The People’s Poet


Everyone in Ireland was a friend of Seamus Heaney. Many of us met him first as children. I remember still the classroom where our English teacher first read Digging, a wood panelled room with a door behind the blackboard. It opened to a secret passage which led into a balcony above the school chapel. It was where the nuns watched Mass as the priests ministered to 200 boys.

Seamus, a boarder at St Columb’s College in Derry, would have recognised the scene. My boarding school in Newry was cut from the same clerical cloth. This would have been 1972, the year of Bloody Sunday. Closeted in our own enclosed world, we were aware that strange forces were at large in the more dangerous world outside. Occasionally it intruded, the sight of a pupil dropped off to school from a helicopter after a night being interrogated by the army, the sound of bombs going off in the middle distance, the plumes of smoke.

Some of our teachers were figures in the civil rights movement, the charismatic Sean Hollywood – who challenged Enoch Powell for the South Down seat in Westminster – among them. In Northern Ireland – the north we called it so as not to dignify it with the name of a nation state – times were changing, politically and culturally, one inter-twined with the other. Heaney was part of that movement for change. Rooted in an instinctive Irish nationalism, a desire for justice and an end to the inequalities which had stained Northern Ireland since its foundation.

Insistent in his beliefs and his Irishness, Heaney articulated nationalism in a voice which was never hectoring, and which was always respectful of other traditions. I think he understood that they all sprang from a common source, told in stories which provided a narrative for our common humanity.

The opening lines of Digging are simple, but the image arresting.

Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

There in two lines, you have the summation of the central creed of constitutional nationalism. The pen is mightier and the sword. I remember being stunned by the phrase, and being envious of it.

Mid-term break, about the accident which had claimed the life of his brother, shocked us more. It was a tragedy we could identify with, away from home; away from family and friends, away from the reassuring comforts which for us had been consigned to a tin of tuck, slipped under our dormitory beds.

I had aspirations to be a poet then, and he was a hero. But nobody could write Heaney like Heaney. The ease with which he could spin out the words was an illusion. He stimulated a nation of pale imitators, and I was one. But his similes and metaphors seems forced when dripping from our squat pens. He made the life of an Irish poet 100 times harder, and with that understanding comes a recognition of the hurdles his peers surmounted.

I admire Michael Longley, Derek Mahon, Paul Muldoon more for their dogged refusal to put down their pens in the face of his genius. The flowering of Irish poetry in the latter half of the 20th century so much because of him, and so much in spite of him too.

I was lucky enough to meet him a number of times when I was editing The Irish News – his family’s daily paper; working at Queen’s his alma mater, and at the University of Strathclyde where he received an honorary doctor of literature.

I sat beside him at a lunch for the Queen during her visit to Belfast to mark the 100th anniversary of the award of Queen’s University’s charter. He had written a short poem to mark the occasion. As we sat there I contemplated his famous lines:

“My passport’s green

No glass of ours was ever raised

To toast the queen”

Times had changed. A few years later, during the state dinner to mark the Queen’s first visit to the Republic of Ireland he sat at the top table, alongside Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh. Such is Seamus’s conviviality I imagine they got on well.

My stock rose in Glasgow’s celebrated Cafe Gandolfi where I took him for lunch during his visit to Strathclyde. As I remember it, he feasted on smoked haddie. He reminisced about Hugh MacDiarmid the Scottish poet and Robert Lowell – another poetic genius who checked out early. Self-consciously I wrote a poem to mark the event, wisely I never shared it with him.

He was taken ill during that visit to Glasgow, and spent much of it in Glasgow Royal Infirmary. The Scottish novelist, Andrew O’Hagen, a friend, read the speech Seamus would have given thanking the University for his honorary degree. I don’t think I was ever so moved.

As I write I have beside me an anthology of verse from poets at Queen’s. It is called The Blackbird’s Nest. Seamus, the greatest of them (and the list includes Philip Larkin, John Hewitt, Philip Hobsbaum, Michael Longely, and Paul Muldoon) gets a modest two poems. He would have been embarrassed to have any more than his contemporaries.

He wrote a beautiful and self-depricating foreword. Getting that book into print is one of the proudest things I have done in my entire life. My limited edition copy, No.10, is signed by Frank Ormsby, who compiled the anthology, by Ciaran Carson – another poetic hero of mine and the first professor in the Seamus Heaney Centre for poetry – and by Seamus himself. It is a treasured possession and, now, a poignant one.

I have no doubt in my mind that, in centuries to come, his name will be alongside the greatest human civilisations have ever given voice to. With apologies to Seamus, this is the poem I wrote after our last meeting.

Cataloguing Longley

There’s room on the shelf where I slip

You in between Logue and Lorca;

Half a dozen volumes of your verse,

Collected thoughts from the sixties

To this latest slim book of poems found

In a Glasgow bookshop as I searched

For Robert Lowell. Seamus Heaney

Sent me there, scurrying for a poet

Whose name had sat unnoticed

In the outer reaches of my peripheral

Vision. Over lunch in Cafe Gandolfi

He’d recalled the taxi ride Lowell shared

With death, and the pilgrimages

Made to Hugh MacDiarmid’s lair in Biggar.

Both men are resting now, on my table:

Lowell’s Quaker Graveyard gracing the pages

Of a Penguin book of verse, MacDiarmid

Looking startled on the cover of a book

I’d bought two decades ago

When I had pretensions

And dreams of writing poetry myself.