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Scott McKendry on being a Northern poet: ‘It’s good training to grow up in Belfast or Bellaghy’

The Shankill poet on working-class identity, his nerdish love of language and mentor Ciaran Carson

The world’s wealth is increasingly ill-divided, which rightly exercises Scott McKendry, the latest in a long line of talented poets from Belfast, a city that has produced far more than its fair share.

McKendry is still a rare bird, however: a working-class poet from the Shankill, whose work, in the words of fellow writer Susannah Dickey, “captures somewhere that all too often has its stories told for it”.

Five Zillion Geese, for example, captures the black comedy of loyalist paramilitaries’ graffiti pledging safe passage to migrating geese wintering in his corner of Belfast after one was killed for someone’s dinner: “Let it be known/ As with tourists/ Gooses to be left to their own devices.”

Debut poetry collections tend to be launched more with a ripple than a splash but Gub comes garlanded with enough praise to generate a roar, never mind a buzz. “In a playful demotic that is exhilarating, hilarious and never forced, Scott McKendry makes magic of a Belfast that in other hands would make grim reading,” writes Louise Kennedy. “Gub is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read, and one of the most moving,” says Michael Magee.


Instead of an epigraph, Gub is prefaced with the word “Anyway ...” as if to say, “Right, here are the poems”. Gub is another word for the mouth or a person who insults another for no good reason, or the verb to hit a person, especially in the mouth. It’s vernacular and punchy.

The poems are by turns playful, funny, deadly serious, fantastical, escapist and rooted in the redbrick reality of his troubled city. His concerns include class and generational trauma and the richness of language, whose many registers he riffs on and riffles through.

The poet has a French girlfriend and has created an alter-ego, Monsieur Guillaume “Willy” Forget, which might explain why the French expression jolie laide, or unconventionally attractive, springs to mind when reflecting on his descriptions of his native Belfast, “where kind hills embrace an ugly city/ like a pair of jammy hands raking in the pot” under a “tyre-black midsummer sky” and “the Crumlin Road was cadaver grey/ like somebody had shot joy dead.”

There’s no patchiness with Ciaran Carson, unlike Yeats. He is emblematic of integrity

—  Scott McKendry on a fellow Belfast poet

McKendry first came to my attention when I republished his brilliant essay, Geese in the Hammer, in The Irish Times in 2021 after it had appeared in the Irish Journal of Anthropology. He featured later that year in Susan McKay’s Northern Protestants: On Shifting Ground, recalling his baby steps as a writer – playing with his teddy bears, Gizmo, Aynsley, Dessie and Magic Murphy (the names reminded fellow writer Phil Harrison of a loyalist gang), and making up stories about their adventures.

“I remember I was about eight and I was doing one of my wee sort of plays, you know, like giving them all voices. And I could hear my ma and da laughing from their bedroom. I went in and I was like, ‘What are you laughing at?’ And my da says, ‘Nothing.” I was like, ‘No, you fucking liars, you are laughing at me.’ I was ashamed for years. So the teddies got put into their bucket and under the bed.”

McKendry, now 36, left school at 17 after his GCSEs to become an electrician but after a disastrous series of events – he was laid off, went bankrupt, lost his house which was in negative equity, his girlfriend left him, his cat ran off, his best friend moved to New York, and he got bottled on Ormeau Bridge – he ended up back living with his mother and got on a Queen’s University access course in 2011, where he now lectures.

The late, great Ciaran Carson taught him and later mentored him in workshops alongside Padraig Regan, Manuela Moser and Stephen Sexton. “I do think he was Ireland’s greatest ever poet. I think Stephen Sexton would say that too. The work changes every time you read it, Belfast Confetti or The Irish for No. He set out to do something and actually achieved it; that’s rare. There’s no patchiness with him, unlike Yeats. He is emblematic of integrity.”

McKendry isn’t starry-eyed, however. “He was curmudgeonly, cantankerous, he epitomised a sense of Belfast that wasn’t the happy-clappy version. When I was in my late teens a lot of my friends were Mods and I had a Delft-blue Hardy Ames suit from the ‘70s. The first day I met Ciaran for a tutorial at Queen’s, it was a show. He had a tweed suit on, with gold elbow garters. I remember thinking, what a cool guy. But the other side was he’d be drinking a bottle of Coke in a three-piece suit, and he had this ‘90s plastic sports bag; why not a leather bag? That was the get-out from being pretentious or a dandy. He had that hard-man Belfast walk and he was vicious with slagging. If I ever got encouragement it was more a nod and a wink but other times he’d completely destroy me. I mentioned Alain Delon once and he said “you don’t look like Alain Delon, do you?”

Why has the North produced so many good writers?

“I think it’s an abundance of language, and clashes of language, ever since the Normans arrived,” he says, “but also a real emphasis on being careful with language. I was on a black taxi tour and the guide’s knowledge of Irish history was incredible, but I noticed he didn’t use the letter h once [Catholic pupils are taught to aspirate the letter]. He managed to keep me guessing for two hours; I’m very nosy for things like that.” This makes me think of the Oulipo school of constrained writing techniques.

“I don’t want to sound like the tourist board but even if you don’t like the work of Mahon and Longley and Heaney, there is an undeniable depth to the form, historical allusions, a sense that there is subtext. It’s good training to grow up in Belfast or Bellaghy.”

