Seamus Heaney: ‘If I described myself as an Ulsterman I’d have thought I was selling a bit of my birthright’

In one of his last interviews, the Nobel Prize winning poet spoke to the BBC’s Mark Carruthers for his book, Alternative Ulsters, Conversations on Identity

Seamus Heaney was born in rural Co Derry in 1939. He attended St Columb's College in Derry and went to Queen's University Belfast to study English in 1957. In 1966 Faber & Faber published his first volume of poetry, Death of a Naturalist, to considerable critical acclaim. He published 13 volumes of original poetry alongside many translations, plays and critical essays. A Nobel laureate and Professor of Poetry at both Oxford and Harvard, he was regarded as one of the finest English language poets of his generation and the most important Irish poet since Yeats. He personally prized the critic Karl Miller's description of him as "a poet to be grateful for". His sudden death on August 30th, 2013 bore that out, prompting a great sense of loss and appreciation locally, nationally and internationally. We met over lunch in his Dublin home.

Seamus Heaney: For a long time the name Ulster was used by people of a unionist persuasion as a kind of signal that for them, Ulster was British. Ulster in that case stood not so much for the six counties bounded by the border, but for a Northern Ireland affiliated to the UK. l remember, for example, Joseph Tomelty's ironical parting shot to me when I'd be leaving his company, was always 'And don't forget you're British!' So nationalists had a standoff from that usage. At that time, if I described myself as an Ulsterman I'd have thought I was selling a bit of my birthright because I'd be subscribing to the 'Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right' tradition, and that was a different Ulster from the one that I was in, which was basically SDLP before the SDLP were invented – a nationalist, apolitical background, but with a kind of northern nationalism, I'd probably have said, rather than Ulster identity.

Mark Carruthers: Did you feel that even pre-Troubles? Obviously as you grew older the word Ulster came to be used in a very political sense, but even as a younger man did it still have that connotation for you?

When I was in my teens there was a strong sense of the divide in our community, but there was also in my own case and in my family’s case, and in the milieu I was in around home in Co Derry, a very easy and well-maintained relationship and friendships between, as they say, both sides of the house – farmers and so on. There was a lot of standoff from Stormont to put it mildly, but at a micro-local level everything was fine and continued to be so, despite a lot of things, with our own neighbour friends around there.


And was that very important for you – that sense of good neighbourliness in rural Ulster in the ’50s and early ’60s?

Well that was the life I knew there and I wrote about it. I wasn’t at the time, I suppose, thinking about Ulster identity. In fact even though I declared my passport was green on one famous occasion, I had a British passport for the first while in my life and that is typical of the bind and the contradictions. I was going to Lourdes on a pilgrimage and I was getting a British passport – not that that should matter. I remember Ben Kiely saying that if you were living in the Republic of Ireland you didn’t need a passport to go to Lourdes because it was part of the jurisdiction!

I was intrigued when I read that you had a British passport before you had an Irish passport. Do you think the notion of your northern-ness was awakened when you left the North?

I don’t think so, no.

It was already there.

Yes. I remember in particular in the Irish class that we had in Derry at school in St Columb’s picking out the Northern writers – Peadar Ó Doirnín, Cathal Buí Mac Giolla Gunna, Art Mac Cumhaigh – and hearing a different note, I thought, in them. Maybe it was only because I knew the actual Irish language better, but the sense of a Northern Irish identity was certainly there, as was the sense then of being a subject within a different North, one with a very different ethos. If I say subject, I am overstating it, I’m just using a technical term.

So if you were aware then as a young boy of your Irishness and your identity through your family, through your church, through your . . .

Gaelic football.

Through football – were you also aware that there was another identity, another community, living cheek by jowl who were different, but also there and part of the bigger community?

Oh yeah. Well there were of course the arches around the Twelfth which reminded you, around Castledawson, that there was a different community with different flags and emblems, as they say. All that was there, of course – but I should say that my family were kind of dormant in political terms.

My mother was more alive to the overall political situation than my father. My father was brought up really by uncles – his mother and father died when they were quite young – and these were old bachelor guys and I think they lived in the world of the late 19th century. And he went backwards and forwards to England with cattle and so on, so I think he was indifferent to politics, but he was at ease. It wasn’t an interest of his and so, for example, 1916 which was taken to mean so much, had very little purchase for me. I knew about it as a famous date, but to go back to Northern things, 1798 [the year of the United Irishmen’s failed rebellion against British rule in Ireland] had much more sense of legend, drama, in placeness about it. l know that too much is probably made of that golden moment, but the memory of it was in the air as an imagining of a shared Ulster identity.

