THE village of Bellaghy lies in County Londonderry in one of the many parts of Northern Ireland terrorized by the Troubles. Of the population of just over 1,000 by far the majority were and are Catholic. In the 1980s, when there were daily reports of punishment beatings, bombings and killings, the village and its verdant hinterland was often in the headlines. In 1981, for example, two local men, Francis Hughes and Thomas McElwee, took part in the hunger strikes and subsequently died. They are buried in the churchyard of St Mary’s Bellaghy. These days, however, this has become a place of pilgrimage not for martyrs but for poetry lovers who come to pay homage to Seamus Heaney who died in 2013, aged 73. The grave and its simple headstone are a modest tribute to a writer who is credited with unifying his country and who remained faithful to his roots to the end. The inscription – ‘Walk on air against your better judgement’ – is taken from the acceptance speech he made in 1995 on receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature.
The weekend I spent in what must now be known as Heaney Country marked the eightieth anniversary of the poet’s birth. I was given a tour by Eugene Kielt who with his wife Gerardine runs a B&B at Magherafelt in which you can choose to stay in rooms dedicated to the memory of Louis MacNeice, Patrick Kavanagh and, of course, Heaney. Among recent guests were Gary Lineker and Carol Ann Duffy who, Eugene stressed, did not occupy the same accommodation. To suggest that he is an obsessive is something of an understatement. As he drives, Eugene points out places that are part of the Heaney lore. Occasionally, he stops to read a poem or a passage of prose. Many of the names will be as familiar to devotees of the poet as the places mentioned in the shipping forecast are to seafarers: Ballyscullion, Castledawson, the river Moyola, the Broagh and the Sluggan burn. Heaney’s upbringing was as rustic as Burns’s. ‘In the kitchen of the house where I grew up there was a cement floor,’ he recalled, ‘and one of my first memories is the feel of its coldness and smoothness under my feet.’
Seamus was the eldest of nine children. He was born on 13 April, 1939, at Mossbawn farm, the nearest village to which is Castledawson. Much, one imagines, has changed in the intervening eight decades – these days the area feels prosperous with ranch-style houses springing up wherever there’s a vacant plot – but much has remained as it was. The grass gleams green and many of the farm buildings look as if they’d tumble over if you leaned against them. It is land that does not yield a living easily. Generations have toiled in this soil, digging – as Seamus titled the opening poem in his debut collection, Death of a Naturalist– turf as if it were no more difficult than slicing bread. ‘By God, the old man could handle a spade,’ he wrote of his father. ‘Just like his old man.’
The poet’s preferred instrument is a pen and in Seamus’s hands it made its mark on paper as his father’s, and grandfather’s, spade did on the landscape. The poems in Death of a Naturalistare earth-bound, elemental, salutes to a way of life that required you literally to put your back in it. On our tour Eugene introduced me to Seamus’s brothers, Hugh and Colm, both of whom have the complexions of men who don’t spend many hours indoors. Hugh, the older of the pair, is loquacious while Colm, the third youngest of seven sons, only utters words when absolutely necessary. Seamus, said Hugh, was no sluggard in regard to farm work. When he came home from boarding school in Derry or university in Belfast he would join his father and siblings in the fields, milking cows, turning over sods, harvesting potatoes, Ireland’s stable crop. Reading his poems you can feel the tug of an upbringing that would be instantly recognisable to Thomas Hardy or Robert Frost or, for that matter, Norman MacCaig, ‘master of the light touch’.
It was a touch Seamus himself had, that of a fly fisherman. Listening to him read his own poems they seem as natural as speech, as if they took no effort at all to compose. In Stepping Stones, a book-length series of interviews he did with fellow poet Denis O’Driscoll, you can hear him at his most relaxed and eloquent. He never seemed to struggle to find the right word. Whole paragraphs come out of his mouth perfectly formed. His intelligence, his sanity, his modesty are abundantly in evidence. In one exchange Seamus tells O’Driscoll how Charles Monteith, Director of Faber and Faber, picked out the poems ‘Death of a Naturalist’ and ‘Digging’as those that particularly took his fancy, thus encouraging their author to concentrate on subjects and settings around Mossbawm. ‘And once I opened those channels, I got the surge, definitely.’
