A very particular Irish celebrity

The knocking comment that greeted my last post about Seamus Heaney is the predictable price of celebrity in Ireland. “Who does he think he is?”, is an inevitable reaction to celebrity with us, just as young south Africans are asking the question on Nelson Mandela’s 91st birthday “What has Mandela ever done for me?” Rather than deal in Life of Brian replies, I draw attention to Seamus Heaney’s first long interview since his stroke with Robert McCrum, literary editor of the Observer. He effortlessly exhibits that wonderful flair for language, at once homely and philosophical, as much in prose answers to questions as in his poetry. First, recovering in Letterkenny hospital , a real celebrity moment. “Clinton was here for the Ryder Cup,” he says. “He’d been up with the Taoiseach [Bertie Ahern] and had heard about my ‘episode’. The next thing, he put a call to the hospital, and said he was on his way. He strode into the ward like a kind of god. My fellow sufferers, four or five men much more stricken than I was, were amazed. But he shook their hands and introduced himself. It was marvellous, really. He went round all the wards and gave the whole hospital a terrific boost. We had about 25 minutes with him, and talked about Ulysses Grant’s memoirs, which he was reading.” Then Clinton was off, back to the airport.

On how the underlying background of troubles influenced him, in ways McCrum feels he doesn’t fully acknowledge. He has always moved, as he puts it, “like a double agent among the big concepts”. On both sides of the border, some still question his loyalties.”My mother’s side,” he goes on, speaking carefully, “were much more alert to the exacerbations of the situation, and with a stronger sense of injustice, and a more articulate mockery. The irony is so important. In the north, northern irony has allowed people to stand at the edge of the rift and shout across to each other. This is very important, actually. David Hammond used to say, ‘Banter, banter is the curse of us all.'”

On that uncharacteristic burst of commitment on identity, it’s no surprise to learn it wasn’t as simple as it sounded. “My passport’s green”, he wrote, “No glass of ours was ever raised/ To toast the Queen”.

He now says of this furore that “it was complicated because at the same time I didn’t want to pull my books out of Britain. I didn’t want to be bigoted. I just wanted clarification, but it was complicated… It was a hell of an uneasy time here, savage. It was an awkward time for anybody who wanted to stand apart from both sides. I didn’t want to be too rabid, or enlisted as an IRA spokesperson either.’ He goes on, “As I was living in the Republic, I wanted to call myself Irish. I just felt totally conflicted. I felt I wasn’t owning up to something in myself if I ran with that [“contemporary British poetry”]. It’s a very ambiguous, uneasy thing, having the British cake and eating it, as it were.”

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London