Heaney country licks around the top-left-hand corner of Lough Neagh in east Co Derry. To the west are the Sperrins, and, on the far side of them, Derry city. The land between these two great topographical features is mostly flat – some of it bog but a lot of good farming land too.
This is the landscape that produced the poet. The place and its people were the muse for much of his memorable work.
I'm sitting in a car on Hillhead Road with Eugene Kielt, a local historian and enthusiast for all things Heaney. We are about 100m down from Mossbawn Farm, the poet's childhood home.
It has been done up since Heaney’s day, and looks now like thousands of other bungalows around the country. Back then it looked like thousands of other small farm cottages around the country, but somehow, from this distance in time and with the help of an old black-and-white photo, it appears to have had more character.
"The first 13 or 14 years of his life were very content, very peaceful," says Kielt as we stare at a mix of sunshine and drizzle. Down there, he indicates with a nod of his head and a glance to my left, "down that lane, that's where Harry Mullan's place was". Harry Mullan and his tiny cottage became Harry Boyle, the local amateur barber in the poem The Clip (from District and Circle), from which Eugene reads a line or two.
But it’s another poem that we are really here to consider.
The Hillhead Road links Knockloughrim and Toomebridge. It is not a speeding dual carriageway, just an ordinary rural link road of no great consequence. It was here, in February 1953, that two of Heaney’s younger brothers, 3½-year-old Christopher and an older sibling, walked from Mossbawn with a letter to post. Something distracted Christopher and he darted into the road. The driver could do nothing.
Kielt taps on his smartphone and instantly the car is filled with that familiar voice, rich and mellow, reading his own memory of that awful day when he was called home from boarding school in Derry for the return of Christopher’s body to Mossbawn Farm.
“Next morning I went up into the room. Snowdrops
And candles soothed the bedside; I saw him
For the first time in six weeks. Paler now,
Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple,
He lay in the four foot box as in his cot.
No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.
A four foot box, a foot for every year."
Mid-term Break (Opened Ground)
Eugene Kielt has absorbed so much Heaney lore that it oozes from him. He is familiar with the poems and warms to their language.
"I love that line 'it thumped but it sang too'," he says after reading Heaney's description of a leather football whizzing through the air in The Point (from Seeing Things).
He knows the Heaney family well and is a gentle guardian of personal details. “Please don’t use that,” he’ll say anxiously after revealing some small matter, fearing, on reflection, that wider disclosure might cause upset.
Kielt and his wife, Geraldine, take quiet pride in the fact that Heaney came to their Magherafelt B&B and hosted an evening reading his work. The detached house is on the edge of the town and, although covered in Virginia creeper, is called Laurel Villa.
Inside, the place is something of a living museum to the poet. It has the comfy embrace of a gentlemen’s club or an old rectory: well-worn but cared for, cluttered but tidy. Varnished pine floors are covered in oriental rugs; books are everywhere, as are cosy, loose-covered armchairs, and there’s a large mahogany sideboard.
The house is full of Heaney ephemera and the walls are covered in photos of the poet, along with ads for readings, cover facsimiles of his Faber & Faber published collections and copies of individual poems, displayed like scrolls on printed linen.
After a night in bedroom No 5 (the Heaney Room), the Laurel Villa breakfast table is set with sparkling hotelware, laid on heavy-duty white linen. The fare is suitably wholesome: scones and thick-cut slices of bacon, fried eggs and fat, juicy field mushrooms.
My Heaney tour begins with Kielt driving into town, our first pause being at the bottom of King Street outside DJJ Bradley accountants, which was formerly Louden's butchers. Kielt recalls the birth of his love of Heaney: it was when he heard him first, reading at the 1977 Magherafelt Mad May Festival. "The language he was using was language I was familiar with," he says, recalling how awestruck he was to have his place, its stories and language reflected back at him.
A tap on the phone and out comes The Nod (from District and Circle) and Heaney's memory of the child accompanying his dad to Louden's to collect the Sunday joint – "red beef, white string, brown paper . . ." and "neighbours with guns, parading up and down", the unruly, not to say thuggish, B-Specials reserve of the old RUC.
In Magherafelt, Kielt points out the bus station, blown to smithereens in 1993 when a 500lb IRA car bomb destroyed much of the town centre, and to the disused mart on Rainey Street (“I would have brought cattle there as a boy,” he says), which Heaney brought together in Two Lorries (from The Spirit Level) to evoke memories of his mother, coal dust from a fuel lorry and the dust to which the IRA reduced Magherafelt.