After visiting Hugh and Colm, and dropping in on the new Heaney brewery which has been started by Hugh’s son-in-law, Eugene pulled over at the end of Broagh Road, where Seamus’s mother used to catch the bus to nearby shops. This, he said, was the exact spot where another of the Heaney brothers, Christopher, was knocked down and killed. Christopher and Hugh were on one side of the road, posting a letter on the Belfast-bound bus, which you could do in those days. At that same moment two other brothers, Pat and Dan, were walking on the other side of the busy road. Seeing them, Christopher, who was three and a half years old, ran out from behind the bus to greet them and was hit by a passing car. No fault was attributed to the driver. A passenger in the car took Christopher from a distraught Hugh and carried him up the lane to the family home. He died a short time later in Magherafelt hospital.
The tragedy is told in Seamus’s poem ‘Mid-Term Break’ which is also in Death of a Naturalist. At that time, February 1953, thirteen-year-old Seamus was boarding at a college in Derry and arrived home to find his father crying and to have his hand shaken by old men who told him they were ‘sorry for my trouble’. His mother, meanwhile, ‘coughed out angry tearless sighs’ then an ambulance arrived with Christopher’s corpse:
Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple,
He lay in the four foot box as in his cot.
No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.
A four foot box, a foot for every year.
Christopher’s death, and the sight of his parents grieving marked for Seamus the end of childhood. Soon thereafter, the family moved from Mossbawm to The Wood just outside Bellaghy. When he came home from college and university he would help on the farm – ‘I had a certain confidence as a herder of cattle’ – but by now the pen was beginning to usurp the pitchfork. In another poem, ‘Clearances’, published in The Haw Lantern(1987), he wrote a memorial to his mother, Margaret, recalling a rare moment when he had her to himself:
When all the others were away at Mass
I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.
They broke the silence, let fall one by one
Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:
Cold comforts set between us, things to share
Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.
And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes
From each other’s work would bring us to our senses.
So while the parish priest at her bedside
Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying
And some were responding and some crying
I remembered her head bent towards my head,
Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives –
Never closer the whole rest of our lives.
Eugene’s tour continued into the late afternoon. There was the field where Seamus played Gaelic football, one of the few things at which he did not excel. There was still time, though, to visit Barney Devlin’s forge and bang the very anvil that Seamus described in the poem ‘Midnight Anvil’ in his collection District and Circle, published in 2006:
If I wasn’t there
When Barney Devlin hammered
The midnight anvil
I can still hear it: twelve blows
Struck for the millennium.
His nephew heard it
In Edmonton, Alberta:
The cellular phone
Held high as a horse’s ear,
Barney smiling to himself.
A few hours later, with Eugene and Gerardine and a couple of hundred others, I enjoyed a reading of a few of the poems mentioned above by the actor Adrian Dunbar and others. It was like tuning in to Seamus’s greatest hits. The venue was the impressive Seamus Heaney Homeplace in Bellaghy. Combining arts centre with exhibition and museum, built in response to the award of the Nobel. It is on the site of what was during the Troubles a heavily-fortified and often-attacked former Royal Ulster Constabulary station. There are books, photographs, manuscripts and a reproduction of Seamus’s study with his well-thumbed set of the Oxford English Dictionary. Many of the exhibits were donated by the Heaney family. One glass case is devoted to his indestructible duffel coat which he was often to be seen wearing when in Scotland. As I listened to the readings, I was moved by how intently the audience – full of friends and family, neighbours and fellow writers – was listening, how personally engaged and moved we all were. ‘What has poetry taught you?’ asked Denis O’Driscoll towards the end of their extended dialogue. To which Seamus replied: ‘That there’s such a thing as truth and it can be told – slant; that subjectivity is not to be theorized away and is worth defending; that poetry itself has virtue, in the first sense of possessing a quality of moral excellence and in the sense also of possessing inherent strength by reason of its sheer made-upness, its integritas, consonantia and claritas.’