Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 20 November 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Heaney's squat pen was mightier than the sword

Tribute: Seamus Heaney places his hand on the sculpture of his father digging peat which was unveiled in his native Bellaghy in 2009
Tribute: Seamus Heaney places his hand on the sculpture of his father digging peat which was unveiled in his native Bellaghy in 2009

Had not a shot been fired, nor a bomb exploded in his native Ulster, Seamus Heaney would probably still have won a Nobel Prize.

His talent reached far beyond the Troubles yet his poetry like that of WB Yeats will be associated forever with the divisions of this island.

"That fist would drop a hammer on a Catholic,

Oh yes, that kind of thing could start again.

The only Roman collar he tolerates

Smiles all round his sleek pint of porter"

Heaney's life was so overshadowed by the violence and suffering of his fellow countrymen and women that he had no choice but to write about it. The legacy he leaves the world includes a unique perspective on a troubled land.

What is the role of the poet in the face of political crisis? Seamus Heaney seems to have struggled to come to terms with the answer.

The Troubles posed a great dilemma for him. Circumstances forced him to turn his attention from describing the placid south Derry countryside of his youth to the brutality of civil conflict of Northern Ireland. He had no choice.

Such is Heaney's global influence and respectability that his perception is likely to be taken more seriously than the recollections of politicians and paramilitaries. His words will have more endurance and credibility than theirs.

What can we conclude politically from his work? He was a product of traditional nationalist and republican south Derry. He confessed to having "a slightly aggravated young Catholic male part" which he tried to suppress in his early poetry. His work shows he shared the Catholic minority's deep sense of social and political injustice.

Heaney escaped the sectarian trenches of Ulster by moving to County Wicklow in 1972 but his exile from the north weighed on his conscience.

Once violence took hold, he could not ignore it, nor did he...

"Is there life before death? That's chalked up

On a wall downtown. Competence with pain,

Coherent miseries, a bite and sup,

We hug our little destiny again."

Seamus Heaney offered no great solutions. He expressed the same sense of powerlessness, pessimism and war-weariness which many tens of thousands of nationalists and unionists alike felt but could do nothing about.

"No treaty

I foresee will salve completely your tracked

And stretch-marked body, the big pain

That leaves you raw, like open ground, again."

In his eyes there was an inevitability about the killing and the suffering. Solutions there were none. He seemed to believe the violence had to play itself out to the point where those involved eventually become so exhausted, they choose to stop which, mercifully for us all, they did.

In his life and now in death, Seamus Heaney's pen is proving mightier than any sword in Ireland.

As he so famously observed:

"Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests,

I'll dig with it."

I remember him as a young tousle-haired figure at Queen's University in the 1960s.

Heaney, like many others, was the first generation of his family to go to university and to benefit from state-subsidised education. Given their head for the first time, young Catholic students like him took university life by storm, politically, socially and intellectually.

The obituaries have recalled how he was part of a group of emerging writers and poets. I would occasionally see them in the bars around Queen's, exchanging their thoughts over pints of stout.

He and his friends shared a rarefied artistic atmosphere on the periphery of the political cauldron which Northern Ireland was fast becoming in the late sixties. Still, he was a product of the segregated environment from which Catholics and Protestants alike could not truly escape, nor could he.

"I come from scraggy farm and moss,

Old patchworks that the pitch and toss

Of history have left dishevelled."

Seamus Heaney from south Derry, his first home and his last resting place, has given the world an insight into life as it lived in his native Ulster. Like many of us who were born here, he made his own personal journey. He once wrote:

"Be advised,

My passport's green

No glass of ours was ever raised

To toast the Queen."

It is a fitting tribute to his memory that he lived to see the day when he could sit comfortably in the company of the Queen at dinner in Dublin two years ago and raise his glass.

He is gone but his words live on for generations to come to appreciate and enjoy and to understand how far Seamus Heaney, revered Ulsterman and Irishman, travelled himself in his 74 years.

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