And that was a time when Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter were together on that issue and when Ulstermen were very much at the forefront.

That’s right, and David Hammond used to sing the Henry Joy song – ‘An Ulsterman I’m proud to be . . . ‘ – so all that was there. The idea of an enlightenment Belfast was with me early on. And also in the folk life that I was part of, things like ‘The man from God knows where . . . ‘, that recitation about Thomas Russell coming up North, things like that were imbibed and imbued. And there were nights at home when elders gathered around Easter time, when there would be a party with songs and recitations and music – not party tunes, just tunes for a party.

Did the onset of the Troubles in the late ’60s change your view of what you needed to be doing as a poet? Did your poetry knowingly shift from the rural, observational poetry to a more political commentary?

On the whole I didn't know how to handle the response, how to maintain a fidelity, if you like, to my own mythos – and at the same time to envisage a society where ethnic groups, religious groups, political groups would find a way of living a civic life. Actually, in 1972, which was four years after the Troubles started, a book came out called Wintering Out, and there is a poem there which looks back to the 1780s and '90s and it says 'take a last turn in reasonable light'. So the Troubles politicised me to the extent that when on the Wednesday after the turmoil started on the 5th of October 1968 with the baton charge in Derry, there was a big march of students at Queen's University where I was a young lecturer, I joined the march – which was a very unusual thing for me to do. We marched down towards Linenhall Street and the RUC had a barrier of themselves across the street and the Reverend Ian [PAISLEY]was in Donegall Square with supporters. So the police were kind of blocking or separating the two sides, I suppose, and I remember a couple of people wanting to run the barriers or crash the barriers – Bernadette [DEVLIN]and, I think, Michael Farrell and a couple of other people – but this young lecturer went up and said, 'Calm down'. I was being as mollifying as I could be. Eventually then they turned back and went to the Students' Union and that was the night that People's Democracy was formed. The next Saturday I went to Derry and there was a meeting there in the Guildhall Square and I wrote something for the BBC's The Listener called Derry's Walls and that was the start of engagement, but actually I didn't go marching much after that.

So you were there mollifying, observing, trying to keep a lid on things – but that subsequently was perhaps misconstrued, was it? I’m thinking about some of what you wrote – The Ministry of Fear, Act of Union, Requiem for the Croppies. Do people look at those poems in isolation and conclude, wrongly, he’s a nationalist poet – he’s a republican?

There is no doubt you can't do anything with Requiem for the Croppies which was written in 1966, fifty years after 1916 – and again it was out of my dream life. It was pre-Troubles entirely and I didn't read it during the Troubles – but it was part of the '98 dream life. Actually I remember in 1968 when David Hammond, Michael Longley and myself did the tour called Room to Rhyme, I read that poem in different milieus. There would have been a very Official Unionist audience in Armagh Library, for example, and I felt I was opening a space for this kind of identity within their Ulster, as it were, and that was certainly the thinking in choosing to read it then. That was the point.

Do you remember how it was received?

It was received perfectly all right. Now these were people – it was a self-selecting audience – people coming for the poetry and song and so on, so they would be fairly cultivated and fairly well mannered.

But there were those who were critical of some of what you wrote. Did that sadden you? Did it annoy you?

I wasn't that aware of it. Artistically maybe The Singing School – which is the Derry, St Columb's stuff – is maybe that kind of partisan utterance all right, but it's based on experience. Conor Cruise O'Brien rebuked it, of course. But then there is one about the visit of the RUC man, you see, which I think is ok whichever side of the house you come from. It's called A Constable Calls. There is one coarseness about 'the boot of the law' – but apart from that . . .

It’s about filling out an agricultural form and it was the local constable who did that.

It was and he was well enough known. He was Constable Crawford from Castledawson Barracks.

But that wasn’t the strong arm of the law. That was what we now call neighbourhood policing?

Exactly, yeah – but at the same time a slight frisson would occur. I remember his shiny baton case and the stitches on it. He had a revolver and so on. Just as with a doctor coming to the house, or a priest, in those days it was an occasion.

And do you remember feeling part of what is referred to as the minority community, which was separate from law and order and separate from policing? Because, of course, there weren’t many Catholics in the RUC at the time.

Oh definitely you felt separate from that, definitely.

Did you feel vulnerable?

