Michael McLaverty, Seamus Heaney and the writerly bond

Sophia Hillan celebrates the friendship between Heaney and his early mentor McLaverty, a writer ‘more ruled by his temperament than his times’

“There’s a chap on the staff I’d like you to meet. He has a first class hons in English, and though that may suggest to you that he hobbles through literature on borrowed crutches, it’s not so in this case. He is creative and is endowed with taste and discernment and has read and reread passages in your book with unstinted admiration for its style and quiet power.”

The year was 1963: the writer was Michael McLaverty; the recipient was John McGahern; and the “chap” was Seamus Heaney, with whom, in the course of that school year, McLaverty formed a strong and lasting friendship. Twenty-five years after McLaverty’s death in 1992, that friendship is to be explored and celebrated on October 28th in the Seamus Heaney Homeplace at Bellaghy, close to the origins of both, for the McLavertys, like the Heaneys, came from the Toome area: the Heaneys on the Derry side, the McLavertys on the Antrim.

They met first in February 1962. McLaverty was in his late fifties, headmaster of St Thomas’s Secondary School, in Belfast’s Ballymurphy. He was also a writer, highly regarded on both sides of the Atlantic. His early work in the short story – spare, delicate tales of loss and longing, of island children, of the old and the dispossessed – had brought him in the late 1930s to the attention of Longmans Green of New York and London, and led to the publication of his first two lyrical, elegiac novels, Call My Brother Back (1939) and Lost Fields (1941).

In the 1940s, however, his close reading of Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose profound religious faith and spirit of renunciation he shared, influenced a decision to devote himself to the novel of conscience. Moreover, despite two highly acclaimed collections of short stories, The White Mare (1943), and The Game Cock (1947), he replied in 1949 to a London editor’s request for a story with the words: “I have turned my back on the short story”. Though he would publish six more novels with Macmillan in New York and Jonathan Cape in London, he would in his lifetime allow himself only seven more stories.

The young Heaney admired those stories and the early, lyrical novels. He saw in this writer of prose a gift that was poetic, “more ruled by his temperament than his times”. Already writing, tentatively signing himself “Incertus”, he was sent to St Thomas’s on teaching practice, where he made such an impression on McLaverty that he was invited to join the staff. During that winter of 1962-63, while, as he put it, McLaverty “took [him] under his wing as the literary fledging on the staff”, Heaney began to publish poems in journals and newspapers under his own name. As he famously expressed it in his poem Fosterage, from North (1975), McLaverty “…fostered me and sent me out, with words/Imposing on my tongue like obols”.

McLaverty the fosterer sent him to read his own favourites: Joyce, Chekhov, Katherine Mansfield and Tolstoy, especially The Death of Ivan Ilyich, which, as Heaney recalled, was “one of his sacred texts”. It was McLaverty who introduced him, to his delight, to Patrick Kavanagh’s A Soul for Sale, urged him to read contemporary Irish writers such as Mary Lavin and Brian Friel, and effected the introduction to McGahern, who had in the late 1950s written to McLaverty seeking, and receiving, guidance on his own early work.

When Heaney left at the end of the year to take up a lectureship he and McLaverty had, as he put it, “our own bond by then, as personal as it was writerly,” a bond that would link them all their lives. McLaverty was shortly to need the bulwark of that friendship and that faith when, not long afterwards, he entered into a lonely period in the literary wilderness.

With early retirement at the age of 60 in 1964, he was finally freed to write the novel he hoped would be his finest. Nothing could have prepared him for the critical failure of this novel, The Brightening Day, in 1965. It silenced him, until an unexpected miracle occurred, with the launch by the great David Marcus of his New Irish Writing page in the Irish Press, and a request from him to McLaverty for a short story.

Marcus may not have known about the 1949 renunciation: Seamus Heaney did. In Fosterage he remembers the Hopkins journals McLaverty gave him, “…his buckled self/ Obeisant to their pain”. It was Heaney who persuaded McLaverty to send one of the few new stories he had written, Steeplejacks, to David Marcus, who then published it in 1968 and asked for others. When in 1976 Marcus set up, with Philip McDermott, the pioneering Poolbeg Press, one of its earliest publications was The Road to the Shore, the first volume of McLaverty’s stories to appear for 20 years. That affirmation of his gift and his worth signalled the beginning of a glorious Indian summer, leading to Collected Stories (1978), with an introduction by Heaney, the republication of all eight novels, and to honours such as the American-Irish Foundation Literary Award in 1982. What was more important, it restored his faith in the writing life.

To McLaverty, in bleak times as in good, Heaney was a loyal friend, and in the poems Fosterage, Station Island and Evening at Killard, he celebrated the bond. When, in 1981, their alma mater, Queen’s University, presented McLaverty with an honorary degree, Heaney stood with him as his chosen guest; he stood again with the family at McLaverty’s funeral in 1992 and, when invited to speak at the McLaverty Centenary Colloquium in 2004, he readily agreed to do so in order, as he put it, “to please his shade”.

McLaverty’s “uncannily pure images of people and places”, he said on that occasion, placed him like Wordsworth “in harmony with all creation, brother to the hare and lark”. And yet, he concluded, “the sweet melancholy with which those same images are backlit suggest that he is saying something more disconsolate, calling out in the words of the Salve Regina, ‘to thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve,’ or in the words of Virgil, ‘Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangent.’”

How those words must have pleased his shade.
Fosterage: Michael McLaverty, Literature and Influence takes place at Seamus Heaney HomePlace on Saturday, October 28th and is preceded by an exhibition of artefacts from the Michael McLaverty collection on Saturday, October 21st. Details and tickets from seamusheaneyhome.com
Dr Sophia Hillan, former associate director of QUB's Institute of Irish Studies, is literary executor of the McLaverty Estate with the writer's daughter Maura Cregan. She is author of The Silken Twine: A Study of the Works of Michael McLaverty (Poolbeg, 1992), The Edge of Dark: A Sense of Place in the Writings of Michael McLaverty and Sam Hanna Bell (Academica Press, 2000) and editor of In Quiet Places: The Uncollected Stories, Letters and Critical Prose of Michael McLaverty (Poolbeg, 1989). She is also the author of May, Lou and Cass: Jane Austen's Nieces in Ireland (Blackstaff, 2011) and of two recent novels, The Friday Tree (Ward River, 2014) and The Way We Danced (Ward River, 2016)

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