‘Seamus Heaney gave us permission to speak in our own voice’

Heaney’s ‘Aeneid’ is Virgil via way of the North. Two of the late poet’s friends, Stephen Rea and Neil Martin, ponder his legacy as they prepare to stage his version

When Seamus Heaney was 18 and attending Latin class in St Columb's College in Derry, he studied Virgil's Aeneid: Book IX for his A Levels. His teacher, Fr McGlinchey, kept sighing: "Och boys, I wish it were Book VI."

In Book VI, Aeneas descends into the underworld and meets the shade of his dead father, Anchises. Many years later, Heaney's last work before his death in 2013 was a translation of Aeneid: Book VI, which will be performed at the Kilkenny Arts Festival next week by two of his old friends: actor Stephen Rea and Belfast composer Neil Martin.

Rea comes in to the hotel lobby to meet me and is full of easy, charming conversation. Then Martin joins us and puts his arms around Rea: “Hello, dear heart.”

Heaney, Rea and Martin met in the 1980s through Field Day, the Derry theatre company. Heaney was brought on to its board by Brian Friel. In 1990, he wrote his first play, The Cure at Troy, which was directed by Rea.

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Rea will read the whole of Heaney's Aeneid: Book VI at Kilkenny. He knows it will be demanding, but "it's not clumsy and difficult like a lot of translations are".

Martin took delight in writing the accompanying score.

“Seamus was fiercely interested in music, and that comes across in his writing because it’s full of rhythm and cadence and melody, if you like, in a different way. So I think that we’re blessed in having those tunes that Seamus wrote.”

He gestures towards Rea. “And then that man will sing those tunes.”

"That's an instruction," Rea says, nodding solemnly. There is something unique, for Rea, in Heaney's writing. "Seamus wrote for people with my voice, my intonation and delivery. It's south Derry. I remembered when Field Day did The Cure at Troy years ago, which was Seamus's version of Philoctetes and there was one actor who kept wanting to RSC it. I said to him – and this boy's family came from Tyrone – 'Seamus has given us permission to speak in our own voice. It's a fantastic gift'."

Field Day has a special relationship with the classics. It did a version of Antigone with Tom Paulin, and Sam Shepard wrote A Particle of Dread: Oedipus Variations for the company in 2014.

"The wonderful thing about classics," Rea says "[is] they extract you from the narrowness of the situation in the world that you're trapped in, particularly about the North. The whole thing about Philoctetes and The Cure at Troy is about this man relentlessly refusing to change his mind. And it's because it has got a majesty of expression and it's not just set in a street in Belfast, it gives you a little distance and it gives you a language that frees you."

Martin compares the classics to traditional music or jazz: “There’s a certain formality and structure to it and that’s a little removed from the normal world. But once you get into that space it’s utterly limitless and without boundaries.”

Satisfyingly cyclical

Rea acknowledges that Heaney endeavoured to remove his work from direct political application. Still, he cannot help but see something satisfyingly cyclical about the poet's return to Aeneid towards the end of his life. "If you think about his attitude to Fr McGlinchey, the duty of care that those men [in St Columb's College] carried out to those boys in Derry, where they were severely discriminated against, but by god that slack was taken up by those men, wasn't it?

“The priests and teachers . . . to get those boys to a position where they could rise above the society that they were born into . . . but god, they were lucky they had those men to teach them. The last thing that Heaney did was come back to Fr McGlinchey.”

Much has been made of Heaney as a poet who occupied a middle place, somewhere between North and South. He was criticised for not being more politically outspoken. “That’s not the artist’s role,” says Martin. “That’s not what his gift is for.”

Rea agrees. “He wanted to maintain the purity of the intention of that language because that language is above politics.” He believes that Friel, while more “overtly political” felt similarly. “You would minimise the impact and the application if you somehow subvert the poetic language.”