Kielt taps the phone:
. . .”
comes Heaney’s voice:
“Oh, dream of red plush and a city coalman
As time fastforwards and a different lorry
Groans into shot, up Broad Street, with a payload
That will blow the bus station to dust and ashes . . .”
The road from Magherafelt to Castledawson crests just enough to give, on a clear day, a view of distant, humpback Slemish. We pass the church and graveyard of St John, where Heaney’s mother’s people, the McCanns, are buried.
Then it’s on to Castledawson, to the small Church of Ireland church on the edge of Moyola Park, seat of the late Sir James Chichester-Clark, last of the big house unionist prime ministers of Northern Ireland.
An adjoining field used to be the pitch for Moyola Park Football Club where Seán McCann played, his grandson capturing the moment in The Old Team (from The Haw Lantern).
Standing there, as Kielt reads the poem, you can almost see them play as, on the other side of the hedge, a carried coffin seems to float to its resting place, the lifters hidden by the shrubbery.
Kielt leads me to the banks of the Moyola river – still flowing "black-lick and quick under the sallies" (Moyulla, from District and Circle). There, he reads part of Something to Write Home About, an essay in Finders Keepers, Selected Prose 1971-2001 in which Heaney explores how a boundary, a divider such as a river, can also be a uniter, a place shared.
In Bellaghy, we stop opposite a Spar. People come and go from the shop as they do anywhere; others pause to use the ATM. Thirty-eight years ago David McQuillan was there, waiting with his 14-year-old son for a lift to work, as an IRA gunman’s car drew up, and shots fired:
“. . . Grey matter like gruel flecked with blood
In spatters on the whitewash. A clean spot
Where his head had been, other stains subsumed
In the parched wall he leant his back against
That morning like any other morning,
Part-time reservist, toting his lunch-box.”
Keeping Going (The Spirit Level)
And then, sparing the reader no gory detail, Heaney notes how the man slumped on to the tarmac, "Feeding the gutter with his copious blood".
Listening to Heaney reading his poems as Kielt sets them in context of time and place, it all seems much closer than 1977, much nearer the surface. The same sectarian viciousness took Heaney's cousin Colum McCartney, victim of a random killing in 1975, remembered in The Strand at Lough Beg (from Field Work).
We stand there on the lakeside meadow, listening to the voice wonder if Colum was murdered at a fake roadblock. . .
“The red lamp swung, the sudden brakes and stalling
Engine, voices, heads hooded and the cold-nosed gun?”
A lighter note comes from a visit to the old whitewashed smithy on the edge of Bellaghy, setting for The Forge (from Door into the Dark).
Barney Devlin maintains it now for visitors, and in honour of the poet, the poem that immortalised the place and of Barney's father, Frank, the blacksmith featured in the sonnet. Belying his 94 years, an animated Barney delights in demonstrating how "the hammered anvil's short-pitched ring" strikes as crystal clear today as in Heaney's childhood memory.
The tour ends where it must, in St Mary’s churchyard in Bellaghy, where Heaney rests close to Christopher and Colum, to his parents, aunts and a sister. His plot is tucked into a corner, an old ivy-clad rubble wall wrapped around it, the branches of a sycamore giving shelter.
A headstone has just been erected, replacing the wooden cross put down immediately after the poet's burial three years ago. "Seamus Heaney 1939-2013" is carved into the solid grey slab. And then his epitaph, a line from The Gravel Walks (from The Spirit Level): "Walk on air against your better judgement".
- For inspiration to plan a lesser spotted break in Northern Ireland, visit discovernorthernireland.com
- Series concluded
VISIT HEANEY COUNTRY
Information on Laurel Villa and Eugene Kielt's Heaney tours at laurel-villa.com. If you stay there, a fine evening meal can be enjoyed across the road at the Michelin and Georgina Campbell-recommended Church Street Restaurant (churchstreetrestaurant.co.uk) , which specialises in local produce and keenly priced meals (starters average about £6, main courses about £16). On my midweek visit, the place was packed, the food excellent and £19 for a bottle of Santa Alicia Gran Reserva (Cabernet Sauvignon, Chile 2009) more than reasonable.