Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 17 April 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Seamus Heaney: He showed that you did not need to deny the rights of others to stay true to own roots

Seamus Heaney, pictured in 1995
Seamus Heaney, pictured in 1995

Seamus Heaney wasn't just one of the greatest Irish poets of the last couple of centuries. He was also a man who was visibly comfortable in his own skin in a province and an age where a thin skin and quick, easy judgments were often regarded as political virtues.

In a sense it was a remarkable journey from a poor farm in the nationalist heartland of Bellaghy to professorships in Harvard and elsewhere, lunch with Queen Elizabeth (twice) and the Nobel Prize for Literature.

In another sense he never really left Bellaghy, he was firmly rooted in the values and traditions of the farming stock he sprung from.

He linked his literary work with "the squat pen" to his father's spadework in the potato fields of Mossbawn and his grandfather delving through Toner's bog for the "good turf".

This is the remembered landscape of childhood, but when he describes it there were no sepia tones or maudlin wallowing.

The focus is on the lasting need to be true to what we do.

Heaney's translation of Antigone, a Greek tragedy by Sophocles, is on the A-Level English syllabus.

It describes the reaction of two sisters when a victorious king orders that the body of his defeated rival should be left unburied.

One sister, Antigone, defies the law while another, Ismene, wants to avoid further conflict.

Heaney said that he connected with the issues by recalling the case of Francis Hughes, an IRA hunger striker from his native south Derry.

Hughes' body was allegedly manhandled in the Maze and the funeral delayed by the security forces.

For many people the message would have been one of bitterness.

Instead, in a Harvard lecture, Heaney pondered the issues, drawing us through the history of the Troubles as well as the tragedy's challenges. He talked about the emotions and the human cost – his instincts were clearly with Antigone, but he conceded that Ismene had a point.

There was no laying down the law, just a situation acknowledged in a piece of great and enduring literature.

Yet he came at it as a south Derry nationalist of his generation, a human being who used his own experience to connect with others, not a remote or dispassionate academic.

He once said his technique was "silence-breaking rather than rabble-rousing".

He was never one for polite evasion or embarrassed silence – when he was included in an anthology of British poetry he brusquely dismissed the honour.

"Be advised my passport's green/No glass of ours was ever raised/to toast the Queen" he wrote.

He also declined the post of UK Poet Laureate on political grounds, adding: "I've nothing against the Queen personally: I had lunch at the Palace once upon a time."

The thing was he meant it – a strong sense of his own identity and roots did not translate into hatred of others.

He met the monarch again at a State dinner in Dublin, bowing respectfully, observing the courteous and customary forms whose importance he had highlighted when he talked in Harvard about Burial At Thebes, his translation of Antigone.

Being true to himself enabled Heaney to connect with the sensitivities of others.

Last year, he felt instinctive empathy for loyalist protesters when the display of the Union flag was limited at Belfast City Hall.

There is "never going to be a united Ireland," he said, so "why don't you let them fly the flag?"

There are lessons for a shared future here.

By his life and work this Bellaghy man showed that it is not necessary to deny the rights or sensitivities of others in order to be true to your own roots.

This attitude is commonly referred to as tolerance and it can contribute more to political progress than winning arguments and proving yourself right.

As the Haass talks open, some of Seamus Heaney's tolerance and integrity could go a long way.