Stewart Parker was born on 20 October 1941. He grew up in east Belfast, attending Strand Primary School, Ashfield Boys’ Secondary School, and Sullivan Upper School before matriculating at Queen’s University as a beneficiary of the Education Act. There he completed the English Honours course, wrote a master’s thesis on poetic drama, and joined Philip Hobsbaum’s original Belfast Writers’ Group. In 1961, he lost his left leg to bone cancer, an experience that solidified his determination to become a writer. After marrying Kate Ireland in August 1964, he moved to the United States, where he spent most of the next five years teaching at Hamilton College and Cornell University in upstate New York and following the cultural upheavals of the late 1960s, among them the African-American civil rights movement and protests against the Vietnam War.
Meanwhile, a civil rights movement had gotten underway in Northern Ireland, too, and Parker returned to the city of his birth in August 1969 because he believed he could never be more than an observer in the US. He arrived, coincidentally, on the heels of British troops sent to quell sectarian disturbances there. From that point on, the Troubles decisively shaped his writing agenda. Having begun publishing as a poet, Parker tried a number of genres in the late 1960s and early 1970s, including experimental prose, radio drama, educational pieces for BBC Schools Northern Ireland, and journalism.
He was best known at this time as a music critic, writing the first pop music column for the Irish Times from 1970 to 1976. In 1975, he decided to dedicate himself to drama after the success of his radio play The Iceberg, featuring the ghosts of two Belfast shipyard workers killed during the building of Titanic. His first professional stage play, Spokesong, focused on a Belfast bicycle salesman, proved the surprise hit of the 1975 Dublin Theatre Festival and inspired numerous international productions thereafter. He wrote seven additional full-length stage plays, along with many television screenplays and radio plays, winning awards in all three genres. He left Belfast for Edinburgh in 1978, eventually moving to London in 1982. His marriage ended the same year, and he embarked on a new relationship with playwright Lesley Bruce.
Although many of Parker’s stage plays were about Northern Ireland, it was not until the mid-1980s that his work started to be produced there; the original productions of Northern Star (Lyric Players Theatre, 1984) and Pentecost (Field Day Theatre Company, 1987) were highlights of his career during his life and several productions of both plays have since enjoyed considerable success, along with revivals of Spokesong,Catchpenny Twist and Heavenly Bodies. He died of stomach cancer on 2 November 1988 at the age of 47.
-Short biographical note by Dr. Marilynn Richtarik.
Stewart Parker A Life by Marilynn Richtarik was published in September 2012 by Oxford University Press.