No I didn’t feel vulnerable. I think we, the family anyway, didn’t feel that. There was no, if you like, republican background in either my mother’s family or my father’s.

Do you think the fact that it was the ‘Royal Ulster Constabulary’ helped to distance you from that notion of Ulster?

I don’t know. It wasn’t particularly the Ulster that was the unease; it was the sense of the partisanship of the force. That was the thing that was most decisive in the standoff.

Did you feel as a poet that you had to speak up for the minority community – to ask those questions that don’t get asked in newspapers or in current affairs programmes? Is that the challenge you and your contemporaries within the world of poetry set yourselves?

We weren't as clear as that about it, I don't think. I wasn't as clear anyway, but there is one poem which was meant to say something about how things were and how things could be, called The Other Side. It was based upon a man called Junkin who was an elder – probably an elder of the Presbyterian Church too – but he was, like all our surrounding neighbours, the Steeles and the McIntyres, the Junkins, actually the Mulhollands too, very much at ease. There was no sense of political difference with them. So The Other Side deals with that, maybe too optimistically, because there was something more noxious happening at the time – not that the Junkins were involved in it or we were involved in it. But if you are a poet, as you say, your writing has a duty to things larger than just the good message. I think I have said this too often but only because it is true: when I met the doctor who was the first Community Relations Minister at Stormont – Dr Simpson from Antrim, whom I met after the publication of Wintering Out, which had these poems in it – he said, which was true, 'Well it's good that you're writing because it shows what we have in common in Ulster is farming stock and this and that'. Naturally he was taking the good news out of it – and there was some good news there – but I thought, if that's what the poetry is doing there's something too consoling there.

So it shouldn’t be a balm.

No, exactly. Not an emollient or a balm, no. So I suppose that's where North came from. It has more grunts in it, but it's not a very drum-beating book, really. I thought I really got able to deal with it a bit better when it came to the '70s and there's a book called Field Work and there are elegies in it. That's more like it, I think.

Because you did lose one member of your family and you lost friends and friends of friends. Sean Armstrong . . .

Sean Armstrong, that’s right. Colum McCartney, Lewis O’Neill, Sean Brown. But also then there were people like Martin McBurney whom Michael (Longley) wrote about and whom I knew in the Arts Club.

And you’ve also talked about Willie Strathearn. So that pain was very real.

Yes indeed. The other thing that was real, I am astonished to realise, was [that] we took the death toll almost for granted, day after day, year after year, the news of those thousands of killings. When I looked at the book – one of the best books to come out of the whole thing, Lost Lives – I thought: we went through that every day! It scares you.

On the broader issue of identity, the poet John Hewitt famously wrote about being an Ulsterman, an Irishman, British and European.

I think that’s fair enough.

Did you struggle with parts of it? Did you struggle with the British bit?

I think that was going a bit far. But John was British, by birth, by choice, by inheritance – so for him that was absolutely in order. My problem came clear in one simple way, the time that Thatcher was in power and there was talk of going on a British Council tour and I said, ‘No, I am not going to go on Margaret Thatcher’s tour at all’. I suggested that the tours be co-sponsored with the Irish Cultural Relations Committee and I think that was done a couple of times, which was fair enough, but that kind of partnership has now come into political reality and in the new conditions there is co-sponsorship, if you like, of identity.

Did you feel uncomfortable at that time, because of course you wrote your famous Open Letter against being included in The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry which was edited by Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion?

Two friends, yes.

You knew them very well. Of course you became Oxford Professor of Poetry, you'd been included in other collections . . .

Well, very early on, Hobsbaum got us all shoehorned into a book called An Anthology of Commonwealth Poetry and then there was another compilation called Young British Poetry – early on.

Why did that one in particular – the Blake Morrison, Andrew Motion anthology – tip you over the edge?

Because it was the 1980s, not the late ’60s, and the violence had been going on for 14 years – and it was about nomenclature to some extent.

And it was a difficult climate.

Yeah, it was terrible. Also I was part of Field Day and it was decided that the poets on the board should write something. Seamus Deane did a pamphlet titled Civilians and Barbarians. Tom Paulin wrote about 'the language question', so I felt I had to write one and I thought that doing it in verse would be fun.

Do you regret that now at all?

No, I had to get through it. In the context of identity, it was the old standoff with the Ulster-British, you know. On the other island, it didn’t matter much one way or another.

So was there a sense of imposition – that the Britishness was imposed in Ulster?

