What I've learned from Seamus Heaney


Throughout the Troubles, Seamus Heaney remained determined not to be used but to express the truth as he saw it. On the day he is awarded the Irish Times Poetry Now prize for his latest collection, OLIVIA O'LEARYdescribes how her reporting on the North was guided by Heaney’s ‘cultural road map’

YOU MAY WELL ask why a journalist with no literary credentials should be writing about Seamus Heaney. There are two reasons. Firstly, the impact of his work on our national life, on the way we think about ourselves, has given him a cultural importance that poets should have but so often don’t. Secondly, I felt that impact particularly on my life and work as a journalist. And if it seems that I forget my place in making any connection between what journalists do and what poets do, let me state my case modestly.

Journalism and poetry at their best try to state the truth. Journalism and poetry at their worst do the opposite. The big difference is that so much journalism does the necessary job of reporting things as they happen. What poets can do is to give us a distance, from events and from ourselves. They hold up a mirror in which we can safely look at ourselves. Those mirrors need to be clear, in no way distorted. That to me is the strength of Seamus Heaney: his determination to keep that mirror honest – honesty in the work, in a way of life that keeps the work real and rooted, in the public appearances dedicated to the wider cause of poetry.

Let’s start with his effect on my work as a journalist in Northern Ireland. My Uncle Ned lived in Derry. He was my favourite uncle, a singer and a fiddle and tin-whistle player, the gentlest man I knew: a southerner who had ended up as the local Bank of Ireland manager in Strand Road. On one visit in the 1970s he collected me from the train station on the Waterside. As we drove back across the bridge we were stopped by a British army patrol, and Ned was asked to get out and open his boot. He did and chatted in Irish all the time to the bewildered young squaddies, who kept saying, “Sorry, sir?” or, “Don’t understand you, sir.” As we drove off I said, “Ah, Ned! That was a bit uncalled for. They’re only young fellas.” “I know,” he said, “but I’d had enough. That was the fourth time today that same patrol stopped me and questioned me and searched the car. And it was four times yesterday. They know damn well who I am.”

Almost mirroring the incident with my peace-loving uncle is Seamus Heaney’s reaction in his poem The Toome Roadto a British army patrol in his own area: “How long were they approaching down my roads / As if they owned them?” And he describes that incident in the book he did with Dennis O’Driscoll, Stepping Stones:“There was an affront to dúchas in being questioned about my name and address by these uninformed cubs in uniform at the end of my own loaning.” It was a small lesson in reminding me that we who lived in the Republic had no idea what effect the daily burden of military occupation and denial of identity has on even the most moderate and peace-loving people; no idea how we might react in the same circumstances.

I mention this because, for my generation, and particularly for my generation of journalists, Northern Ireland and our engagement with it was the biggest moral issue that faced us. For journalists the question was whether we were getting to the truth, whether we were being fair to both unionists and nationalists, not regurgitating propaganda.

Provisional IRA violence made it very difficult to hear that small voice of truth. The reaction among many of my generation in the Republic was to turn their backs on all Irish nationalists, to claim that nationalist grievances were vastly overstated, and, if only the proletariat in the North would come together, all would be well. It was a revisionist, two-nation theory. It affected some of the newspapers but most powerfully RTÉ, where in the television-programmes area where I worked the anti-nationalist line was imposed with Stalinist rigour.

It led to some bizarre editorial decisions, like the refusal to accept that the hunger striker Bobby Sands was going to win the Fermanagh and South Tyrone byelection, so preparations were made only at the last minute to cover the event. By refusing to believe that decent, peaceful nationalist voters would support a hunger-striking IRA man we were failing to reflect the truth of Northern politics: that in a struggle between the British state and Republican prisoners, nationalists could feel no loyalty to a state governed without consensus.

Bewildered, southerners like me looked beyond politicians for a respected voice that would help us understand this ambiguity towards violence. I found it in Seamus Heaney.

I’d been covering the North since the early 1970s; Heaney’s collection North came out in 1975, when I moved to live there. I used to carry that book of poems around with me as though it was a cultural road map. I remember covering punishment shootings, and meeting silence in the local community about such brutal shootings.

And I picked up Heaney’s Punishment, the poem about a young woman’s body dug up from the bog bearing the signs of a punishment death, its shaved head and rope around the neck reflecting the tarring and feathering in Northern Ireland of those women who went out with British soldiers:

I who have stood dumb

when your betraying sisters,

cauled in tar,

wept by the railings,

who would connive

in civilised outrage

yet understand the exact

and tribal, intimate revenge.