As a teenager, he quite liked Patrick Kavanagh and Leonard Cohen and he had “an autodidact’s bookshelf” with The Iliad, Shakespeare and Jerome K Jerome “but if someone asked what gave me permission, it would be Bernard O’Donoghue’s book on Heaney, or Jun Tzu, who broke through the parochial cringe, having the balls to rap in a Belfast accent, like the way Ciarán Hinds talks in the film Belfast, rubbing up against what’s supposed to be good English.

“There was always a bit of cringe around ‘show us your poem’, which I had to get over. If I had told my friends I was writing poetry, I think there is a good chance they would laugh at me. But the crack people have with friends and family has a poetic aspect to it. I think most people have a couple of poems in them.”

McKendry isn’t mad about labels but if one word sums up his identity, he says, it is Protestant. Listening to him, however, proletarian seems more prominent, a sense of working-class solidarity transcending the sectarian divide.

“The one thing I can say is I’m a Protestant. There’s no getting away from that, and I’m not even baptised. It’s an undeniable physical truth about my make-up as a person. It’s also something I wouldn’t shy away from.” He laments “our inability to see beyond the pettiness of our crap politics” or to see the North from an outside perspective. Or the South for that matter, so closely linked to the US and dependent on the UK for protection from Russia.

I’ve been at literary events in east Belfast and felt unwelcome because of a class dynamic. It’s run by middle-class people talking about their holidays, making jokes about me being from the Shankill

“Since I’ve been 12 I’ve been asking myself these questions about identity. I’m politically homeless – international without being cosmopolitan. I was raised to be a socialist. The people who own the world now own the information and the narrative. That’s dangerous. We are going back to the 19th century; children dying of cold in the north of England.” It’s assumed today, he says, that Protestants are right-wing, Catholics left-wing, but “loads of loyalists’ fathers were communists or in trade unions. The Shankill was known as a labour heartland. That history is never discussed.

“I’ve been at literary events in east Belfast and felt unwelcome because of a class dynamic. It’s run by middle-class people talking about their holidays, making jokes about me being from the Shankill. I can see similarities between people on the Shankill and the Falls, a shared manner, whereas people from the Falls will say those from Ardoyne are another breed.” The linguist James Milroy, he says, found that despite the sectarian and physical divide, people from Catholic Clonard and the Protestant Hammer had exactly the same accent. “I’m obsessed with the hyperlocal, a more difficult version of the whole picture, more dimensions,” he says.

What was the community he grew up in like? “The painter Dermot Seymour grew up 100 yards from me, 40 years before. He says about the people of the Shankill, they don’t see colour, they just see black and white. These aren’t myths but perceptions that even the people themselves buy into. We weren’t loaded but we didn’t struggle.”

In Ragnail, he recalls how his grandfather would buy him a treat, then borrow books from the library and they would read together in the park. It was idyllic but then his grandfather would cough up “a polka dot” into his hanky. They’d visit the graveyard and he’d say: “Keep off the grass or the Dead/ will rise from their slumber to slap ye.”

Asked about Kneecap, the west Belfast, working-class republican rappers, the poet offers: “When I was a child, going on the bus to Northern Ireland matches we would have listened to Paddy Reilly. I’ve heard rave versions of Fields of Athenry so a kid on the Shankill playing Kneecap is not the strangest thing. I find people getting moralistic about some republican mural in west Belfast when kids are having to bring bog roll to school hilarious.”

He jokes with fellow Belfast writers Dawn Watson, Matthew Rice and Michael Magee, who are not just working-class but whose work actually addresses class, about a renaissant belfastois. “Not to leave the others out but there is an affinity when you’re talking about class.”

Anna Morrison’s striking cover design of an angry-looking bull with polka-dot red eyes and teeth is like a demonic children’s illustration. Inside, the poem La Vache Qui Rit is dedicated to Seymour, famous for his cow paintings. McKendry riffs on the long lineage of cattle in Irish letters, from the raid at Cooley to Under the Hawthorn Tree, where cows are bled to make black pudding during the Famine. “It’s not as if I grew up around cows. The closest I ever got was throwing stones at them, which wasn’t very nice.”

As well as geese, sloths make a few appearances but it’s organic, not intentional he says. “If you go out of your way to write an animal poem, it’s probably going to be shite. I suppose it’s escaping the one-dimensional symbol. If you’re only making one point in a poem it’s probably not going to be very compelling.”

Three poems in the collection are written in what McKendry calls Eejit, “a phonetic orthography befitting the variety of Irish [Hiberrno-English] I call Belfastwa [from the French anglais belfastois]”.

“My best friend isn’t into poetry. I got him a bottle of whiskey and the book for his birthday, signed ‘For Johnny, my best mucker, Scott’. He says, ‘What’s this fucking thing here [referring to the poems in Eejit]?’ I said, that is the way we talk. Belfast dialect – or all Hiberno-English – is devalued in some way; there must be a class element too.”

His passionate fascination with language is nerdish, he admits, but he hopes it’s not showing off. “You need to have respect for the language.” He references Carson again. “How dare you not know what words mean?” He recalls Susan McKay asking why he wrote poetry. “I’ve always hated my own handwriting and been embarrassed by recordings of my own voice. With poetry, I have minute control. When I hand you this thing there is no slippage.”

Gub is published by Corsair