…surely every dweller in the country must hope that the governments involved in its governance can devise institutions which will allow that partition to become a bit more like the net on a tennis court, a demarcation allowing for agile give-and-take, for encounter and contending, prefiguring a future where the vitality that flowed in the beginning from those bracing words “enemy” and “allies” might finally derive from a less binary and altogether less binding vocabulary.
I guess we all fancy our chances of pulling off a decent farewell for such a renowned figure as Heaney the Poet. But few this week few have pulled it off as well as Jenny McCartney in The Spectator.
After those blue, pungently gestetnered sheets of Digging and Blackberry Picking in Primary school, his work often got a little too cryptic for this particular bear of little brain to follow his every word.
We read him at first, because we had to. Which is, kind of, where Jenny starts…
The one and only time I met Seamus Heaney, in 2007, he was making tea in the kitchen of his Dublin home when he asked — more modestly regretful than coy — ‘Did you have to do the poems at school?’
She talks about the way his broader influence at first did little to unpick or get beyond the stereotype of the thick bigoted Prod…
Heaney mattered, and the business of culture — who had one, who allegedly didn’t — was used in Northern Ireland as a kind of feverish proxy war. In any case, his wider poetry could not be dismissed. People always grabbed for ‘Digging’, but I was most moved by ‘Mid-Term Break’ (reprinted on this page), about the sudden death of his younger brother when he was 14. Its final line, ‘A four foot box, a foot for every year’, could break a reader’s heart in nine plain words.
Yet ‘Punishment’, from the 1975 volume North, left me unsettled too. The poem dealt with Heaney’s feelings when looking at the corpse of a murdered adulteress hauled from a bog, comparing it to the Catholic girls tarred and feathered by the IRA for going out with British soldiers. ‘I who have stood dumb/ when your betraying sisters/ cauled in tar/ wept by the railings/ who would connive/ in civilised outrage/ yet understand the exact/ and tribal, intimate revenge.’ It felt as if the real emotion lay in the silent understanding, rather than the veneer of outrage. At such cruelties — I couldn’t stop thinking of their poor damaged skin — wasn’t it the job of the poet to roar in indignation?
My own indignation had been delayed: by the time I was reading these poems they were already old. Heaney had long left Northern Ireland — in 1972, he and his family departed for Wicklow, and later Dublin — and the brutal lunacy had stayed in Northern Ireland. I think Heaney went away primarily to stay sane, to prevent his keen poetic instinct from being buffeted and corrupted by rage and malice. He valued harmony and courtesy, and Northern Irish politics offered neither. Away, his generous spirit expanded.
A staunch nationalist, he was no friend to the Provisional IRA: its strident fanaticism ran counter to his instinct for sympathy. His eye couldn’t miss the IRA’s horrors, and his 1995 Nobel lecture dealt profoundly with the stultifying effect of political violence. A snapshot of the early times: in 1974, the IRA one morning murdered at breakfast a QC friend of Heaney’s called Martin McBirney, a Protestant magistrate and left-leaning Belfast literary figure. Five minutes later, it also murdered a senior Catholic judge called Rory Conaghan, in front of his young daughter.
Heaney’s dear friend Michael Longley wrote a shocked, short poem about McBirney called ‘The Civil Servant’, describing how his clever, talented friend had been cooking an Ulster fry when ‘a bullet entered his mouth and pierced his skull/ The books he had read, the music he could play’. The Ulster poets did what they could in the midst of carnage: reeling, they wrapped words around the dead, and bore them into memory.
An awareness of threat quietly resonated with me: my father was a lawyer and involved in unionist politics, both areas in which the IRA retained an active interest. In the midst of a happy childhood, one could never be entirely free of the small stomach-knot of unease: nausea at the sectarian murders of the loyalist paramilitaries, and apprehension over what the IRA might be planning next.[Emphasis added]
The Czech author Milan Kundera once wrote of the ‘poetic memory’, an area of the brain which records ‘everything that charms and touches us.’ He spoke of its power in the context of romantic love, but I think it also applies to places. Northern Ireland — its customs, people and pain — was imprinted on Heaney’s poetic memory; in a much less productive sense, it has lodged in mine. He acted as a safe-house for our words — the lively dialect one locks away when one comes to England — and a careful trapper of detail: bread, sweets, place names.
You see as friends get older how they draw together, keenly aware that only their dwindling group holds these memories in common. I came to feel that about Heaney, who was three decades older and whom I knew mainly through his published writing. There was an inexplicable loneliness when he died, the sense of an end to a long conversation, of remembered passions fading. It is good still to have the poems. It all mattered so much, you see, and he understood its weight.[emphasis added]