A friend who realised his destiny in full
A gift and the fulfilment of its promise is a rare thing, but Seamus Heaney achieved it
Destiny is to some degree bound up with geography, at least for poets of Northern rural background like Seamus and myself. I grew up in the rough hinterland of Tyrone, at the edge of the Clogher Valley. My literary imagination was influenced by the ghost of William Carleton, and I attended the junior seminary at Armagh in wartime, whereas Seamus lived along the Bann with its eel fisheries, and went to school at St Columb’s, alongside Brian Friel, John Hume, Seamus Deane and Phil Coulter. (It has been suggested that they put something in the water at St Columb’s, to produce such formidable Irishmen.) My part of Tyrone was smouldering, while Seamus’s part of Derry was fairly placid, and this I suppose accounts for some of the differences in our verse, those 19th-century categories like “Fenian” or “AOH”.
But when I first met Seamus, he gave me a book on the ’98 Rebellion, which had inspired his Requiem for the Croppies, whereas I was back with the O’Neills, and a family legend that one of my ancestors had offered hospitality to the soon-to-be deposed James Stuart on his way to the Siege of Derry. From such frail conduits can poetry spring, but there was also the next football match.
Yet soon history would bear hard on us, from Bloody Sunday to the Omagh bombing, but before all that there was an all-too-brief period of bliss in Belfast, when Michael Emmerson’s Belfast Festival was up and running. It was there I first heard the lyric triumvirate of Heaney, Derek Mahon and Michael Longley, later joined by Jimmy Simmons. Seán Ó Riada was named composer of the year, enchanting all with his double gift of classical and Irish music.
This was the rollicking background of the early Heaney, although his titles were sombre: Death of a Naturalist (1966) and Door into the Dark (1969). He and Marie, his wife, had found a fine house near Lavery’s in Ashley Avenue, not far from the university at which he had begun to lecture. But before long the atmosphere in the North would darken. Seamus remains haunted, in his last book, by a terrible thing that happened on his own street, and he continues to wonder: “And what in the end was there left to bury / Of Mr Lavery, blown up in his own pub / As he bore the primed device and bears it still . . .”
At the time, Seamus agonised over that incident in a poem, of which he sent me several revisions, with the crucial line “We petrify or uproot now.”
And so they came south, where they created islands of graciousness in Dublin and Wicklow, and where Seamus refined and burnished his poetic gift. As I wrote of him in the Dublin Literary Review, “Like Hopkins, he is a mystic of the ordinary, which he renders extraordinary.” The microscopic intensity of his gaze, coupled with the magnanimity of his vision, created poems of singular power. And people will miss the warm, friendly voice with which he read them.
Not long ago, after Iraq, after Afghanistan, Seamus remarked to me in a letter that the world had turned into “a big Ulster”. So our own legacy of conflict and woe had spread across the globe. Yet one hopes the poet speaks to the conscience of peoples, speaks a truth that can heal, and redeem.