland, and England. Through his book, he underscored how art, language, and craft served as powerful tools in fostering cultural exchange and fostering common ground between people.

It has been a particular honour and privilege to be able to bring a major Royal Irish Academy event to Northern Ireland, and specifically to the new Ulster University Belfast – and in doing so, to bring to the attention of scholars across the island, and of the general public, the richness and diversity of the cultural heritage of the province of Ulster during the crucial period of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Professor Jan Jedrzejewski, Ulster University’s Professor of English and Comparative Literature