This tug of loyalties was a struggle for northern nationalists all the time. Heaney has spoken of the night a neighbour, Francis Hughes, died on hunger strike, and his bewilderment at being in Oxford for a literary dinner, staying in the room of one of Margaret Thatcher’s closest cabinet colleagues, Sir Keith Joseph, who was a fellow of All Souls.

He knew that Thatcher’s response to the hunger strikes was brutal, but he also knew that Hughes was a hit man. He did not attend that funeral, but back home in Co Derry, soon after, he did, as a local and a neighbour, attend the wake of the eighth man to die, Thomas McElwee, described in his poem The Wood Road, from Human Chain:

Then that August Day I walked it

To the hunger striker’s wake,

Across a silent yard,

In past a watching crowd

To where the guarded corpse

And a guard of honour stared.

He knew that his presence would have been noted, but he had attended in his capacity as a neighbour on the Wood Road. He had done it his way.

To me as a journalist it mattered that the person trying to find his own way through this minefield was a poet whose ethical position both artistically and personally was admirable and hard fought for. During the hunger strikes, like every artist – Paul Brady was one who was targeted and resisted – Heaney was targeted by Republicans to write a poem backing the hunger strikers’ cause. He describes it in Flight Pathwhen Danny Morrison of Sinn Féin lectures him about his duty to the hunger strikers: “When, for fuck’s sake, are you going to write / Something for us?” And Heaney’s reply: “If I do write something, / Whatever it is, I’ll be writing for myself.”

It’s a lesson for any journalist, Heaney’s determination not to be used, to express the truth as he saw it for his own purposes and that of his art.

Yet, being allowed to choose his own time and place, he made his protest, sometimes in places where it would hurt him most, as in 1988 at a lunch accepting a Sunday Times literary award. It was a tense time, as he told O’Driscoll in Stepping Stones. There had been the brutal beating – seen on television – and then the killing of two British corporals who had wandered into a spooked crowd attending the funerals of those killed by the loyalist Michael Stone at Milltown cemetery. The Sunday Timesmore than most had been coming out with what Heaney described as “anti-Irish slabber”.

So he felt he couldn’t accept the award without condemning that and condemning British government policy in Northern Ireland. There were growls from those who had come to honour him, but he lived with that. I know that tug. The British can be fiercely possessive when they take you to their heart, and their pride in you and their support for you is very seductive.

THERE WAS ANOTHER way in which Heaney’s work helped me understand Northern Ireland: his warning about the cage of careful language in which we all had to operate. Coming to the North from two years in swinging London, I found myself suddenly stifled by caginess. In no conversation could I relax, because, as a liberal southerner, I was going to offend somebody.

The first time I read Whatever You Say Say NothingI laughed out loud. This, on the page, was my Belfast reporter’s life. Heaney begins by quoting the cliches of the journalists and politicians – “Backlash” and “crack down” and “long-standing hate” – and then says:

Yet I live here, I live here too, I sing,

Expertly civil-tongued with civil neighbours

On the high wires of first wireless reports,

Sucking the fake taste, the stony flavours

Of those sanctioned, old, elaborate retorts:

‘Oh, it’s disgraceful, surely, I agree.’

‘Where’s it going to end?’ ‘It’s getting worse.’

‘They’re murderers.’ ‘Internment, understandably . . .’

The ‘voice of sanity’ is getting hoarse.

And then Heaney goes on:

O land of password, handgrip, wink and nod,

Of open minds, as open as a trap,

Where tongues lie coiled, as under flames lie wicks,

Where half of us, as in a wooden horse,

Were cabin’d and confined like wily Greeks,

Besieged within the siege, whispering morse.

In Northern Ireland we were always whispering morse. We looked out for the “sure-fire” signals Heaney talks about. Say, for instance, that someone used the word “folk”, meaning people: “ordinary folk” or “folk around here”. That established them straight away as Protestant. If they said “haitch Blocks” or, later, “Haitch IV positive” they were Catholic. Protestants said “aitch”, and at one unionist party conference in the 1980s a speaker complained about the number of people in the BBC who now said “haitch”. He didn’t have to say any more. He was complaining about the BBC employing Catholics.

The other thing that Heaney’s poetry taught me as a journalist was the need to keep revisiting. To keep going back. The story is never finally written. In a report or a poem you are catching things only up to that particular moment. In Station IslandHeaney revisits the story of his cousin Colum, who was killed in a sectarian attack in the 1970s when Heaney was down at Kilkenny Arts Festival. He wrote about it then at a remove, but years later, in Station Island, he revisits it. The ghost of his wounded, muddied cousin appears to him at the Lough Derg pilgrimage and rebukes him for prettifying his death, for his poetic description of a grey stretch of Lough Beg and the strand empty at daybreak:

‘The Protestant who shot me through the head

I accuse directly, but indirectly, you

who now atone perhaps upon this bed

for the way you whitewashed ugliness and drew

the lovely blinds of the Purgatorio

and saccharined my death with morning dew.’

