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Voyage into Heaney country at HomePlace, Northern Ireland’s latest cultural magnet

Seamus Heaney HomePlace, the new museum dedicated to the Nobel-Prize winning poet in Co Derry, reveals a landscape imbued with meaning

 

Seamus Heaney’s life and work towers over Irish society, both on the island of Ireland and through the diaspora. His presence as a literary icon has imbued him to the senses of readers all over the world and the period of Heaney’s blossoming as an artist has left an indelible impact on the world of literature.

The author of an incredible body of work, that incorporates Death of a Naturalist, Wintering Out, North, Station Island and Seeing Things, rightly led to his highest honour, when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995. And with that most noble of awards the former English lecturer at Queen’s University was propelled to superstardom, becoming the rock star of modern poetry. A man the likes of Bono, Stephen Fry and Bill Clinton call their favourite master of that medium.

That level of fame took his writing into the minds of so many who may not have previously been familiar with his work, or indeed may not have been avid poetry readers. He spawned a whole fan base, affectionately called Heaneyboppers, who would queue for hours for tickets to see the man read live.

A place to capture and be captivated by Heaney’s work

Heaney died in 2013 and very quickly thoughts turned to how to preserve his memory.  And so in September 2016 Seamus Heaney HomePlace opened. Located in Bellaghy, Co Derry, one of two of Heaney’s childhood homes – the other is just down the road in Castledawson – HomePlace is a truly fitting tribute to the master.

Housed in a Scandinavian-style building at the end of the main road of Bellaghy, the museum’s spacious entryway leads the visitor through a series of beautifully conceived written, photographic and video exhibits that detail the timeline and history of Heaney’s meteoric rise from small-town boy to world-famous artist.

Each month a leading theatre company or director is invited to respond to one of Heaney’s poetry collections

The first floor compliments this introduction with a section dedicated to Heaney’s influences, including another of the great masters, Ernest Hemingway, and is embellished by a reconstruction of his home studio in Sandymount, Dublin, where he lived from 1976. Furthermore, there is a creative zone where visitors are invited to write and draw their own creations or ideas, inspired by Heaney’s work. This is all in turn complimented by the Helicon Theatre, where each month a leading theatre company or director is invited to respond to one of Heaney’s poetry collections through music, visuals, lighting and performance.

Travelling through the world that inspired Heaney

Visiting HomePlace, however, is just part of the journey into Heaney country. To get a true feel for this part of the world in County Derry you need to get out into the farm and rural lands that surround Bellaghy and the HomePlace to see the landscapes and vistas that inspired Heaney’s life and works; one man who can help you do this is called Eugene Kielt.

Kielt is the owner, along with his wife Geraldine, of the Laurel Villa Townhouse in Magherafelt – a ten-minute drive from Bellaghy.

Kielt is a Heaney expert, who has spent the last 21 years of his life specialising in helping others voyage into the heart of Heaney country to discover new meaning and understanding of the poet’s work through immersion. Kielt brings individuals, small groups and coach tours on a journey through mid-Ulster to the various sites where Heaney lived and experienced life.

The tour also takes in the Old Market Yard in Magherafelt, where Willie John Hutchinson sold rope, which inspired the poem Seeing Things XVIII. Tours then leave Magherafelt and absorb his birthplace at Mossbawn farmhouse; the Gaelic football ground where his uncle played for Derry’s inter-county team; the soccer pitch that inspired The Old Team; and the hill where The Railway Children is set. And of course visitors can take in Heaney’s grave and also the graves of his parents and brother Christopher, whose death inspired perhaps Heaney’s most well-known work Mid-Term Break. Tours can last hours or days, depending on how deeply fans want to delve into the history of Heaney’s life.

Kielt’s guesthouse, Laurel Villa, also plays its part in the Heaney experience. The beautiful Victorian villa is a boutique-style hotel that offers regular poetry readings, and Heaney himself read there in the past, while the house itself is a treasure trove of poetry books and art spread throughout the building. The dining room is a shrine to Heaney, with framed reproductions of his poetry adorning the dining room walls, the very same room that Heaney performed in.

A stairwell in Laurel Villa Townhouse in Magherafelt.
A stairwell in Laurel Villa Townhouse in Magherafelt.

Between the HomePlace and Kielt’s tours you have the opportunity to absorb Heaney like never before.

When he was awarded the Noble Prize, like William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw and Samuel Beckett before him, Heaney said: “It's like being a little foothill at the bottom of a mountain range. You hope you just live up to it. It's extraordinary.”

The lands around Heaney country are mostly flat and rolling, their mountain range is Heaney’s memory, which towers over the area and can be witnessed in the way that everyone there has a story to tell about their memories of the poet. To go there and hear his people tell the story of their great man is a very special experience indeed.


GETTING THERE AND STAYING THERE

Opening hours: Seamus Heaney HomePlace, located in Bellaghy, Co Derry, is open from 10am to 5pm, Monday to Saturday, and 1pm to 5pm on Sunday.  Entry is £7 for adults, £4.50 for children eight and over, and free for children under eight. There is a coffee shop and parking on-site. See seamusheaneyhome.com for full details.

Where to stay: The four-star Laurel Villa Guest House is the No 1 accommodation destination for Heaney fans. Owner and Heaney expert Eugene Kielt lives and breathes the poet’s life and as a result the guesthouse has become a mecca for Heaney fans when visiting the town. Rates are from £42.50 to £65, including breakfast. See laurel-villa.com for more.

Also nearby is the award-winning four-star country house Ardtara, set in eight acres of woodland. See ardtara.com for more.

Where to eat: Located in the centre of Magherafelt town, Church Street Restaurant serves Irish-French fusion dishes inspired by local products. The seafood and lamb are both excellent and the service is friendly and efficient. See churchstreetrestaurant.co.uk

There are lots of other great dining options in the area too, including the award-winning Browns restaurant at Ardtara Houses. See brownsrestaurant.com for more.

The café at Seamus Heaney Homeplace operates during normal opening hours also.

Getting there: Seamus Heaney HomePlace is situated in the centre of Bellaghy Village in Co Derry, approximately two miles off the main Belfast to Derry Road (A6) which links the two cities.

It’s approximately a 45-min drive from Belfast, a similar 45-minutes from Derry and around three hours from Dublin. Full travel details can be found here


For lots more events and places to visit in Northern Ireland visit www.discovernorthernireland.com