Neil Jordan: the day I saw the generous side of Seamus Heaney
At a grand dinner many years ago, Heaney made a nice gesture in honour of my father, who had recently died
Seamus Heaney: to read the extraordinary outpouring of grief, memory and mourning is to realise his death was a unique – and a uniquely Irish – event. Photograph: Neil Drabble/Camera Press
Many years ago I was invited to a dinner in the Department of Foreign Affairs attended by Seamus Heaney, among others, and presided over by the then taoiseach, Charles Haughey.
It was an extraordinarily grand affair, managed by Haughey’s adviser for the arts, the poet Anthony Cronin, and the refinement of the food, the wines, indeed the decor of the room overlooking St Stephen’s Green made for an odd contrast with the general decrepitude and poverty of the city outside (this was the 1980s, after all).
At a certain point Haughey rose to leave, like a tribal chieftain, said his goodbyes, and intoned, as perhaps Hugh O’Donnell or Owen Roe O’Neill would have, that we must continue to enjoy his (meaning the department’s) hospitality, and if any of us felt moved to break into song, or verse, we should feel free to do so. (He did say exactly that.)
My father had recently died, and I asked Seamus Heaney did he know a favourite parlour recitation of his, a poem by Percy French, The Four Farrellys. Seamus gave that genial smile of his and moved the conversation on, and I felt a bit silly, as if I’d put my foot in it. Percy French, Phil The Fluter’s Ball, Are Ye Right There, Michael. What was I thinking, in such august company? So the evening proceeded, and the wine was drunk, and I tried to forget my faux pas, and the party was just breaking up when a voice sounded out, from the end of the table. Heaney’s, reciting Percy French:
“In a small hotel in London I was sitting down to dine,
When the waiter brought the register and asked if I would sign.
And as I signed I saw a name that set my heart astir –
A certain ‘Francis Farrelly’ had signed the register.”
It wasn’t what you could call poetry. The bare scansion, the half-worked, lazy rhyme, the sheer badness of the verse, that could have been written by Robert Service, or even found on a greeting card. Yet Heaney remembered it, and kept going. For those who don’t know, there were four Francis Farellys that could have signed “the register”, one from Leinster, one from Munster, one from Ulster, one from Connacht.
The parlour trick, of course, is for the reciter to adopt the accent of each province, so the Cork Francis speaks like Roy Keane, the Derry Francis speaks like Martin McGuinness, the Dublin one like Mannix Flynn, and when he comes to Connacht the accent softens into what Americans would call a brogue:
“Oh, if you’re that Francis Farrelly, your fortune may be small,
But I’m thinking – thinking – Francis, that I loved you best of all . . . ”
I’m not sure that Seamus did the accents, but he remembered it, the way a national schoolteacher would have (and my father was a national schoolteacher, blessed or cursed with that kind of memory).