PHILIP LARKIN IN WEST BELFAST

On November 25th, 1950, the twenty-nine-year-old Philip Larkin wrote from Belfast, where he had just started work as sub-librarian at Queen’s University, to his friend Monica Jones.

Dearest Monica,
Tonight is the night before the poll: Fighting Tom Teevan has organised a “monster rally” to burn effigies & generally impede the progress of civilisation. I had been meaning to go to this, but at the last minute the Wilson-Williams combine asked me to go with them, & my refusal has prevented me going alone. A pity: I should have liked a glimpse of Irish politics, as the nearest thing I shall ever see to the drawings of Mr Hogarth.

Larkin had arrived in Belfast about eight weeks previously. He found it to be “a wide and cobble-streeted town, lined with frowning buildings in the late Victorian manner & some indifferent shops. I’m already fed up with anything called Ulster, Northern, Victoria, etc., also with the Irish male face (craggy, drink-flushed, with greasy black curls and a too-tight collar & the Irish female face (plump, bad-teethed, pinkly powdered, with a diamante lizard on the lapel).”

The poll to which Larkin refers was the Belfast West by-election and Thomas Teevan was the candidate of the Ulster Unionist Party. In a close-fought contest, he defeated Jack Beattie of the Irish Labour Party by 31,796 votes to 30, 833. In the 1951 general election Beattie reversed the by-election result and took the seat and Teevan died suddenly a few years later, aged only twenty-seven.

Larkin seems not to have taken to Orangeism and Unionism, and he later sent this quatrain to Jones on the by-election result:

Westminster’s crown has gained a special jewel
A fat, deceitful, vulgar, Irish fool:
‘The heart of Churchill & the wit of Wilde?’
Teevan touched pitch: the latter was defiled.