Diarmaid Ferriter: Heaney’s work must not be politically hijacked

Like McGahern and O’Brien, the poet should not be ambushed for commemorations

Celebrating her 90th birthday this week, Edna O’Brien expressed the hope that her maker will spare her the time to write one more book. For O’Brien, everything revolves around the words on the page – getting them down on paper, writing them, rewriting them and rewriting them again.

Like other great writers, she sees this process as her primary duty. Around the words, there is of course the public profile, the fame, the extent to which her name is inextricably linked with the clash of traditional and modern Ireland over the decades, the battles over censorship and the moral panics generated by those who wrote about intimate thoughts concerning life, love, sexuality and the status of women. O’Brien has always had plenty to say about these things, but they are secondary to her primal impulse to write.

John McGahern, another gifted wordsmith who crafted his prose slowly and with remarkable precision, also believed his main responsibility was to his sentences. He too wrote about controversial themes, including the gulf between the idealisation of family life and the reality of the abuses and power struggles that went on behind the facade.

John McGahern did not wave the flag of nationalism; it was foolish, he thought

He also elaborated on aspects of the Irish journey from revolution to conservative state, drawing on the experiences of his complicated, difficult father, especially in Amongst Women in 1990. McGahern was not a celebrity author and had little interest, it seemed, in socially embracing his renown, but he was vocal about certain aspects of Irish society that he addressed in his fiction.


He did not wave the flag of nationalism; it was foolish, he thought, as “one is given the place one is born into, but first and last one is a human being. And the humanity is much more interesting than the locality or nation.”

Political grandstanding

McGahern was, however, defensive about attempts to misrepresent him, his words and his role. There was a tense moment, for example, at a Booker Prize ceremony when an English critic suggested Amongst Women glorified the IRA.

McGahern retorted that “Amongst Women glorifies nothing but life itself and fairly humble life. All its violence is internalised within a family, is not public or political; but is not, therefore, a lesser evil. If the novel suggests anything, it is how difficult it is for people, especially women who until very recently had no real power at all in our society, to try to create some space to live and love in the shadow of violence; how they manage to do that in the novel becomes their uncertain triumph.”

The message was clear; McGahern was in charge of the meaning of his sentences and was not interested in political grandstanding.

Who or what Heaney belonged to was not a matter for politicians to decide, but himself and his pen

Neither was Seamus Heaney. The attempt to hoist the poet on to the commemorative flag for Northern Ireland’s 100th birthday next year by making him a part of the “branding” of “Our Story in the Making: NI Beyond 100” is inappropriate and distasteful. Heaney’s allegiance was to the poetic words. Of course, he could not avoid some engagement with the enormity of the Troubles that plagued his native land.

Twenty-five years ago today, the award of the Nobel prize for literature to Heaney was marked by a ceremony in Dublin Castle. At the ceremony, then taoiseach John Bruton declared it was a proud day for Ireland when “one of our own” had been so decorated. Who or what Heaney belonged to, however, was not a matter for politicians to decide, but himself and his pen.

He had been awarded the Nobel prize for poems described as having “lyrical beauty and ethical depth” and which “exalt everyday miracles and living past”.

At Dublin Castle, then minister for arts Michael D Higgins rightly honed in on that aspect; he described his poetry as having its roots “In the very soil of Ulster . . . its bogs, its peat and its turf and its rural processes, in languages as wet, clammy, fibrous and vitally real as the Mossbawm turf he spades on almost every page”.

‘Subtleties and tolerances’

Heaney, no more than the other artists, did not ignore contemporary political and social stirrings and milestones; in 1995 he referenced the IRA ceasefire and spoke of Ireland as “a country falling into its modernity”.

But then it was back to the poetry. Heaney had long maintained that he felt it was not necessary for poets to deal directly with political issues because “the subtleties and tolerances of their art were precisely what they had to contribute to the coarseness and intolerances of public life”.

That was not straightforward; nor was it a view shared by all poets, but it was his personal view and it should be respected. While he engaged with the haunting ghosts of history, he also focused intensely on the independence of the artist and their craft. He and the other greats earned that independence, and to hijack them for contentious commemorations is to do them an injustice.