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.