Two boats: remembering Seamus Heaney
With my friend of 50 years I learned to write poetry, explored Ulster’s landscapes and took turns to recite new poems over balls of malt in a Dublin bar
Bellaghy boy: Seamus Heaney at his old primary school, in Co Derry, in 1996. Photograph: Bobbie Hanvey, courtesy of John J Burns Library/Boston College
Seamus Heaney and I were friends for 50 years. When he sent me and my wife a copy of Opened Ground (his Selected Poems 1966-1996) he inscribed it with these words from his poem Alphabets: “writing our names there”.
I realise that I am now one of a multitude of friends and admirers. But that inscription – from a poem that affirms the power of poetic inscription – is validated, I like to think, by the poem he contributed to my 70th-birthday Festschrift. Here he remembers the mid 1960s, and expeditions with our wives in his blue Volkswagen around Co Down. After referring to us both as “fathers and sons”, he ends:
The pair of us, grandfathers too,
More pastoral / lyrical than epical,
Inclined to scry the gloom for what might gleam
As when a seal’s head rose and streamed and shone
For four of us, walking the harbour wall
In the sealight of Ardglass.
In a way I was introducing Seamus to Co Down, drumlin country, Strangford Lough. The Peninsula is his wonderfully clear-sighted response: “. . . things founded clean on their own shapes, / Water and ground in their extremity”.
Marie and Seamus reciprocated by bringing us to their home grounds: mysterious Ardboe, on the shore of Lough Neagh, its Celtic cross, the rooky trees around Marie’s home; and the Bellaghy farm, plain and unadorned, where a great imagination was brought to life. Mossbawn: Sunlight puts me in mind of Vermeer. I have had these lines by heart since the first time I read them:
And here is love
like a tinsmith’s scoop
sunk past its gleam
in the meal-bin.
We were exploring Ulster’s landscapes and learning to write poems. Seamus, the only driver, was always ready to go. On St Patrick’s Day 1965 we climbed Slemish with a group of friends and flopped on the summit to smoke reviving cigarettes and gaze out over the Antrim plateau.
In 1968 Seamus and I again travelled around the North, joined by the folk singer Davy Hammond in a performance called Room to Rhyme. After a boozy night in Cushendall we dragged our hangovers through heather stands to the cliffs at Fair Head. Davy took off his shirt. We signed our names on it with a biro and, suicidally close to the windy edge, launched it seawards.
In his essay Cessation 1994 Seamus associates Room to Rhyme with a moment of historical hope, soon to be disappointed: “At that time, there was energy and confidence on the nationalist side and a developing liberalism – as well as the usual obstinacy and reaction – on the unionist side. There was a general upswing in intellectual and social activity, the border was more pervious than it had been, the sectarian alignments less determining. I remember in particular feeling empowered by a week on the road with David Hammond and Michael Longley in May 1968 when we brought a programme of songs and poems to schools and hotels and libraries in unionist and nationalist areas all over Northern Ireland. ”
Seamus goes on to say that the title Room to Rhyme, taken from the opening verse of a mummers’ play, “expressed perfectly the eagerness and impatience that was in the air at the time”.
Last year, at the Royal Festival Hall in London, Seamus and I took part in a collective reading in support of the Enitharmon Press. I told him I had recently been rereading his early poems. “I think they’re miracles,” I said. “They’re from Bellaghy,” he said with a chuckle. “They’d need to be miracles.”