How Seamus Heaney wrote: First look at a new exhibition

Exhibition on late Nobel laureate unveiled at new College Green cultural centre

Seamus Heaney: Listen Now Again, the exhibition based on the Nobel laureate poet's archive, was today formally opened the new Bank of Ireland Cultural and Heritage Centre on College Green in Dublin. It will open to the public this Friday, July 6th.

President Michael D Higgins opened the exhibition, which celebrates the life and work of one of Ireland's greatest writers. It draws on NLI's Heaney archive, donated by the poet and his family in 2011. "Here, through Seamus's manuscripts, annotations, and unpublished works," said the President, "we see what Catherine Heaney [his daughter] described recently as the 'life cycle' of some of Seamus's poems – receiving a privileged view of the demands that producing a poem places on the author – the constant amending and revising necessary, as was the case with Seamus Heaney, as the gifted writer transforms words into what will become masterpieces."

The National Library of Ireland (NLI) exhibition is the first in the new centre, part of the Bank of Ireland headquarters which were originally the Irish houses of parliament, and is accessed directly from Westmoreland Street, the first time the large wooden double doors have been used in nearly 15 years.

Gathering in the compact Gandon-designed rotunda which forms the entrance to the exhibition were the Heaney family (his wife Marie, children Mick, Chris and Catherine, and grand-daughters Aibhín, Síofra and Anna Rose, two of Seamus's brothers, Dan and Hugh, niece Jane Heaney), NLI director Dr Sandra Collins, the exhibition curator Prof Geraldine Higgins, Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Josepha Madigan and secretary general at the department Katherine Licken, former minister Jimmy Deenihan, who conceived the centre four years ago, publisher and friend Peter Fallon, friend Rand Brandes from Hickory, North Carolina, Poetry Ireland director Maureen Keneally, Brian McCormick, manager of the Seamus Heaney HomePlace in Bellaghy (and a nephew of Seamus), and publishers and friends of Heaney.

Also at the opening was artist Maser, who made two pieces of work for the exhibition, a large hanging sculpture as you enter the exhibition, depicting folded paper gradually turning into birds, flying towards the roof, which chimes with the theme of airiness at the end of Listen Now Again, and also the closing tableau, Don't Be Afraid – "Noli Timere" were the words Seamus Heaney texted to his wife Marie just before he died.

A partnership between the NLI, the Department of Culture and Bank of Ireland, the exhibition includes original manuscripts, letters, unpublished works, diary entries, and photographs, as well as some personal items – the desk where he wrote in the family home in Sandymount, a lamp which once belonged to WB Yeats, and a portrait by Louis le Brocquy. It was curated by Prof Higgins, director of Irish studies at Emory University, and designed by Ralph Appelbaum Associates.

It skilfully threads together Heaney's life – Bellaghy, Co Derry, his family, events in the wider world, including the Troubles in the North – and his poetry. The process of creation is central to the exhibition, and how Heaney wrote and rewrote is animated through showing manuscripts at different stages, with annotations and edits, and a thoughtfully and subtly edited video teases out his writing and rewriting of a poem, The Forge. The exhibition threads its way through four themes: Excavations looks at Heaney's early life and poetry; Creativity explores his influences and process of writing; Conscience looks at Heaney's struggles to write about violence in Northern Ireland and his engagement with global politics and justice; Marvels explores his later poetry, moving towards a sense of uplift.

The exhibition complements the HomePlace in Bellaghy. One of the striking things about the NLI exhibition is how it explores Heaney’s relationship with the Troubles: a wall of newspaper front pages in the Conscience section headline the immediacy of atrocities.

Marie Heaney, his widow, said when he thought about a long-term home for his manuscripts, "Seamus knew that he wanted them to stay in Ireland, and to be available for consultation by scholars and general readers." He donated them to the NLI, and "I know he would be both amazed and delighted by what has been achieved with them here today."

Francesca McDonagh, chief executive of Bank of Ireland, spoke about the historic building, associated with eventful moments in Irish history. “This was a place of discourse and debate – of ideas and challenge – where the power of the written and spoken word was paramount. And today – in what is truly apt – this place now forms the backdrop to a major exhibition of national and international importance, where words again come to life.”

Seamus Heaney: Listen Now Again opens to the public on Friday, July 6th (Monday-Saturday, 10am-4pm). It is free, and usually no ticket is required, but for the opening weekend (July 6th-8th) visitors should book a time slot on

Deirdre Falvey

Deirdre Falvey

Deirdre Falvey is a features and arts writer at The Irish Times