The Home Place: The Mud Vision - Seamus Heaney
What does it mean to be Irish, or to be attached to Ireland? The Irish Hospice Foundation asked Seamus Heaney, Colum McCann, Moya Doherty and Chris Hadfield, among a host of others, to contribute to its new book, ‘The Gathering: Reflections on Ireland’
Semi-religious: part of Richard Long’s mud-hand circle from Rosc 1984
The Mud Vision is a poem embedded in memories of life in an older Ireland, but it also gestures towards an Ireland that is still coming into being. It has its origins in certain incidents in my personal past and has its meaning in intimations of what seems to be happening in the national psyche, at present and for the future.
The poem is a dramatic monologue, spoken by a member of a community that has the trappings of modernity but not the spirit of it. Then all of a sudden the people are visited by an apparition in the sky, something that looks like a great wheel of spinning, airborne mud. This vision speaks to something deep in the people’s make-up and attains a kind of religious aura for them, so as long as it is in evidence they experience a unique moment of self-belief, a kind of reawakening. Then the mud vision disappears and the people are back in a secular, workaday world.
Two experiences from my teenage years get worked into the story obliquely. Fundamental to the whole conception is the memory of the countryside in mid-Ulster in the 1950s – or the Catholic part of it at any rate – being brought alive by reports that the Virgin Mary had appeared to a woman in Ardboe in Co Tyrone, on the shores of Lough Neagh. For a whole summer the byroads around the place and the back garden of the woman’s house were crowded with people excited by the prospect of the apparition happening again. Busloads came from as far away as Cork, young women entered convents, vendors of religious objects set up on the roadside. There was a surge of excitement, a big emotional wave and at the same time an opposite but not equal scepticism – an attitude approved by the clergy.
The second experience happened earlier. During a local dramatic society’s production of a play that told the story of another apparition of the Virgin, this time to the three children at Fatima, a lighting effect occurred that was sudden, brilliant and unforgettable. Melodramatic too, representing the sun changing colour, as it was supposed to have changed at Fatima.
In the fiction of the poem, the person who speaks belongs to a community like those around Ardboe and Fatima: religious, rural, superstitious, bewildered by the strangeness of their vision but, at the deepest level, at home with it. And yet the world that surrounds them is out of sympathy with all that: the people on the ground regard the secular commentary on what they have been through as “jabber”.
You could say they are people in whom the battle for the modern Irish soul is being fought. To quote something I once wrote about them in another context: “They have been sprung from the world of the awestruck gaze, where there was belief in miracle, the sun standing still and the sun changing colour . . . They have entered the world of media-speak and post-modernity. They’ve been displaced from a culture not unlike that of de Valera’s Ireland – frugal, nativist and inward looking, but still tuned to a supernatural dimension; and they find themselves in a universe that is global, desacralised, consumerist . . .”
But what about the mud, you might ask. The vision is a semireligious one, its shape like that of a rose window in a cathedral, and this was the shape that the artist Richard Long created on a wall of the Guinness Hop Store during the Rosc exhibition in 1984. Long dipped his hand in mud hundreds if not thousands of times to make a flower face of mudprints, and, in the free-ranging way of the imagination, my memory of it surfaced and coalesced with those other earlier occasions of wonder.
The poem ends with an intimation that there has been a loss of faith – not necessarily religious faith, more the people’s faith in themselves. Disappointment is general. Heretofore they had belief and a unique revelation; now they are left with the trappings of modernity in a world they understand but are no longer at home with. Alienated from what has been brought upon them, they “crowd in for the big explanations”, rather like the Irish population in the wake of the Celtic Tiger, listening, bewildered, to experts. Economists. Regulators. Apologisers. Apologists.
Seamus Heaney, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995, died last month