Playwright Daragh Carville pays tribute to the late Seamus Heaney, and shares his memories of an inspirational man.
The words ‘Seamus Heaney’ and ‘Death’ have been linked ever since the very beginning of his career, with the publication of ‘Death of a Naturalist’ in 1966. Death has been a constant presence in his work ever since; from the heartbreaking loss of the little brother in ‘Mid Term Break’ through to the many elegies for friends and fellow artists in the most recent collections. In between, there were the victims of the Troubles commemorated in poems such as ‘Casualty’, the ancient dead of the bog-bodies poems, and the Dante-esque revenants given voice in ‘Station Island’ and elsewhere. Death – and rebirth, of course, and renewal – is everywhere in Heaney. And yet seeing the words ‘Seamus Heaney’s death’ together brings a profound psychic shock. As if there’s been some kind of mix-up. As if those words just don’t belong together at all.
Like many of us, I first encountered Seamus Heaney’s poetry at school. At St Patrick’s College in Armagh, we studied his Selected Poems for O Level, a nineteen-eighties paperback edition with a big black and white photograph of the man on the cover, squinting into the camera, half smiling, wearing an old duffle coat. The first poem was of course ‘Digging’. I loved the rolling music of the words, the precise sense of place and the feeling that the poems were both new and ancient, as if they had somehow tapped into all of the present and all of the past.
Some time in the mid eighties, Heaney came to do a reading in Armagh and we were brought along by our English teacher, Paul McAvinchey. And there he was, the man himself, in living colour. He looked exactly like himself. Actually he looked, as a classroom wag put it, as if he’d arrived on his pushbike: his big bush of hair blown back, his face shining, weather-beaten. You half expected to see a pair of bicycle clips around the cuffs of his trousers. And he was smiling. He was always smiling.
Heaney often spoke of the impact of his first encounter with the poetry of Patrick Kavanagh, the sense that Kavanagh gave him ‘permission’ to write about his own experience, about ‘the nettles behind the henhouse’. My own first encounter with Heaney did something like that for me. We were also studying Shakespeare and Chaucer for O Level and I loved their words too, their worlds. But this man was from just up the road. He was the kind of man you would see in Armagh appraising livestock in the Shambles Market or ordering a drink at the bar in the Charlemont Arms. He was one of us. An ordinary man but one who did extraordinary things. And he gave you permission to try and do something like that yourself. He gave you permission to go for it.
When I went to university in England, and later when I moved to France, I took Heaney with me. I remember – very new, very nervous – reading ‘Funeral Rites’ at a poetry workshop in Paris, with the poets Alice Notley and Douglas Oliver. It was my way of introducing myself, my way of saying, this is who I am, this is where I’m from. Later, when I moved back to Northern Ireland to do an MA in Irish Writing at Queen’s, his old alma mater, I re-immersed myself in Heaney’s work. And not just the familiar, comforting early poems, the ones I associated with childhood and the schoolroom, but newer, stranger work, poems I couldn’t always get a handle on. Because, for a poet who’s always thought of as ‘rooted’, Heaney was always pushing on, always going further, exploring the outer reaches of his writing self.
When I started writing properly myself, even though I was writing plays not poetry, and even though my work was very different from his, Heaney was always in there somewhere: in the concern for place, in the music of the language, that spoken word thing. One of the lessons he taught me, I think, is how important it is to listen, to tune in to the language.
I was appointed Writer-In-Residence at Queen’s in 1999 and ended up working there for almost ten years. At first I had a small office, not much more than a cubby hole, in the School of English. But it felt like a magical place because, I was told, it had once been Heaney’s office. A few years before I moved in, legend has it that a previous incumbent had found, lost down the back of a filing cabinet, a whole sheaf of rejection letters sent to Heaney by publishers in the early sixties. I often wished we could find those letters and frame them and put them up in the department, to reassure anxious Creative Writing students that even Nobel Prize winners had their fair share of rejection.
One of my responsibilities as Writer-in-Residence was to chair the weekly Queen’s Writers’ Group, the same group, we liked to think, that Heaney himself had attended in the fifties and sixties, under the chairmanship of Philip Hobsbawn. It was a thrill to think I could be a small link in that chain.
And when Queen’s established its own Creative Writing centre, many years in the planning, what else could it be called but the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry? I was part of the team responsible for running the Centre in the early years, alongside the poets Ciaran Carson, Medbh McGuckian and Sinead Morrisey, the novelist Glenn Patterson, and the critics Edna Longley and Fran Brearton. Seamus himself opened the Centre and was a regular visitor, not just for readings and launches and the like, but for at least some of the hands-on, nitty-gritty business of committee meetings and planning sessions and so on. I always felt out of my depth at these things. I remember once, at a board meeting, as I was babbling on nervily about something or other, trying to keep the focus on the needs of the students, the actual Creative Writers themselves, I remember looking across the table to see Seamus smiling at me, nodding, encouraging, his eyes twinkling benevolently, as if to say ‘You tell ‘em, boy.’
I met him frequently during those years, usually at big glad-handing events: the launch of the Belfast Festival, the laying of the foundation stone of the new Lyric Theatre. He would always be surrounded by people, but he would always take a moment to talk. I was in awe of him, that never left me, but he would go out of his way to set you at ease. But I know I’m not the only one who had that experience: the sense that, even in a crowd, he always had time for you, just you. That’s the kind of man he was.
He once came to a rehearsed reading of a work-in-progress of mine, a piece that went on to be the play ‘Family Plot’, a very Heaney-ish play, when I come to think of it. He came up to me afterwards, all smiles. ‘You have a good ear’, he said. The highest praise imaginable.
The last time I saw him was in Armagh, at the John Hewitt Summer School, five years ago. He was there to do a reading with the American poet Billy Collins but in the afternoon, with typical generosity, he came to a presentation I’d put together, of writing from and about Armagh. He spoke to me warmly about it afterwards, picking out Paul Muldoon’s poem ‘Clonfeacle’ as a favorite. That evening he read to a packed, hushed audience in the Market Place Theatre, and remembered a previous visit to Armagh, forty years earlier, when the schoolteacher Gerry Hicks – another old teacher of mine – introduced him to the teenage Muldoon at the Museum on the Mall, saying that this youngster was ‘rara avis’, a rare bird.
From the first, Heaney was an encourager of other artists, other writers. He took that rare bird Muldoon under his wing, as he would later do for many others, including, in a small way, me. I’ve been in touch with friends and fellow writers like Glenn in recent days and we all have similar stories to tell. But of course it wasn’t just writers whose lives he touched. It was readers. Generations of readers the world over who came to a clearer understanding of their own lives – their place in the world, the passage of time, their own stories of love and loss – through his work.
Heaney was – and is, and will continue to be – an inspiration. For his alertness to the extraordinary in the ordinary. For his seriousness of purpose and the twinkle in his eye. For the weightiness of his endeavour and the lightness of his touch.
Not the least of his achievements is that he was a great writer of elegies. And one of the ways we will most feel his loss is that he’s not here to mark it. We need someone like him now to do justice to what we have lost, to the sheer scale of it.
September 2, 2013