The Ulster Anthology, ed. Patricia Craig

Friends in the North reunited
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The Independent Culture

Doyenne of anthologists, Belfast-born Patricia Craig has made literary mappings of Northern Ireland before, with The Rattle of the North and The Belfast Anthology. The Ulster Anthology is on a different scale, a vast, beautifully organised, literary-historical "atlas" of the nine counties. Ulster is experiencing major urban redevelopment as well as political reconstruction, the former at a faster pace than the latter. Craig's sense of impending cultural loss informs her selection, and this focus on the past is largely a strength, if occasionally a limitation.

She is particularly alert to the region's poetry, and represents the new or emergent Northern voices of Sinead Morrissey, Nick Laird and Alan Gillis, for example, while giving generous space to major 20th-century and contemporary figures, from Louis MacNeice to Seamus Heaney. Ciaran Carson's vision is a torch pointing many ways, and Craig quotes generously from his poetry and prose. John Hewitt's work emerges strongly in its unsentimental struggle to delineate a liberal Protestant identity. His masterpiece, "I take my stand by the Ulster Names", underwrites much Ulster poetry from both traditions.

The historical parts of the 21-section book are particularly strong. Memorable collages are devoted to the Presbyterian Enlightenment and the Linen Industry. Any benighted English reader bored or confused by such issues as "Plantation, Siege and No Surrender" should start here: the chosen excerpts are vivid and concise.

"The whole point of the ideal Ulsterman is... that he must carry within himself elements of both Scots and English, with a strong charge of the basic Irish," Hewitt wrote in Planters' Gothic. This anthology has "a strong charge of the basic Irish", with brief excursions into Gaelic. More Ulster Scots salt could have been added, perhaps even a sprinkling of words from the post-Hewitt Ulster-person, whose native "charge" might be Chinese or Polish.

Craig writes that she was well aware of the risks of excessive nostalgia ("the odd burst of rapture over a soda farl"), but nostalgia is arguably essential to a volume like this, and when the writing is of high quality, why not? The important factor is balance. It may be unfair to demand hot-off-the-press material from a literary anthology. But Ulster does scathing satire like nowhere else, and a trawl of alternative comedy, as found, say, in Newt Emerson's online Portadown News, or the freesheet The Vacuum, would have added zing to the final section, "An Ulster Imagined".

The 1965 jacket photo shows a neatly-dressed child on a bunting-hung street of kitchen-houses, reminding us of Robert McLiam Wilson's observation about "a place much filmed but little seen". Craig's omnium-gatherum helps us see deeper into a region so often simplified. As for the future of such streets and their residents, there are surely less bland destinations for the wonderfully, tragically complicated children of Ulster than yuppification. Perhaps they have just not been sufficiently imagined yet.

Carol Rumens's 'Poems 1968-2004' is published by Bloodaxe