How often do we as journalists have to make the same accusations against ourselves? How long did it take me to go back and look honestly at the Guildford Four and Birmingham bomb convictions? Working with other Irish journalists at the Palace of Westminster at the time of the bombings, I was grateful that there was no backlash against us in the political and journalistic circles in which we moved. Maybe I was too grateful, not realising immediately that those convictions themselves were a backlash.

I said at the beginning that journalism and poetry at their best are about stating the truth. What Seamus Heaney does is perhaps to state the truth in a way that only poetry can. By that I mean its removal to an arm’s-length place where it can be safely seen and understood. Time and again covering the North I would read a Heaney poem and see my dilemma stated in a way that I could look at it coolly.

Heaney has written about this aspect of what poetry can do. In The Redress of Poetry, quoting Wallace Stevens, he says that the poet is a potent figure because he or she “creates the world to which we turn incessantly and without knowing it, and . . . gives life to the supreme fictions without which we would not be able to conceive of that world”.

This means, says Heaney himself, that if our given experience is a labyrinth, its impassability can still be countered by the poet’s imagining some equivalent of the truth and presenting himself and us with a vivid experience of it. Poetry plays that role for us in every aspect of our lives. I have simply tried to show how it played that role for me in my work.

IN THE MID 1990s, with the conflict in Northern Ireland being brought with great difficulty to a close, Heaney’s poetry reflected not the false optimism, the “cautiously optimistic” approach so beloved of the politicians, but people’s right at least to hope. We think of the now famous lines from the chorus in The Cure at Troy: “Once in a lifetime / The longed-for tidal wave / Of justice can rise up / And hope and history rhyme.”

These lines, of course, were pounced on by politicians, particularly by Bill Clinton, who knew a good quote when he saw it – and by Gerry Adams. Heaney began to try to stop those words becoming a cliche.

I did a television piece in 1996 for BBC2’s Correspondentsabout the Irish diaspora in the Boston area. We were tracing how Irish-American attitudes had matured from backing Noraid and the IRA to now supporting efforts for peace and reconciliation through the efforts of people like John Hume and Tony O’Reilly, as well as the four senior US statesmen Edward Kennedy, Tip O’Neill, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Hugh Carey.

It was all about how the message from Ireland, despite the break in the ceasefire, was a much more constructive one. And what better way to illustrate that than to have a sequence with the previous year’s Nobel prizewinner, a Co Derry man who happened to be professor of poetry down the road at Harvard? We rang Seamus without much hope, but eventually he picked up his messages and rang us back. He let us film him going into the newspaper kiosk in Cambridge to collect his Irish Timesand did a short interview afterwards about the situation in the North, in which we pushed him to give us that famous line. He did, and then sent a message a few days later asking us to take the lines out – to use the rest of the interview if we wanted to but to leave out the poetry. Reluctantly, we did as he asked.

But we respected his determination not to allow lines taken out of their original literary context to be used to arrive at a pat conclusion. Heaney doesn’t take himself too seriously, but he takes his poetry very seriously. In other interviews he gave us in the long years of negotiation following the Belfast Agreement he was careful not to be corralled into saying that all we had to do was forget the past and all would be well. He remained true to his own experience, which was that trust had been destroyed by the long history of discrimination and denial in Northern Ireland and that it would take time and effort to rebuild that trust.

It is in his poems, however, that Heaney has made his most important contribution to our thinking about the North. He has helped to expand our borders and allowed us to roam in an Ireland of the imagination. In my time, our time, Heaney’s time we’ve argued constantly about Irish identity. How does the nation fit with the island, the island with the nation? It always bothered me in those debates that so many people in the Republic who took positions one way or another on Northern Ireland had no knowledge, no concept of the place.

And that’s something, almost without our realising it, that Seamus Heaney has done: he has expanded our imaginative landscape to include the North. Many people in the Republic know and care more about Northern Ireland through the world of Heaney’s poems than they ever would through the narrow focus of taught history or political debate.

Much of the small farm life lived at Mossbawn or Anahorish would be familiar to those of us from a country background down here, but we mightn’t be so familiar with the rotting flax-dam or the Orange drums or the visiting Presbyterian neighbour waiting shyly outside until the evening rosary was over.

Now that Co Derry countryside is as much part of our national imagination as is Patrick Kavanagh’s Monaghan or Yeats’s Sligo or Kate O’Brien’s Limerick or Frank O’Connor’s Cork.

It is, as it never was before, part of what we are.