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).
And the reason it comes to mind now is that I was sitting in a restaurant north of Barcelona and asked the company of Catalans, did they – or God forbid, Spain – have a national poet who would be mourned in a similar manner. They couldn’t think of an equivalent. Even the question seemed to puzzle them.
To read, on the internet, the extraordinary outpouring of grief, memory and mourning, from our President Michael D Higgins, from Bill Clinton, Colum McCann, Bono, Liam Neeson, Colm Tóibín, Paul Muldoon, is to realise the death of Seamus Heaney was a unique, and a uniquely Irish event.
An entire country seemed to be patiently waiting in line, to share their memories of the man, his habits, his courtesy, and, of course, his poetry. Did the death of Mandelstam have the same effect in Russia? Of Václav Havel, in the Czech Republic?
Tennyson’s passing sent an entire nation into mourning, as did Pushkin’s. But that was when poetry was part of a national discourse, and when the idea of a poet defining the soul of a people didn’t seem ridiculous.
So what was it about Heaney that struck that chord? And what is it about Ireland, with all of its institutional failures, its troubles, its tribalism, its provincialism, that is decent, even gracious enough to be so moved? The economy collapses, the peace process stutters to a grinding slow march, but when Seamus Heaney dies, people are reminded of something that is uniquely theirs, and that they have always felt was theirs.
But what is that thing? It can hardly be a language, since, as Stephen Dedalus says, the language isn’t ours: a funnel is called a tundish in Lower Drumcondra. It can’t be anything as simple as a commonality of culture. He was born in rural Derry, and is now buried there.
But I remember an essay he wrote, or maybe an interview, where he described applying for his first, maybe southern, passport. When asked to fill in his occupation, he, who had recently quit school teaching, wrote a word that blind Antoine Ó Raifteirí would have recognised: File. As in filíocht.
Which is why, perhaps, he remembered every word of that Percy French ballad. And why the fact that he remembered it left me so astonished and so moved.
This article is republished from the new issue of Poetry Ireland Review, which includes a tribute section in memory of Heaney with contributions from Eavan Boland, Paula Meehan, Michael Longley, Thomas McCarthy and Paul Muldoon, whose funeral oration is printed in full