It was very appropriate that this new portrait of Seamus Heaney by Belfast artist Colin Davidson should go on display at Queen’s University Belfast while the Nobel Laureate was being laid to rest in his native parish of Bellaghy in South Derry. Earlier in Dublin hundreds of people led by President Higgins gathered for his funeral Mass at the Church of the Sacred Heart at Donnybrook. The chief celebrant was a priest from the diocese of Derry “with a Northern accent” (which he said the poet might have liked), Monsignor Brendan Devlin from Rouskey near Gortin in County Tyrone.
Heaney had a long association with the university. In 1957 he enrolled at Queen’s, graduating with a first class honours degree in English Language and Literature in 1961. He became a lecturer in the English department at Queen’s in 1966 and was there for six years, one of which was spent as a visiting Professor at Berkeley. He was awarded an Honorary Fellowship by the QUB Institute of Irish Studies and when in February 2004 the School of English opened a new Poetry Centre, it was named after him. It houses the Heaney Media Archive. A book of condolences has been opened at the Welcome Centre, Lanyon building at Queen’s and there is also one at Belfast City Hall, at the Guildhall in Derry and at the Mansion House in Dublin.
The portrait was on display at the Lyric theatre in Belfast on Saturday night. A full house attended a special commemoration put together at short notice by theatre trustee Stuart Douds. It included a rendition of Port na bPúcaí, a tune that inspired Heaney to write The Given Note, by cellist Neil Martin, who also played at the poet’s funeral. There were readings by some of his fellow poets and friends. Robert McMillen who I met before the commemoration gave this summary of the participants:-
“Stella McCusker read from Heaney’s speech at the Lyric in April 2012; Michael Longley… (who read with Heaney at the Merriman summer school a fortnight ago) shared some anecdotes and read a poem called Boat (about his and Seamus’s mortality) as well as two poems by Heaney himself. Belfast poet laureate Sinead Morrissey fought successfully to hold back the tears as she read Tollund Man, a poem she taught students in Schleswig-Holstein (a province in Germany near the border with Denmark). She was less successful later as the stage lights caught the tears in her eyes and her trembling hands. Damian Gorman read the poem Postscript and one of his own, After the Poet about Victor Jara but which was apt too for the night that was in it.”
I notice that Damian has published the poem on his facebook page:
AFTER THE POET
A bird can sing
With broken wings, or none at all.
All that it needs
Is a full throat, and a hearing.
All it needs
Is not to be too afraid
All that it needs
Is to be – or have been –
Copyright: © Damian Gorman (For HP, Zenica, August 2013)
Robert goes on to described how “Eamon Hughes gave an academic but very personal account of Heaney, man and work, while Frank Ormsby read the heart-rending poem about Sean Armstrong who was murdered during the troubles, A Postcard from North Antrim. Glenn Patterson read from his new book before Neil Martin returned to play a tune…..called The Parting of Friends. It was left to Mark Carruthers to thank the people who had given so generously of their time to partake in this tribute to Seamus Heaney before Ian McIlhinney read probably the Bellaghy man’s most quoted poem, The Cure at Troy”.
Belfast Lord Mayor, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, dropped in to read a song/poem in Irish, An Chéad Mháirt de Fhómhar which beautifully captures the sorrow and anger at the loss of a loved one. Arts Council of Northern Ireland Chair Bob Collins who was Director General of RTÉ when I worked there), gave a wonderful eulogy in which he spoke of how Heaney had a great understanding of broadcasting as a public service. He has allowed me to reprint this tribute:
HEANEY CELEBRATION Lyric Theatre
“When in 1995, I first read Seamus Heaney’s Nobel acceptance speech, Crediting Poetry, I was transported back more than forty years to the aerial wire coming through a hole bored in the frame of our kitchen window by his recollection of listening to the wireless as a child in the 1940s. But I was also dramatically struck by the relevance of his words to the work I was doing at that time in broadcasting in RTÉ where I spent thirty years of my life. When he said:
“I had to get close to the actual radio set in order to concentrate my hearing and in that intent proximity to the dial I grew familiar with the names of foreign stations … I also got used to hearing the short bursts of foreign languages as the dial hand swept round from BBC to Radio Éireann, from the intonations of London to those of Dublin and even though I did not understand what was being said in those first encounters with the gutturals and sibilants of European speech, I had already begun a journey into the wideness of the world.”
