Fintan O'Toole: Bulldozers threaten Seamus Heaney’s primal sense of place

The North’s Minister for Infrastructure has given the go-ahead for a dual carriageway to push right through Mossbawn, Anahorish and Lough Beg, the poet’s ‘outback of the mind’

During the summer, I was at the Yeats International Summer School in Sligo. While there, I was invited to Broc House, Damien Brennan and Paula Gilvarry's home overlooking Lough Gill. There is a long set of windows facing the lake, and what opens in front of you is a breathtaking landscape that is at once visual and verbal.

This fabulous view is also a setting for some of WB Yeats’s poems. You can see the rock of Dooney, where the fiddler lives. There’s the shore, “Where dips the rocky highland/ Of Sleuth Wood in the lake” (The Stolen Child). Lurking behind one outcrop is the Lake Isle of Inisfree. And over to the left is the hazel wood where the wandering Aengus went because the fire was in his head.

These places are now double. They have a physical existence and an imaginative presence, and the two are forever intertwined. It’s a fair bet that in 100 or 200 years, people will be looking at that landscape, not just for its intrinsic beauty, but through the prism of a poet’s language.

Most people would accept that there is something very special about this, that this co-existence of place and words over time enriches our island in extraordinary ways. It gives us back something of the sense of wonder our ancestors felt when they believed that lakes and hills and fields and woods were not just physical features but living spirits, the haunts of otherworldly forces.


Traces of imagination

Since Yeats, no one has created that feeling quite so powerfully as Seamus Heaney. There are places in different corners of the island that will always be instinct with the traces of Heaney's imagination: the Flaggy Shore in the Burren (Postscript), Lough Neagh (A Lough Neagh Sequence), Sandymount (The Strand), Co Wicklow (The Glanmore Sonnets).

However, the primal Heaney landscape, the one that formed and inhabited him, is the small remote corner of southeast Derry, between Castledawson and Toome, where he was a child. He made certain placenames, certain obscure townlands, resonant with beauty and memory and strangeness: Anahorish, Mossbawn, Lough Beg, Broagh. This was the poet’s “Nesting ground./ Outback of my mind.”

And because of Heaney, it is the outback of other minds as well.

We think we know Mossbawn, where the seed cutters “kneel under the hedge in a half-circle” and the sun warms a “helmeted pump in the yard”. Derrygarve brings to mind, as it did for him, “vanished music, twilight water”. We hear in the word Broagh “its low tattoo/ among the windy boortrees/ and rhubarb-blades”. The “tawny guttural water” of the Moyola river “spells itself”. We can believe with Heaney that Anahorish is not just a rise on a rural road but “the first hill in the world”. We can see how Lough Beg “half-shines under the haze”.

Plow through terrain

So it seems scarcely credible that the North's Minister for Infrastructure, Chris Hazzard of Sinn Féin, has given the go-ahead for a big dual carriageway to push right through the middle of this terrain.

Construction is set to begin next month. The road, Hazzard announced on August 17th, will cut peak hour journey times between Castledawson and Randalstown by up to 25 per cent. He made no mention of Heaney at all. The official documents note that there are no features of cultural importance along its route.

The new carriageway will run within 100m of Heaney’s birthplace, the farmhouse at Mossbawn, and continue through Anahorish, where he went to school. It will cross the wetlands bordering Lough Beg, an important habit for birdlife, especially whooper swans.

This is a place that Heaney mapped through luminous imagery: the butter churning in the house (Churning Day), the flaxdam of Death of a Naturalist, the Lagans road to school at Anahorish, the railway line where the telegraph wires ran “like lovely freehand”, the Moyola just below the Broagh road, the soft boggy fields “melting and opening underfoot”.

Heaney was himself the great laureate of the internal combustion engine – half his poems seem to feature cars. And, of course, one of his most poignant poems (Mid-Term Break) arises from the death of his little brother Christopher in 1953, in an accident on the old main road that runs in front of Mossbawn.

So traffic problems and road safety would not have been beyond Heaney’s ken. But he objected to the particular route chosen for the new carriageway in 2007, suggesting an alternative route through an old airfield and industrial estate. Modestly, he expressed concern for the “wound on the ecology”. But Heaney knew that the wound is not just on the natural environment – it is on a sense of place that he himself had conjured into being.

Forever resonating

Does it really need to be argued that Heaney’s outback of the mind is a cultural landscape of international significance in the same way that Yeats’s Lough Gill will always be? Literary reputations wax and wane, but it is hard to imagine Mossbawn and Anahorish and Lough Beg ceasing to resonate far beyond themselves.

Just as hard to imagine that the desecration of this landscape will not be looked on in coming years as a source of shame and regret.

There is a sense in the official documents that all of this is being done, not wilfully, but thoughtlessly, by people for whom a road is just a road, a field is just a field. It is not too late to read a poem and learn to think otherwise.

There's a petition to save the Seamus Heaney landscape on at