It must have been 1973 or 1974 when I was a student training to be a teacher and studying English literature, that one of our tutors Eddie Wainwright brought to Bristol a poet who at the time was highly regarded, but only later became appreciated for his unique genius. I suppose that none of us present that day, not even Eddie Wainwright, himself a well-respected poet, could have imagined that we were in the company of a man who years later would win the Nobel Prize for Literature. This was just a few years after the acclaimed anthology, Death of a Naturalist had been published and before us stood Seamus Heaney, slightly tousled and sparkling eyed from Derry in Northern Ireland.
From the moment he began to read I was transfixed. His words, delivered softly with a lyrical brogue drifted like musical notation across the room. Between reciting his poems he told us of his inspirations growing up on a farm in Northern Ireland, a hard existence on land shaped by his father, who was clearly held in great affection. Heaney has written of his father’s labours, toiling with a spade, and of the choice that he made for his own living, to substitute the spade with a pen. There are such juxtapositions in much of his work.
I am recalling this now, because a couple of days ago I arrived in Dublin airport on the day that a memorial tapestry titled “Out of the Marvellous” designed by the Czech artist Peter Sis, celebrating the life of Heaney was to be unveiled by his friend, the American singer songwriter Paul Simon. On the same evening there was a memorial event at the National Concert Hall where Paul Simon performed some of Seamus Heaney’s poetry set to music, and readings were given by a number of Irelands leading poets. These included Michael D Higgins, the President of Ireland who is also highly regarded as a poet. (I wonder if the world would be a better place if all leaders were poets?) Sadly I wasn’t expecting to be in Dublin and tickets for the event were sold out almost as soon as they were issued and long before I arrived.
The day after the unveiling of the tapestry and the event at the National Concert Hall the Irish national newspapers gave several pages of celebratory coverage to the memory of Seamus Heaney who died last year. I found myself wondering whether, had he been an English poet he would have receive such tributes in my own country? It is not so long ago that the English playwright and also a Nobel Prize winner, Harold Pinter died, an occasion announced with a somewhat muted response in much of the English media.
Ireland has always lauded its writers and held them in an esteem apparently reserved for footballers and film stars in many other parts of Europe. We live in an age of “celebrity” rather than accomplishment. There is, of course, a fine history of literature in Ireland – Jonathan Swift, Samuel Beckett, Patrick Kavanagh, Lady Gregory, Sean O’Casey, Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, George Bernard Shaw, W.B. Yeats, Edna O’Brien and of course the finest of them all (in my humble opinion) James Joyce, are just a few of the great writers to hail from this relatively small Island.
The arts continue to be valued here and within the arts it would seem the written word above others. The pride a nation takes in its artists and authors is evident in schools as much as in the theatres and concert halls of Dublin and other Irish cities. The next generation of Irish children are growing up surrounded by the acclamation of creative genius. This must bode well for the development of Ireland’s future artists.
Of the poems read by Seamus Heaney when he came to visit us in Bristol that day forty or so years ago, I remember in particular one that evoked some of my own happy memories of childhood and post it here for you to enjoy.
Personal Helicon (from Death of a Naturalist 1966)
I loved the fork of a beech tree
At the head of our lane,
The close thicket of a boxwood hedge at the front,
The soft, collapsing pile of hay
In a back corner of the byre.
But especially, I spent time in the throat
Of an old willow tree
At the end of the farmyard,
A hollow tree, with gnarled, spreading roots,
A soft, perishing bark
And a pithy inside.
Its mouth was like
The fat and solid opening
In a horse’s collar,
And once you squeezed in through it,
You were at the heart
Of a different life.
Above your head,
The living tree flourished
You shouldered the slightly vibrant bole,
And you put your forehead
To the rough pith
You felt the whole lithe
And whispering crown
Of willow moving
In the sky above you.