With those words, he encapsulated much of the possibility and the responsibility of broadcasting as a public good, as public service. I thanked him for it and quoted him often. Perhaps it was that intuitive understanding that prompted him to give so much of himself to BBC and to RTÉ. His contributions have enriched the schedules and the archives of both, for this and, now, for all future generations. But they were a powerful way for him to play a role as a public person, as a thinker who posed challenges for all who had ears to hear.
Recalling his own childhood – and by extension all our childhoods – he spoke of being “schooled for the complexities of his adult predicament, a future where he would have to adjudicate among promptings variously ethical, aesthetical, moral, political, metrical, sceptical, cultural, topical, typical, post-colonial and, taken all together, simply impossible.”
Part of his calling, his choice, was to be a source of assistance to all of us in those adjudications. He knew the risks of that public role and expressed them. Writing in 1974, he said that “the idea of poetry as an art is in danger of being overshadowed by a quest for poetry as a diagram of political attitudes.” And in his Nobel speech, he spoke of “having to conduct oneself as a poet in a situation of political violence and public expectation. A public expectation, it has to be said, not of poetry as such but of political positions variously approvable by mutually disapproving groups.”
For him, it was simple. “The poet“, he said, “is on the side of undeceiving the world. It means being vigilant in the public realm.”
And he never ceased from lifting deception from the world. He spoke with clarity and rigour. He became a measure, a yardstick, an index of what was good. A moral force. And in the process, he became a spokesman for the entire society, his poetry the voice of the entire community. John Henry Newman said that writers were the “spokesmen and prophets of the human family.” Seamus Heaney discharged that duty to the full. In From the Republic of Conscience, he challenged “public leaders to weep to atone for their presumption to hold office.” Public leaders mind you, not just political leaders but all who wished to hold public positions. After the ceasefire and before the Belfast Agreement he wrote that “violence was destructive of the trust upon which new possibilities would have to be built.” How right and how farsighted he was.
He also said something in ‘Government of the Tongue’ that we might well reflect on in these times in both jurisdictions on the island when he wrote of poetry that “it does not propose to be instrumental or effective. Instead, in the rift between what’s going to happen and what we would wish to happen, poetry holds attention for a space, functions not as a distraction, but as pure concentration, a focus where our power of concentration is concentrated back on ourselves.” It has resonance for our consideration of all the arts.
Last night there was a clip of an interview with Seamus in an RTÉ bulletin. In it he said “If poetry and the arts do anything they can fortify your inner life – your inwardness. Listening together and knowing things together – which is what a culture is. If you know things together that you value, that is a kind of immunity system against things.” This wisdom in an interview conducted quickly on the fringes of a public event.
It is difficult to put into words and to convey fully how intimately his person and his poetry had become bound up with the life of the people, especially, I think and in my experience, in the Republic. How deeply he had become embedded in the affection of the people and in the life of the society – as no artist I can think of has ever quite achieved before. He had an extraordinary place in the public realm. But that place in the public realm, his presence at state and solemn occasions was not as a symbol of state or as part of state but as a reminder to state of the importance of values, of the challenge of office, of the meaning of society, of the responsibility of leadership to the people, of the place of conscience. Through his life and through his poetry he spoke to the people. And the people listened.
He was intuitively trusted; his integrity appreciated; his directness reciprocated; his dignity sublime.
Two weeks ago, last night, I was in Lisdoonvarna, at the Merriman summer school at which he and Michael Longley gave a public reading. It was an unbelievable experience, powerfully moving and indelibly impressive. The intimacy of the relationship with the capacity audience and their appreciation of the work of both poets will remain forever in the memory. These were two poets who had done much to give poetry back to the people. This was Seamus Heaney being the voice of the community within the community. I had the particular pleasure of being next to them both at dinner before the reading and, with our spouses – Marie, Edna and Mary, in the small bar of Sheedy’s hotel afterwards for nightcap, story, reflection, friendship and fun. It was a delight. More than that, it was a blessing.
Like his life, a blessing whose cup of bounty will flow all the days of our lives”.
Bob Collins 31/08/13
Apt homage to a great man.