Lost poetry

Rea first encountered Heaney's work when he read some of his early, now lost, poems for the Poetry Society in Queens. He remembers only one, called Corner Cathy Vespers. "The opening line was 'Lead us not into tight blue jeans' . . . "

About working together with Field Day, he says: “It was a wonderful group of people. There wasn’t like an agenda . . . all those years of silence just breaking open. For me, it was about discovering the intellectual life because I was a lousy student. As an artist, Seamus maybe needed it less than other people. But, well, he’d never written a play before that.”

Given that Heaney was living in Wicklow at that stage, and Rea lived in London, was it a way for them to stay culturally linked to the North?

“I remember people used to say aw well, they’ve all moved away so they shouldn’t really be talking about it,” Rea says. “In fact, everyone was marked by growing up in that world. People tried to silence us by saying that we were the artistic wing of the IRA – it’s absolutely untrue. It released all of us, without question. At least I was dealing with my own demons about that place but dealing with it creatively.”

Heaney's words also came into Martin's life long before they met. He recalls his mother reading Requiem for the Croppies to him one Sunday morning when he was 10, "and the closing couplet of it, 'The barley grew up out of our grave'.

"I remember that and as a kid being walloped by this image. Even reading Aeneid now, how do you take Virgil's poem and bring it to another place that it's never been brought to before in thousands of years? Heaney brings that south Derry twang to it and there was a line I was reading the other night, 'and the lad'. "

I remind them of a story Heaney told about being in a chip shop in a loyalist part of Belfast. A woman recognised him as “that Irish poet” and another woman corrected her and said he was a “British subject in Ulster”. Heaney said nothing, and it stayed with him.

“You can’t negotiate with that kind of stupidity – and he wanted his chips y’know,” Rea says wryly. “There was something optimistic about Seamus. I think Marie [his widow] said that his family were confident.

“They knew who they were: farming people with two feet on their own ground. He would get a wonderful education. He was walking into the international world. He wasn’t going to be reduced to haggling over his nationality.”

Martin describes his close relationship with Heaney as having “a slight element of the avuncular. For Rea, he was a contemporary, a lifelong friend.

“He wrote a poem when my second son was born. It was written on a Japanese fan – Y’know, a sweetly generous man. He had the bearing of a seriously important man, not in any assumed way. But he was awful fun, really liked jokes.

“Friel had a stroke and then Heaney had a stroke,” Rea says. “And then you know what Friel said to him?” Martin takes over the story. “He phoned up to the hospital bed, Friel did, once Seamus was alright, and he said, ‘Well Seamus, different strokes for different folks’.”

At this point, Rea orders a sandwich to share with Martin and remembers a small kindness once. He was hungover, and slumped in a chair in Heaney’s old family home on the Bellaghy Road. Heaney quietly put a sandwich in front of him.

Martin nods in recognition. “Darling generous man. He never left much of Bellaghy behind him. The plain farmhouse, Seamus retained that.”

Transcends violence

The men are lost in remembering when Rea says: “I read a poem of Heaney’s that he wrote to commemorate his cousin, who was ambushed by loyalists. I mean, it’s beautiful, not bitter, just full of love for the cousin. It transcends the stinking violence of the act, or you have to feel or hope that it would.”

Rea recites some verses of The Cure at Troy from memory. "No poem or play or song/ Can fully right a wrong Inflicted and endured." He says the words quietly. "It just opens you to a sympathy for people trying to live, doesn't it?"

The Cure at Troy was politically charged; Aeneid is undeniably personal. Recalling the scene where Aeneas is reunited with his dead father but cannot truly embrace him, Martin and Rea speak about its resonance for them. "My father died a long long time ago," Martin says, "when he was relatively young. And this kind of middle stage in life you wonder how your relationship would be, almost 30 years on from his death, because I was only starting to get to know him."

For Rea, it’s about his own role as a father. “My boys are going away for a year and it makes me think of the bigger loss. I’ll go before them, please God y’know, but I’ll feel that loss of . . . I think poor oul Bowie said it himself that he didn’t mind getting old, he just didn’t want to leave his daughter.

“ I feel that, y’know. I don’t mind getting old because it’s actually quite interesting.”