Nearly 15 years since they were last used, the large wooden double doors on Westmoreland Street that lead into a wing of the former Houses of Parliament, now Bank of Ireland, will open again to the public from Friday morning.
The doors under the 1780 Gandon-designed portico will lead into the new Bank of Ireland Cultural and Heritage Centre. Opened by Minister for Culture Josepha Madigan, it will be home, for at least four years, to the thoughtful and illuminating exhibition Seamus Heaney: Listen Now Again.
At the opening on Wednesday, his widow, Marie Heaney, recalled how he donated his archive to the National Library of Ireland in 2011, two years before he died, driving in with their son Mick and carrying the boxes into the building themselves. "Seamus knew he wanted them to stay in Ireland, available for consultation by scholars and general readers."
Today, “he would be amazed and delighted with what has been achieved with what was in those boxes”.
It was, she said, a "moving experience to stand in the space for the first time. In many ways it completes a journey that began two years ago with Seamus Heaney's Home Place in Bellaghy, and it mirrors Seamus's own life as it rippled outward from the Derry landscape of his childhood to the wider world".
President Michael D Higgins, in a thoughtful speech about his friend and fellow poet, said the exhibition was a remarkable and valuable portal into Heaney's world, forcing the visitor "to view Seamus's words through different prisms and from alternate angles", leading into "the quiet and profound spaces and intimacies that defined Seamus the man".
He drew attention to his carefully designed Christmas cards for friends, and diary entries about everyday family life.
Listen Now Again, a partnership between the National Library, the Department of Culture and Bank of Ireland (the agreement for the cultural centre runs for 10 years), includes manuscripts, letters, unpublished works, diaries, photographs and personal items, including the desk where he wrote in the family home in Sandymount, a lamp that belonged to WB Yeats and a portrait by Louis le Brocquy.
Curated by Prof Geraldine Higgins, it skilfully threads together Heaney's life – Bellaghy, his family, events in the wider world such as the Troubles – and his poetry. His creative process is central, and how Heaney wrote and rewrote is animated through manuscripts at different stages, with annotations and edits, and a subtly edited video teases out his writing and rewriting of a poem.
There are glorious pictures of the Bellaghy landscape, alongside actual sods of turf, letters to friends and from publishers, and family photos, all drawing nuanced connections to his poetry.
A striking aspect is its exploration of Heaney’s relationship with the Troubles: a wall of newspaper front pages headline the immediacy of atrocities; an IRA leaflet warns about the dangers of loose talk.
Artist Maser made two works for the exhibition: a hanging sculpture depicting folded paper gradually turning into birds, flying towards the roof; and the closing tableau, Don't Be Afraid; Seamus Heaney texted "Noli Timere" to his wife just before he died.
Francesca McDonagh, Bank of Ireland’s chief executive, said the historic building “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 (open Mon-Sat, 10am-4pm). It is free. Usually no ticket is required, but time slots should be booked for opening weekend (July 6th-8th) on nli.ie/seamusheaney