Long, long ago I shared an army helicopter with Olivia O’Leary and have thought of her affectionately ever since. Here, she pens an Irish journalist’s essay on Seamus Heaney. A tricky assignment this, as Heaney’s use of language is almost unbearably precise to us practitioners of the rougher trade.
It is in his poems, however, that Heaney has made his most important contribution to our thinking about the North. He has helped to expand our borders and allowed us to roam in an Ireland of the imagination. In my time, our time, Heaney’s time we’ve argued constantly about Irish identity. How does the nation fit with the island, the island with the nation? It always bothered me in those debates that so many people in the Republic who took positions one way or another on Northern Ireland had no knowledge, no concept of the place.
Now that Co Derry countryside is as much part of our national imagination as is Patrick Kavanagh’s Monaghan or Yeats’s Sligo or Kate O’Brien’s Limerick or Frank O’Connor’s Cork.
It is, as it never was before, part of what we are.
“We” here being the Irish of the Republic. But there are others Olivia, northerners and even British who can stake a claim to him before he belongs to the ages. And his south Derry is of course not the only one. (I ‘m waiting for brown tourist “Heaney Country” signs just after Toome on the A6 , if they’re not there already).
For a poet who not only transcended but ducked political commitment (unlike Yeats in his eccentric fashion), the course of Heaney’s own autobiographical poetic voyage lacked no degree of political awareness or a taste for a jolting Troubles image right from the off. In “Digging” “the pen is snug as a gun” before he turns to the spade; bogman remains prefigure the modern dumped body; the wartime nationalist is no mere neutral but “a double agent among the big concepts”.
For this journalist, the vivid colours of dialogue and drama cling to memory more steadfastly than the impressionism of the lyric. The deep shock of recognition we’d never fully realised before confirmed to us that nobody will ever better capture the complexities of difference and kinship between folk like the Heaneys at home in Anahorish and those neighbours the B man or the constable, and in Trial Runs, the serviceman back home from war.
In a khaki shirt and brass buckled belt, a demobbed neighbour leaned against our jamb. My father jingled silver deep in both pockets. And laughed when the big clicking rosary beads were produced.
“Did they make a papish of you over there?”
“Oh damn the fear, I stole them for you Paddy, off the Pope’s dresser when his back was turned”
“You could harness a donkey with them”
Their laugher sailed above my head, a hoarse clamour, two big nervous birds dipping and lifting, making trial runs over a territory.”
While at the same time wondering if he was biting the hand that fed him, Heaney wrote : “My passport’s green/No glass of ours was ever raised/to toast the Queen,.” but he can handle transitions with complete ease and put others at ease with them. Only minds “open as a trap” will carp. We rely on him to soar over the cliches. For that reason I’m relieved he won’t be shoe-horned into the presidency, however established above the battle by two first rate holders of the office. Let Seamus remain famous, but aside from celebrity or office.
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