Hewitt was a poet and political radical born in Cliftonpark Avenue, North Belfast in 1907. As a student at Methodist College Belfast, Hewitt expressed a keen interest in poetry from an early age. Aged 17, in 1924, Hewitt is thought to have written more than 600 poems in one day! He would later go on to attend Queen’s University Belfast as a student where his poetry assumed a radical political identity. His poetry was published across the University’s literature but also further afield into the Irish Labour Journal ‘The Irishman’ and the Communist party’s ‘Workers Voice’. His radical left-wing politics represented a rejection of the sectarianism that Hewitt believed plagued his home region. His poetry is often, thus, a reflection of his experiences with Ireland, and Ulster specifically, and its complex relationship with culture and politics. One of his works was a reflection of the history of his immediate locale; the posthumously published play ‘The Parting of Friends’, focused on the lives of Henry Joy McCracken and Mary Ann McCracken, the Clifton House based political figure and philanthropist.
In 1930 Hewitt was appointed the post of art assistant at the Belfast Museum and Art Gallery, where he would remain until 1957. During this time he had married his wife, Roberta Black, a fellow radical socialist. Together, they were founding members of the Belfast Peace League. Following a dispute with the Belfast Museum, Hewitt moved to Coventry, England and worked as the art director of the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum. The political scene in Coventry suited Hewitt, as a traditional Labour stronghold, but upon his retirement in 1972 Hewitt and Black moved home to Belfast.
At a time when the Troubles were destroying lives across the region, the 1970s and 1980s represented the peak of Hewitt’s poetical career. His work focusing on confused identity and politics resonated with Northern Irish audiences like never before. His work finally received the attention and acclaim it warranted at this time; including being awarded an honorary degree from the University of Ulster in 1974 and Queen’s University in 1983, his election as vice-president of the Irish Academy of Letters in 1975 and he was made a freeman of the city of Belfast in 1983.
Hewitt died in June 1987 in Belfast. He requested that his body be donated for medical research at Queen’s University, and a gathering was held in the nearby Lyric Theatre for crowds to pay their respects. His legacy persists today in more than one respect. His namesake, the John Hewitt Society, aims to continue his legacy of encouraging the arts as method of exploring difficult subjects in Northern Ireland. Based in the MAC art gallery, the Society aims to provide neutral spaces for the creation of explorative art in Belfast. So too does the John Hewitt Summer School, which schedules a program of events such as panels and classes that encourages expression and debate. Additionally, a bar in Belfast’s Cathedral quarter bears John Hewitt’s name. The bar, that opened in 1999, is based in the former Belfast Unemployed Resource Centre which was opened by Hewitt in 1983. The Donegall Street pub is a proud reminder of the poet, socialist and Freedman who once lived.