'We're delighted the opening was a joint event with Foster and McGuinness; Seamus was keen to address both traditions... so that was important for us'
Poet Seamus Heaney’s nephew Brian McCormick is manager of HomePlace, the centre established in Bellaghy as a lasting legacy to the Nobel Laureate
Arlene Foster said it was one of the most memorable ceremonies she had ever attended with Martin McGuinness. And up in Bellaghy it was a show of unity that villagers will never forget as the two Stormont leaders opened the Seamus Heaney HomePlace in the village where the poet was brought up.
The DUP leader spoke movingly this week of the visit to the new arts and literary centre six months ago, saying the late Mr McGuinness was a huge fan of the poet and that he was proud the Executive had been able to play a significant part in creating a lasting legacy to the Nobel Prize-winner.
For the manager of the centre Brian McCormick, a nephew of Heaney, the participation of Mrs Foster and Mr McGuinness in the opening was a potent symbol of the harmony that his uncle had striven to achieve.
“We were really delighted to welcome them here for a joint ceremony,” said Brian. “They spoke really well and referenced each other in their speeches. Seamus was always keen to address both sides, and it was important for us that both traditions were represented here.”
Since that opening ceremony the centre has gone from strength to strength with endorsements and tributes coming from everywhere from the White House to Coronation Street.
Former US Vice-President Joe Biden, who like Bill Clinton is a huge fan of the poet, quoted Heaney in his farewell address in Washington, and President Barack Obama made it clear that his number two had beaten him to the poetic punch, using the words of WB Yeats instead.
The namechecks were music to the ears of Brian and his staff in the Seamus Heaney HomePlace, but what came as even more of a surprise was the nod to Heaney in the unlikeliest of settings —the cobbled streets of Corrie, where one character admitted he’d been moved to tears by one of Heaney’s poems.
In Bellaghy the marketing people are hoping that plugs from Presidents and mentions from Mancunians will serve only to help boost visitor numbers to the centre, which has already exceeded its targets in the first four months since opening.
The most recent footfall statistics, as of last week, show that 23,200 people have been to see the Heaney exhibition or to attend arts programmes and meetings in HomePlace.
“The target we had been set for the first year was 35,000, so we are already halfway there, and that has been without the benefit of a summer season. We are pleased with the way things have gone so far and we have lots to build upon,” said Brian.
The emphasis in the coming months will be to entice even more visitors from outside the north to come to Bellaghy.
The market in the Republic is one that officials hope to tap into once the better weather arrives.
“We are already getting a nice smattering of visitors from the south and from across the water,” said Brian, who hinted that a number of famous faces may soon be among them at the HomePlace, though he’s sworn to secrecy about their identities.
Singer Ralph McTell has been there, and there had been speculation that Billy Connolly might have dropped by during a recent Irish tour.
Heaney chose the Glaswegian comic to narrate his translations of poems by Scot Robert Henryson for the Five Fables series produced by BBC Northern Ireland in what was Heaney’s last work before his death in 2013.
Connolly has never made any secret of his admiration for Heaney, but in the end he wasn’t able to travel to Bellaghy, though officials haven’t given up hope of welcoming him through the doors.
It’s highly unlikely, of course, but if Brian had his way Bruce Springsteen could one day be winging his way to play a gig In HomePlace’s Helicon theatre.
For Brian is a Springsteen fanatic who has travelled the world to see his hero in concert 40 times or more. And he admits he would move Heaven and Earth to bring the Boss to Bellaghy to the intimate performance space where big names like Paul Brady, Glen Hansard and Phil Coulter have already staged sell-out shows.
But all the events scheduled for the Helicon have been inspired by the Nobel Laureate’s poetry and as yet no tangible connections have been established between Heaney and Springsteen.
“But if I could find a link I would definitely make room for Bruce if he wanted to come,” added Brian, whose late mother Sheena was Heaney’s sister.
It was only in later life Brian realised there was something a little bit special about his famous relative. “To me he’d just been my uncle Seamus,” said Brian.
And since the opening of the £4.25m HomePlace in Bellaghy’s old RUC station, Brian’s appreciation of the esteem in which his illustrious relative is held at home and internationally has only increased.
HomePlace is a celebration of Heaney’s life and literature and what inspired the poet, who is buried in a nearby churchyard, which has also become a must-see for tourists who visit the village.
Brian prefers to talk about Heaney and HomePlace rather than about himself but there’s no disguising the pride and passion that this modest and affable former Derry GAA player has for the man and the museum in his honour.
“The comments we get on a daily basis underline the good job that people here are doing. We treat everyone the same and give them a quality experience, which we hope will have an impact on them,” he explained.
“And the responses on the cards that we ask visitors to fill in show that HomePlace is having a genuine effect on people.”
Shortly after the opening Brian sent a note to Heaney’s daughter Catherine, his cousin. It was private, but he revealed: “It said that I was a very proud nephew to see the impact that Seamus Heaney and his work have on people. And that is something that I garner a great deal of personal satisfaction from.”
