Saving the day – An Irishman’s Diary on Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney: wise, charming and amiable. Photograph: Pat Langan

Seamus Heaney: wise, charming and amiable. Photograph: Pat Langan

 

For all its benefits, the computer can be an irritating device, at least for those who are not “techies” or even “tech-savvy”. You’re never sure when the laptop will present you with a persistently blank screen, while you turn the air blue with expressions of frustration.

Yet when all is said and done, it’s a great improvement on the typewriter, although one does miss the excitement generated in the newsrooms of old by the clatter of those manual contraptions.

When I opened the front door, a mighty gust of wind blew up the stairs and dispatched my freshly typed pages out through the back window

At home, I had a clackety-clack Underwood machine that was inherited from my father and, on a windy day back in September 1984, I was using it to write-up an extensive interview with the poet Seamus Heaney. The central heating was too high, so I opened the window in the back-room where I was working.

Page upon page had accumulated beside the typewriter, when the bell rang downstairs. In the rush, I forgot to close the door of the study and, when I opened the front door, a mighty gust of wind blew up the stairs and dispatched my freshly typed pages out through the back window.

Ivy

They mostly lodged themselves in the ivy at the back of the house but, ever the intrepid reporter, I climbed down the drainpipe, gathering the pages of my masterpiece in the process. The day was saved.

As always with Heaney, his words were well worth preserving. Describing his approach to writing, he told me he tended to “day-dream a bit”, adding that “if you open a landing-space every day – maybe something will land”.

We were sitting in his house at the Joycean landmark of Sandymount Strand, where I noted that “the garden seemed as cheerfully neglected as his mane of greying hair”. He described himself as a “binge-writer” in the same way that some people are binge-drinkers. A seam would open up or a certain music become available and he would embark on a “bout” of writing poetry.

In addition to poetic talent, Heaney was well-known for his amiable personality. In the mid-Seventies I was in New York and attended a reading he gave at the New School for Social Research. His combination of engaging verse and personal charm captivated the audience, who would have willingly listened to him all night.

He put me in my box one day when I went too far in extolling the merits of some indigenous as distinct from international writers. It was a salutary lesson

We originally met when he tutored at University College Dublin on a Master of Arts course devoted to Anglo-Irish literature. He put me in my box one day when I went too far in extolling the merits of some indigenous as distinct from international writers. It was a salutary lesson in literary criticism.

Heritage

At the same time he was very proud of Ireland’s literary heritage and, in that 1984 interview, singled out the work of James Joyce whom he described as “a kind of intellectual Sinn Féiner”, but in the linguistic rather than political sense. Not long before, Heaney had written “An Open Letter” in verse where he took the editors of an anthology to task for listing him as a British poet.

He famously expressed a yearning to see hope and history rhyming together in the North

When we spoke, the Troubles were still raging and this was reflected in his latest volume, Station Island, which was due for publication a month after the interview. Seven years further on, “The Cure at Troy” followed, where he famously expressed a yearning to see hope and history rhyming together in the North, “on the far side of revenge”. The poet generously acceded to my request to use that phrase as the title of a book I wrote on the peace process, which was published in the year 2001.

"As always with Heaney, his words were well worth preserving. Describing his approach to writing, he told me he tended to 'day-dream a bit', adding that 'if you open a landing-space every day – maybe something will land'."

One imagines the Nobel laureate, who sadly left us in August 2013, would have been very much gratified to hear the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, Arlene Foster, quoting the same lines as she reflected on the recent passing of her erstwhile power-sharing partner, Martin McGuinness.

Bill Clinton is a great Heaney admirer and, on a visit to the White House for St Patrick’s Day celebrations some years ago, I was very struck by the penetrating analysis of the poet’s work in a speech he gave for the occasion. Clinton was in Dublin in 2006 when Heaney was taken ill with a stroke and the poet regaled me later with a description of the reaction at the hospital when the former US president paid a visit.

Heaney also derived great amusement from the humorous message of sympathy sent to him at the time by his friend and fellow-poet John Montague, who wrote: “Different strokes for different folks.”

Now they are both gone from us, two Northerners and giants of the literary scene. But their work lives on and for that we must be forever grateful.