On home ground

An Irishwoman’s Diary: A Derry festival becomes a Heaney tribute

‘In his programme note, Seamus Heaney had described the On Home Ground Poetry Festival as “an act of faith in the art of poetry” and acknowledged the familial quality.’ Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

‘In his programme note, Seamus Heaney had described the On Home Ground Poetry Festival as “an act of faith in the art of poetry” and acknowledged the familial quality.’ Photograph: Matt Kavanagh


It had not gone to plan. The On Home Ground Poetry Festival held at Magherafelt, Co Derry last weekend, was to be opened by Seamus Heaney, the festival’s patron. It would have been yet another remarkable occasion created by a poet with a genius for language. “Important Places: A Reading with Commentary” was his intended address.

South Derry remained the poet’s spiritual home and inspiration. Mossbawn, the family farm, was the cradle of his art, the centre of his world, its omphalos as he described it. He had been born there, in the townland of Tamniaran, near Castledawson, just down the road from Magherafelt, the market town in which the poet’s mother did her shopping. This is Heaney country, that small store, this lane, that tree, Broad Street where a car bomb blast would destroy the bus station, making the poet recall that years earlier his mother had met him on his return from school in Derry; that glimpse of an island on the lake. In his poems, places have been immortalised, as was his friend Sean Browne, murdered by the loyalist paramilitaries who had abducted him from the local GAA club ground.

In his programme note Seamus Heaney had described the On Home Ground Poetry Festival as “an act of faith in the art of poetry” and acknowledged the familial quality. “Different generations, different styles, but an at homeness among them all, poets, painters and prose writers. And nobody feels more at home than myself.” The tragic loss of a man loved as intensely as his work is, and will continue to be, caused the organisers, Eugene and Geraldine Kielt, to instead plan a tribute, with poets reading from Heaney’s poems.

On the approach to the large marquee was a poster of the cover of Stepping Stones (2008), Dennis O’Driscoll’s inspired record of Heaney’s responses to intrepidly asked and intuitive questions. It will now endure as the autobiography he never did write. The portrait photograph may well be one of the finest ever taken of Heaney and it had been enlarged to the size of a window, gazing down at the local people, arriving to hear their friend’s beautiful words, spoken by others. Anyone reading a Heaney poem aloud is well aware of how very audacious an act it seems, attempting to read work written by a poet whose speaking voice was so musical, so true to his place and to his art, a unique pairing.

It seemed the right time for me to mention singer/songwriter Paul Simon’s tribute which was published in the New York Times. In it he mentioned being in the audience in the Abbey Theatre in Dublin on June 9th, 1991 as Heaney read from Seeing Things: “and it was a rare opportunity for me”, wrote Simon, “to hear the sound of his words spoken with their true accent”. He commented on the music of Heaney’s writing.

And it is there in the wonderful rhythms of it; in the poetry, the prose writings and even in his literary criticism; Heaney the artist, Heaney the astute reader. Poet Nick Laird, a native of Cookstown, Co Tyrone, read The Sounds of Rain in memoriam Richard Ellmann (from Seeing Things). “An all-night drubbing overflow on boards/On the veranda . . . and then came to/To dripping eaves and light, saying into myself/Proven, weightless sayings of the dead./Things like He’ll be missed . . .” No truer words.

Frank Ormsby read Clearances III from The Haw Lantern, Heaney’s loving memorial to his mother and his privileged position as the first-born. Damian Smyth praised Heaney’s generous support of the Northern Ireland Arts Council and gave a moving reading of Requiem for the Croppies, from Door into the Dark.

Continuous video footage of Heaney showed him as a young man sporting wild sideburns and then as his middle-aged self, with singular white hair and kindly smile, to his more recent self, wise, weary. His presence was there in the faces of his brothers Hugh and Dan and his cousins – sisters Biddy and Pat, quick-witted and friendly. On Saturday evening poet Michael Longley lamenting his friend’s untimely death, echoed the words of Heaney’s brothers, “It’s not fair, it’s not fair” and read The Harvest Bow (from Field Work) a poem inspired by Heaney’s father and also a profound statement on the nature of art.

A few hours later, on a clear night in the churchyard at Bellaghy, the poet’s grave, beneath the spreading branches of a sycamore tree and a neighbouring ash, seems peaceful. Nearby is the family plot with all its history of lives shared and lived. A man appears in the shadows. He is from New York and loves Heaney’s poetry. Even the silence can’t mask the sound of passing traffic. Here lies a world famous poet, a much- loved ordinary local man.

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