In this episode of What Northern Ireland Means to Me, we meet Emma Must, who is a poet and former environmental activist.
I love living here. I moved to Belfast a decade ago to study at the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen’s University, under the auspices of brilliant poets I’d been reading for years: the likes of Sinéad Morrissey, Ciaran Carson and Leontia Flynn. Then I discovered that poetry and writing underpin the entire city, and the province beyond. My whole adult life I’d been seeking what we have here — the depth, breadth and intelligence of a vibrant writing community. Here, folk don’t just talk about writing and publishing books, they actually do it.
I came for the poetry. And I have stayed for it. But I think what also unlocked the place for me was discovering the River Lagan. Along this artery life moves — through the city, up into the watermeadows, or out to sea. I can still remember the frisson when I tried to walk home from town one day along the river and turned right onto the towpath at the Albert Bridge. That vista, that wide sweep of blue water curving south — wow!
And then I bought my bike. I find I can cycle pretty much anywhere in the city avoiding big roads by starting at the river and then branching off: across the Ormeau Bridge to buy delicious bread at Bread and Banjo; north to The Duncairn and the Waterworks; east to Victoria Park and C S Lewis Square (and my buzzy hairdresser, Hive); south to Lock Keeper’s Inn and the Giant’s Ring… I have yet to quite crack heading west by bike, but I will!
During the Troubles, I was a kid growing up in the south of England. I would watch the news and think that Northern Ireland looked like a terrifying place. Then I read Heaney, and MacNeice, and fell in love with its poetry. In the early nineties, the landscape of my childhood was destroyed by the construction of a motorway. We struggled for months to try to stop it. That experience has left a wound I will always carry. Paradoxically, here, in Northern Ireland, I have found peace.
I live in the south of the city on a street near the Botanic Gardens, the Lyric theatre, and the river. It’s a mix of students and people who have lived here for decades. In my front yard I have many plants and flowers. In the spring and summer, I sit on my doorstep with my coffee and sigh at the pleasure of it all. This year I planted a new rose in a container. It soon attracted a leafcutter bee who lived underneath and made beautiful patterns in its foliage. Unbelievably, the rose has just flowered again, in December. It is unstoppable!
In my back yard, there is a holly tree which some kind soul must have planted a long time ago. I salute them. A plethora of birds visit daily: blackbirds, goldfinches, coal tits, blue tits, great tits, sparrows, starlings, robins, dunnocks, chaffinches, plus an occasional goldcrest or warbler, and this year what I’m almost 100% sure is a siskin.
I love living here. My house, my yards, my street, my park, my city, my wonderful writer friends, my river. Thank you, Belfast, for giving me a place to call home and for enabling my life as a poet to — in the words of Seamus Heaney in ‘Station Island’ — “Take off from here”.
What Northern Ireland Means to Me is presented by Julia Paul and produced by Shared Future News, to mark the centenary of Northern Ireland, with funding from the Heritage Fund on behalf of the Northern Ireland Office.
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Images © Allan LEONARD