Yes, that’s right.

But that it was more laissez faire in GB?

That’s right, absolutely. So I felt I was being dishonest if I didn’t say something. It may have been wrongly expressed, but that’s another matter. At any rate, something had to be done which is why I used that epigraph from Gaston Bachelard: ‘What is the source of our first suffering? It lies in the fact that we hesitated to speak. It was born in the moment when we accumulated silent things within us’.

And that famous line of yours: ‘Be advised my passport’s green. No glass of ours was ever raised to toast the Queen’. Did people overplay the significance of that line?

The Queen thing – green, Queen – it’s a rhyme. I mean, truly, there’s a bit of a spring to it. I didn’t want to sound a bigot in the pamphlet. At the same time I wanted to address the breach in the community at that stage.

Were you aware of how that was received by unionists on the ground in Northern Ireland?

Oh I can imagine.

There was that and then there was the idea – was it ever formally confirmed? – that you’d turned down the Poet Laureateship.

Never formally.

But there was the sense you may well have done.

I thought another Ulster poet should have got it. Funny, I wouldn’t have thought that would have affected opinion. You see, to put it this way, people would say that would have been a great symbol of a reconciliation – and I kept saying, symbols we don’t need. We need reality.

But that whole situation has now changed hasn’t it? Because you used that line: ‘No glass of ours was ever raised to toast the Queen’ – and then there you were, sitting beside her at the state dinner in Dublin in 2011. So has your view changed on that?

No. ‘No glass of ours was ever raised to toast the Queen’ – I meant to characterise a culture. We at home in the house would never have lifted a glass to toast the Queen and I suspect manys a one in the other tradition wouldn’t be doing it at home either. On the other hand, I have always felt the courteous thing to do when you were at a formal event or dinner was certainly to stand and toast. So whatever the impression came out of the words, which I can understand entirely, whatever the reading of it as ‘a bitter word’, it was meant to have a bit of merriment in it too, coming as I say from the rhyme. Of course those lines were quoted gleefully when Her Majesty and Prince Phillip came to Ireland, partly, I hope, because it is a nifty couplet – ‘My passport’s green. No glass of ours was ever raised to toast the Queen’ – very quotable. I had met Her Majesty before in Belfast and, in fact, before that again in Buckingham Palace a few years ago. She gives these lunches, every month for a few months of the year, and invites various persons. Twelve guests from different sectors. The time I was there, for example, there was an engineer from Cardiff University who had done something with motor engines and the Duke was very interested in that. There was a woman from the Prison Service and Sir Christopher Bland who was head of the BBC at the time. Anyhow, Christopher Bland was on the Queen’s right-hand side and I was on her left-hand side. This was a few years ago. Ted Hughes had just died and the Good Friday Agreement had just come in to force, so at that time I thought – come on now, do the decent thing here.

So there was no doubt in your mind that was the right thing to do?

No. None at all. There was a world change as far as I was concerned. Then too, I had been to Buckingham Palace when Ted Hughes was Poet Laureate because I was on a committee with him for the awarding of the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry. So when Marie and I were invited to the event in Dublin Castle, I was happy to say yes. We didn't realise where we were going to be placed until the afternoon of the dinner, at which point a friend of ours in Protocol in the Foreign Service rang up and said, 'You're at the top table tonight'. So what were we going to do about that? I assumed it was going to be like a college top table or a wedding top table – a long board for the Last Supper, as it were – but when we came to the door of the big hall we realised there were only 10 people's names for Table C and truth to tell, I swore when I saw I was placed between the Duke and David Cameron. Nothing political in the worry, you understand – just sheer social anxiety. Marie was in a little bit more of a homely situation. She had the Taoiseach and Cardinal Brady, so she was between Mayo and Cavan. But Mary McAleese was beside Cameron. I actually got on easily and merrily with the Duke.

And are you happy now about the symbolism – the Queen being in Ireland, you being at the table?

Yes, that was fine by me.

So you are now cast in this role as a great man of letters and, to some extent, a spokesman for the peace process. ‘Believe that a further shore is reachable from here’; where ‘hope and history rhyme’ – those are the watchwords of that process. That’s what people quote – that’s what Clinton quotes.

It is indeed, yeah.

Are you comfortable with that?

