Poetry in motion: tapestry tribute to Seamus Heaney

The tribute to Heaney, which was paid for by a group of the poet’s admirers, including Paul Simon and Bono, is bringing colour to Dublin airport

If there is any substitute for love, it is memory – Jos Brodsky

A s you trudge towards Departures at Terminal 2 next week, dreading the ridiculous barefoot shuffle through security, take a moment to look up.

In a tapestry of silver, silk, cotton and golden threads, a tiny, endearing figure sails along in a shimmering blue vastness of ghostly sea creatures and mysterious objects, clinging precariously to his great parachute of words, bound for an island haven of warmth and love.

It can be anything the viewer wants it to be – a great, luxuriant, vibrant splash of artistry, a riff on the adventure of travel and words perhaps, in the cool, white, clinical surrounds of a modern airport.


Or it can be something more profound. The piece is a homage to Seamus Heaney whose death last August led to an extraordinary national outpouring of sadness and memory. The lines in the "parachute" are from Lightenings viii , his adaptation of a story from the Annals of Clonmacnoise, an imagining of a spaceship coming down to Clonmacnoise :

‘This man can’t bear our life here and will drown,’

The abbot said, ‘unless we help him.’ So

They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back

Out of the marvellous as he had known it.

Peter Sís, the Czech-born, world-renowned illustrator, author and film-maker, who conceived the image after innumerable exchanges with Heaney’s family and friends, says he tried to convey something “about the power of books and words, about the writer floating and fighting to keep some control of where he is going . . . He’s not really in charge of the vessel . . . He’s flying on an open book, on his words, through these vast, changing skies and there is that little island, a place that loves him and waits for him and embraces him.”

It seems wholly apt for a poet who was the master of juxtaposing the mundane and the marvellous. The art is distinctively Sís. Flying creatures and objects are a constant theme in his work – a process of working out the memories of growing up in a landlocked, communist-controlled country – and are central to his latest children's book, a charming illustrated biography of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of The Little Prince .

The tapestry measures 4.65m high by 4m wide and was crafted by weavers from Atelier Pinton in the French town of Felletin, near Aubusson, over the course of three months. It cost €60,000, donated in six equal amounts by Paul Simon (one of the great poets of modern America, some of us would argue); Bono, Edge, Paul McGuinness and Kathy Gilfillan, Marie and Joe Donnelly, and American couple Kathy and Ed Ludwig, summertime Martha's Vineyard neighbours of Bill Shipsey, the idea's begetter and co-ordinator.

Shipsey, a Dalkey resident and busy senior counsel is also a lifelong member of Amnesty and founded Art for Amnesty, Amnesty International’s global artist engagement programme. It was he who persuaded Aung San Suu Kyi’s people to include Ireland in her post-liberation itinerary.

For the Heaney tapestry, he found the patrons, negotiated with the atelier and persuaded “a hugely supportive” Dublin Airport Authority – which is covering the installation costs and the unveiling ceremony – to take it on. Next Wednesday, Paul Simon will dedicate the piece on behalf of Amnesty International and Art for Amnesty, of which Heaney was a stalwart supporter.

But perhaps Shipsey's greatest coup was to draw in the creative genius of Sís. Sent to Los Angeles in 1984 by the Communist Czech government to produce a film for the Winter Olympics, Sís applied for US asylum and in quick order designed the distinctive poster for Milos Forman's Amadeus , collaborated with Bob Dylan on a film, was introduced to children's book editors by Maurice Sendak, designed murals and stage sets and continues to win countless prestigious honours and awards.

Jacqueline Kennedy dubbed him a genius in her incarnation as an editor for Doubleday. "She was like my Medici – a good Medici. She found me by herself and found projects for me . . . She was very dedicated. When she would think I was working too long, she would come down to my studio in her little car and say, if you need somebody to clean the studio, I will clean it . . . Mine was her last book. She had it in hospital with her still."

His work for Amnesty – "very, very relevant to my own background" – has included an illustration of Heaney's poem From the Republic of Conscience . Another of his illustrations on the death of his friend Vaclav Havel was turned into a tapestry, funded by Bono, Edge, Sting, Peter Gabriel and Yoko Ono, as part of a successful campaign to rename Prague airport after Havel.

It seemed a natural progression for him to do the Dublin version of Prague.

Sís is far too wise to claim any special insights into an Irish national icon. He has always wanted to come to Ireland, he says, but adds in a comically fearful voice that after working on the Heaney design, “I started to be afraid to come, I was afraid that people would say ‘how could you do that? You didn’t touch the same ground that we did’ ”

But he is happy with the art. “I did my part. I feel good about it. I have a feeling I can be helpful somehow”.

Bill Shipsey’s ambitions, however, are unlikely to end with a nice tapestry in Terminal 2. After all, if the Czech international airport could be renamed after a universally loved and admired national figure, then what’s keeping us?