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John Wilson Foster was born in Belfast within sight of the gantries and cranes of the Belfast shipyard that built TitanicOlympicBritannicSouthern CrossCanberra and other great ships in the first half of the twentieth century. He was educated at Annadale Grammar School and won a scholarship to Queen's University where he read English and philosophy for his B.A. and for his M.A. studied aesthetics under the philosopher W.B. Gallie and the poet and critic Philip Hobsbaum.

He was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to the University of Oregon where he completed his Ph.D. in Irish literature. From 1974 until 2002 he was Professor of English at the University of British Columbia of which he is now professor emeritus. In 2001 he was National University of Ireland Professor at Maynooth.  After early retirement he was a Leverhulme visiting professor to the U.K., visiting professor at the University of Toronto, and visiting fellow at the National University of Ireland, Galway.  

In 2008 returned to his native Northern Ireland where he is now a freelance writer and honorary research fellow at his alma mater, Queen's University Belfast, and a freelance writer living in Portaferry, Co. Down.