I am, yeah. The only uncomfortable thing is that people disagree with the actual lines; hope and history, they say, don't rhyme! But the line was never of course meant as a phonetic aspiration, it was meant as a political one. But yeah, I am content. What might make me uneasy, or give me pause, is the fact that it is such a 'good' news message and so you think, am I just assuaging something? Avoiding the actual conditions? But no, it came out of a context and it came out of the play, The Cure of Troy, and it came out of the conditions we were in, in 1990. 1990, '91 were savage times with a lot going on, still three years before the cessation. But there was hope in the air as well, in the bigger theatre, what with the fall of the Berlin Wall and all those Eastern European Soviet regimes.

So not only are you comfortable with it, you’re happy about it – but your innate modesty, your Ulster modesty, means that you don’t want to overplay it?

My Ulster – what’s the word? – not tight-fistedness, but scepticism, maybe, would worry about a message like that being too positive. I must illustrate this by telling you that when I was a student, or shortly afterwards, there used to be a café at the far end of Botanic Avenue, opposite the then Arts Theatre. I was in it one night with Marie when we were courting. Two fellas came in - they were coming from a mission hall somewhere close by – and one says to the other, ‘What did you think of that?’ He says, ‘All right, but I thought the message was a bit soft’. So at times I too wonder if the message might not have been a bit soft.

You’ve talked about that famous Northern reticence before. Is that part of the Ulster identity, or part of an Ulster identity?

No, I think it is the Ulster identity – speech and manners. I mean anthropologically, the Ulster identity’s alive and well. If people meet from different traditions, even if you throw two hot sectarians together, they could find a lingo that would be sharp, merry, oblique. But Ulster people, despite all that, are very sociable and manageable.

The reputation they have, though, is for being dour and not much craic and, perhaps the phrase you used yourself a moment ago: tight-fisted.

Well, I’m reluctant to go too far in the optimistic vein, but between themselves I think they can get on fine – at a personal level and at a community level. So yes, there is an Ulster speech, an Ulster idiom and an Ulster sense of humour.

Have you thought about why Ulster, which is such a small place on the world map, has produced so many significant poets and writers and actors and musicians?

Well I think that people were craving a way of making something coherent for themselves in an incoherent situation. To make an inflated comparison, think of Russia from 1880 to 1930, think of Dublin from 1890 to 1930, think of London from 1580 to 1620 – places where nothing was concluded and history was in the making and there was an unsureness about how to proceed and then a settlement of sorts. I think that in the North, the blueprint of the divided loyalties was in every psyche, and so the need to do something about it was strong. I think the Northern writers, the poets of my own generation, weren’t satisfied to live in a divided society; they wanted something better. And we thought the ironies and the generosities of the art would help. Not that we set out deliberately to preach or convert, but there was an unconscious need for some kind of freedom, inner freedom, because you were hampered by the habits of mealy-mouthness and evasion and all that went on to keep realities under wraps. Not that we set out to write political poetry but I think the sense of escape into something that was jubilant and different and free was important and it was in reaction, in some way, to the psychic, never mind the political conditions that people lived in.

So that notion of a specific identity was there.

I remember when I was doing a postgraduate year in a teacher training college up in Trench House, St Joseph's, I produced an extended essay on Ulster literary magazines. I read there John Hewitt and Roy McFadden, Robert Greacen and John Gallen. Greacen and Gallen were writing as undergraduates in a Queen's magazine called the New Northman which was trying to establish a literary culture in the North. And similarly with Rann, a magazine in the 1950s, edited by Roy McFadden and Barbara Hunter. So I was interested in Hewitt's regional idea but it still seemed a way of cutting things off at the border.

What seems so strange now is how easily people like Terence O’Neill and Brian Faulkner used the term Ulster when they were referring, in fact, to Northern Ireland.

Yes, I know. That’s what got the nationalists’ goat – and now as a concession or realisation of the new times I call it Northern Ireland.

And you’re comfortable with that?


But you would always regard yourself, and want to be known as and remembered as, an Irish poet? The moniker Ulster would make you a little uncomfortable, would it?

It would, yes. Irish-Ulster, Ulster-Irish. I think my identity is Ulster-Irish or Irish-Ulster, take it one way or another.

Either way is fine?

Probably. But you would have to keep the options open.

Alternative Ulsters, Conversations on Identity by Mark Carruthers (Liberties Press, €17.99) Carruthers is a BBC broadcaster. He served for over a decade as the chairman of Tinderbox Theatre Company and is chairman of Belfast’s Lyric Theatre. He is co-editor, with Stephen Douds, of Stepping Stones: The Arts in Ulster 1971-2001.