The poet and the pauper

An Irishman’s Diary about my debt to Seamus Heaney

It was one of the lesser achievements of his great career, I know, but Seamus Heaney was responsible for my single biggest pay-day as a freelance journalist.

The year was 1995, and he had just been announced as winner of the Nobel Prize. I, meanwhile, was doing casual news shifts for The Irish Times. Or at least I was making myself available for such shifts.

As luck would have it, the newsdesk was in the grip of one of its periodic budgetary cuts, and shifts were occurring at a frequency only slightly greater than hen’s teeth.

This latest austerity drive was all the more unfortunate since, that autumn, I had become a married man. Not for the first time, I wondered at my sanity in giving up a secure, if underpaid, job as a civil servant years before.

Anyway, the day of the Nobel announcement, I was walking past the newsdesk – accidentally-on-purpose – when one of the harassed editors thrust a phone in my direction and asked: “Can you take a call from a Swedish journalist?”

I made a fleeting gesture to the effect that I'd need to check my diary first, then I quickly took the phone. The caller was from Dagens Nyheter, Sweden's leading broadsheet. He was coming to Dublin to interview the new laureate and needed some advice.

I subsequently recommended a suitable hotel. I told him where the Heaneys lived. I got him the phone-number. Then, after his arrival here, I found him a desk in the IT newsroom, and showed him how to log onto the computer.

I suspect this was the main thing he needed – the era of wifi cafes had not yet dawned. But, possibly as a sop to my self-respect, he also commissioned me to write a short piece on local reaction to Heaney’s win. So I did, and a day later had my first, and still only, byline in Swedish.

The guest filed his own reports. Then he went home. And I thought my Swedish byline might be considered sufficient reward – we had never mentioned anything as vulgar as money – until several days later a cheque arrived from Stockholm for £500.

I can’t remember now if it was sterling or punts. Either way, this was 1995, and 500 quid was a lot of money. For not much more than that then, I think, you could still have bought a shoebox apartment from Zoe Developments. In any case, it kept me going till Christmas.

When I finally met Seamus Heaney last year, for the first and only time, I belatedly thanked him for his unwitting part in the windfall. He seemed suitably pleased. But then he was a naturally warm and affable man, generous in conversation.

We were both speakers at the annual Kate O’Brien Weekend in Limerick, although this is where the similarities began and ended. Because of demand, Heaney’s keynote address had to be moved from the main venue, the Belltable Centre, to a place more than twice that size, which was also sold-out.

There was no such problem accommodating my audience. Despite which, I turned up for the event in a cold sweat, as usual bitterly regretting the day I had accepted the invitation.

As late as a few weeks beforehand, I still hadn’t read a line Kate O’Brien had ever written. Since when, with panic growing, I had scoured bookshops and libraries. But the more I read, the less I seemed to know. And until I walked in the Belltable door, I still imagined myself being devoured alive by aficionados contemptuous of my ignorance.

Instead, the ambience of the event was instantly relaxing. Even the keynote speaker, in an apology for having taken so long to come – he had been invited many times – joked that he needed to “read some Kate O’Brien first”, which earned a sympathetic laugh.

In fact, at least for Heaney, reading Kate O’Brien was beyond the call of duty. All his audience wanted was to hear him read his own poems, which he did for an hour, holding the auditorium rapt. A natural, if understated, performer, he dominated the room as completely as any rock star could.

The sell-out aside, there was a further testament to his stardom. At our hotel, 1 Pery Square, the rooms were named after great Irish writers, including Swift, Wilde, Yeats, and yes, Heaney. But there are limits to literary fame, as the man himself noted. The Heaney room had not been allocated to him and his wife Marie, it turned out. Instead, they were put up in the Goldsmith.