Across the Bitter Sea

John Boyd

About the book…

John Boyd was one of the most significant figures of mid twentieth-century literary Belfast. Primarily remembered as a playwright and a memoirist, he was also a trenchant contributor to the political and cultural debates of the period who argued strikingly against the prevailing orthodoxies. 

An indefatigable writer and prolific correspondent, Boyd left a substantial archive of unpublished material in trust to the Linen Hall Library, Belfast, upon his death in 2002. Across the Bitter Sea is a novel drawn from that archive. 

Subject to many titles and countless revisions, the novel is a vivid and compelling portrait of inter-war Belfast, bringing to life the political, social and cultural ferment of the period. Loosely autobiographical, the novel is the story of Martin, the clever and able son of aspiring working-class parents. It is a remarkable portrait of the joys and miseries of youth. 

Martin is, by turns, intensely iconoclastic and utopian but is also capable of a self-doubting and paralysising listlessness and despair; a perpetually searching and dissatisfied voyager. While influenced by the work of Forrest Reid, John Boyd's coming-of-age story is striking for its painful candour about the conflicts between idealism and reality; the hunger for sexual and personal fulfilment and the small corruptions involved in coming to terms with the adult world. 

It is an important document in understanding the past - and present - in Northern Ireland.

Photo of the author, John Boyd

About the author…

John Boyd was born in Belfast in 1912. The son of a railway engine driver, he was educated at Mountpottinger School, gaining a scholarship to permit him to attend the Royal Belfast Academical Institute (where he was taught by the novelist Forrest Reid, with whom Boyd was to share a lifelong friendship), Queen’s University, Belfast and Trinity College Dublin, he became a teacher. Always interested in literature, he co-founded and edited – along with writers Sam Hanna Bell and Bob Davidson – the seminal Lagan: A Collection of Ulster Writing

While Lagan only ran for four issues, it brought to the public the first writings of such figures as W.R. Rogers, Denis Johnson, John Hewitt, Michael McLaverty, Joseph Tomelty, and Tyrone Guthrie.

In the late 1940s, Sam Hanna Bell offered Boyd the position of talks producer at BBC Northern Ireland. At the BBC, he often found the provincialism of local literary life suffocating and ran against the prevailing unionist and conservative ethos of the institution.

A well-known contributor to various periodicals such as The Bell and The Irish Democrat and a passionate ‘man of the left’, he was a delegate on a writers visit to the USSR. In 1971 he was appointed honorary director at the Lyric Players Theatre, Belfast, and edited the theatre’s literary journal, Threshold which gave outlet to many of the sixties generation such as Seamus Heaney, John Montague and Michael Longley. 

After retirement he produced a string of plays dealing with the onset of civic strife: The Assassin (1969) and Guests (1974). He also produced a stage trilogy: The Flats (1971 - later made into an RTE film by Sheelagh Richards in 1975), The Farm (1972) and The Street (1977 - which starred a young Liam Neeson). During his association with the Lyric, he also produced adaptations of Wuthering Heights, Moliere’s The Miser and Ibsen’s Ghosts.

He also produced two highly successful volumes of autobiography: Out of My Class (1985) and The Middle of My Journey (1990).

He died in 2002. An archive of his letters and manuscripts was bequeathed to the Linen Hall Library.