Strangely, perhaps, Brian says that family members never really made a song and dance about Heaney.
“We are not the sort of people to bum and blow about the connection but if it came up in conversation I never made any secret of it — but I am and always have been extremely proud of my uncle,” added Brian.
“As a family we always knew that he did have an effect on people. You could appreciate that any time you were in his presence.
“And in HomePlace it’s quite something to see people who never met him walking into the space and welling up after reading his story, seeing the photographs and hearing recordings of him reading his poems.”
Brian says he is still in awe of the skills that his uncle possessed for capturing ordinary moments and transforming them into extraordinary narratives.
He was present along with Heaney at the same family gatherings, happy and sad, and could only marvel at his uncle’s ability to turn them into moving poems with an astonishing eye for detail.
But for Brian the person that Seamus Heaney was had an even more powerful significance than the poet that he was.
“He always carried himself with impeccable decorum and dignity. I think that is something that we can all learn from. And I think that is why the glitterati were probably attracted to him because they saw a humanity in there, and despite his brilliance he never got above what he saw as his station.
“He genuinely never saw himself as different from anybody else.
“And there were times, maybe at Christmas, when he spoke about meeting this one or that one that you realised that here was a man who was doing things beyond the small room that we were currently in.”
Brian says Heaney wasn’t a name-dropper who wanted to impress anyone.
“These names and places literally came up in the course of a conversation. I remember him opening a letter once from a university in Africa asking him to go there and talk to the students.
“We all thought that was pretty amazing but then his wife Marie said requests like that were coming in day and daily. He saw them all as matter of fact, but he had to cut back on accepting the invitations because he had to be more ruthless with his time.”
Since Heaney’s passing, a huge number of notes and letters from him have surfaced, showing he was a man who did take the trouble to reply to communications.
“We have all wondered how on Earth he got the time to respond to so many people but that’s just what he did,” said Brian, who knows that HomePlace can never hope to compete in terms of visitor numbers with the Titanic Centre in Belfast or the Giant’s Causeway near Bushmills.
“What we have is a different offering,” said Brian. “And perhaps it is a slightly more niche offering but we do want to attract the non-literati visitors, though I don’t think HomePlace lends itself to the quick 45-minute drop-in for people getting on and off a tour bus.
“I think people need more time than that to digest and enjoy the experience, but we have had familiarity trips for tour operators and they have expressed a lot of interest.”
Officials have already resolved that they won’t be dropping their admission prices just to boost visitor numbers.
Brian says he has been encouraged by the response of people in Bellaghy to the new centre in their midst and the Helicon has brought many residents back time and time again.
“People have joked with me that they feel like they are taking residence with us because they have been so many times to the Helicon and to the cafe. And we have an annexe at the back which is for the use of community groups.”
Brian, who’s in his mid-forties, can’t remember his uncle living in Bellaghy. He had moved to live and work in Belfast in the Seventies before settling in the Republic.
“But he was home quite a bit. I would have seen him five or six times a year. My parents were very fond of throwing parties and he always seemed to appear at them, and like everyone else he did his turn,” he explained.
“He never read his own work but he recited humorous pieces about the locality. He didn’t sing songs, though.
“Phil Coulter, who performed at the Helicon, said Seamus may well have been a genius, but he couldn’t sing a note! (Wife) Marie was a very good singer, but not him,” said Brian, who often found that having an uncle living down south was rather handy.
“In my student days when money was tight I would have put a call in — usually via my mother — to see if he minded if my friends and I took up some beds for a night,” he revealed.
Brian was studying history at Queen’s University in Belfast but he was also making his name in the GAA world. He was a member of the Derry squad that won the All-Ireland final at Croke Park in 1993, but he wasn’t called off the bench.
He said: “It was a great experience but it wasn’t the same as playing in an All-Ireland final.”
On the way to Croker Brian, whose club side were the all-conquering Lavey team, did play in the Ulster final, but he said: “I was rubbish.”
Try as he might to downplay his skills, people in the know in the GAA don’t agree.
The Haw Lantern Concert featuring Alissa Firsova (Piano) and Maacha Deubner (soprano): Sunday, April 9 3pm. Tickets: £10
The Home Key with Bronagh Gallagher: Friday April 21, 8pm. Bronagh Gallagher grew up with Seamus Heaney’s poetry. This gig is a wonderful chance to experience the raw passion of her voice up close. Tickets: £15
One of the world’s most celebrated land artists, Turner Prize winner Richard Long will be in conversation with Declan McGonagle on Saturday April 22, talking about his work ‘Mud Hand Circles’, which inspired the Heaney poem ‘The Mud Vision’.
Fans of the books War Horse and Private Peaceful won’t want to miss author and former Children’s Laureate Michael Morpurgo on Sunday April 30.
The HomePlace programme of events is supported by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland