Ciaran Carson

b. 1948 – d. 2019

Ciaran Carson was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2014.

Ciaran Carson remembered – by Fiona Sampson

Ciaran Carson, who has died of lung cancer at the age of seventy, was that rarest of good things, a pioneering, essential poet who was also possessed of personal warmth and a strong sense of the importance of community.

Born in Belfast in 1948, Carson came to prominence with his second collection, The Irish for No (1987), which won the Alice Hunt Bartlett Prize. His reputation as the poet of the Troubles was cemented by Belfast Confetti (1989), which won the Irish Times Irish Literature Prize. Both books are acts of witness, full of propulsive urgency, in which signature long lines push and push at the reader’s discomfort – or grief. But they manage the almost-miraculous trick of being humane, even funny, at the same time. Their titles give this game away: as in Welsh, there is no Irish word for “no”, only “not yes”; Belfast confetti is shrapnel. Carson understood absolutely that poetic witness means that the hard work of poetics must transform material if the result is to have wide and persuasive reach.

Another way to say this is that Carson was a true artist. A fine performer on the traditional flute, he could often be persuaded to play on poetry occasions. For over two decades, from 1975 to 1998, he served as Traditional Arts Officer of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. His prose books Irish Traditional Music (1986) and Last Night’s Fun: About Music, Food and Time (1996) celebrate this part of his life’s work. He also translated from the eighteenth century Irish of Brian Merriman and the mediaeval Irish of The Táin (2007): not to mention French poetry and The Inferno of Dante Alighieri (2002), for which he received the Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize.

This reveals just some of his range. The Star Factory (1997), his prose memoir of Belfast life, won the Yorkshire Post Book of the Year Award; Shamrock Tea (2001) was longlisted for the Booker Prize. But it’s as a poet that Carson is best known. From 2003 to 2016 he was Director of the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queens University Belfast, a role in which he influenced many younger poets. In his poetry profound emotional and political intelligence came together with a musician’s ear to create a series of shape-shifting collections, each a literary event.

In a career punctuated by Eric Gregory and Cholmondeley Awards, his books included: First Language: Poems (1993), which won the T.S. Eliot Prize; the series of sonnet adaptations The Alexandrine Plan (1998); Breaking News (2003), which won the Forward Prize; the stunning palindromic verse-novel For All We Know (2008); Until Before After (2010) and In the Light Of (2012), both more traditionally personal lyric verse, and the paradoxically affirmative poems of mortality in Still Life, published the week after his death. Like the musician he was, Carson understood that, in poetry, style is a kind of content; like the poetry figurehead he was, he understood that, when it’s sufficiently consummate, poetry can make change minds in the wider world it moves from and into. If all this makes him sound like a poet of high responsibility, perhaps his greatest legacy is the lesson that such responsibility can produce enduring art


Fiona Sampson’s new collection is Come Down (Corsair, Feb 2020).

Image credit: Gerard Carson