Otherworldly hush descends for Seamus Heaney’s readings in Paris

Irish poet’s 90-minute performance the highlight of month-long Marché de la Poésie festival

Seamus Heaney at the Centre Culturel Irlandais in Paris. Photograph: Des Harris/The Picture Desk

Seamus Heaney at the Centre Culturel Irlandais in Paris. Photograph: Des Harris/The Picture Desk


Irish, Americans, British and French . . . some braved rain and a rail strike to queue outside the Irish College for up to two hours for Seamus Heaney’s reading last night. It was the high point of the month-long Marché de la Poésie festival, where Ireland is the guest of honour, and a key event in Culture Connects, the programme organised by Dublin to mark its presidency of the EU.

It was also the birthday of William Butler Yeats. Thirteen is a lucky number for Irish Nobel laureates: Heaney and Samuel Beckett share April 13th as their birth date.

Jimmy Deenihan, Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, compared Heaney to the earlier Nobel winners. Heaney smiled when Deenihan praised him for “immortalising Irish bogland”, and when the Minister said he’d given the best advice to politicians: “Whatever you say, say nothing.”

Jacques Darras, the French poet, translator and president of the festival, said Heaney “like WB Yeats, has this extraordinary faculty of reconciling sound and meaning”, and asked the 700-strong audience “to hear how intelligent his music is”.

Through 50 years of poetry, Heaney has been faithful to the metaphors of spade and pen, his French translator Philippe Hersant noted.

“Yeats used to say, “If you know anything about my work, you’ll know The Lake Isle of Inisfree,” Heaney said. “I have to say the same: If you know anything about my work, you’ll know Digging.” After the last stanza of his first poem, “Between my finger and my thumb/The squat pen rests./I’ll dig with it,” the audience burst into applause.

Blackbirds sang in the courtyard, prompting Heaney to recite from memory The Blackbird of Belfast Lough. A French actor read St Kevin and the Blackbird in translation. The Irish College was suspended in an otherworldly hush, as Heaney read from his translation of the Breton poet Guillevic: “I had my existience. I was there./Me in place and the place in me.”

Heaney’s translator asked what effect his relative age and illness had on him. “In 2006 I had a stroke, which gave me a new theme,” he said to laughter. “The wonderful thing was I got through that crisis without a mark. But . . . it wakened me to mortality. I am uneasy about writing about it too intimately.”

Heaney said he had “found it difficult to say no to Sheila,” referring to Sheila Pratschke, the director of the Irish College. As his 90-minute performance ended, Heaney said the Irish College “changed the game” of Irish arts on the continent.

Next week, Heaney will deliver a speech for the 50th anniversary of John F Kennedy’s trip to Ireland, “because Jean [Kennedy Smith] asked me to”.