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Driving a road through fields immortalised by Heaney is dishonouring our Nobel poet

The way we remember our greatest poet says a lot about the society that we live in

By Fionola Meredith

Published 09/09/2016

Seamus Heaney in Bellaghy
Seamus Heaney in Bellaghy

Other cultures honour the homelands of their national poets. In Northern Ireland, we build a huge road through them. It has just been announced that a £160m dual carriageway, part of the new A6 between Toomebridge and Castledawson, will slice through the townlands of Anahorish and Mossbawn.

These are the lands where Seamus Heaney, the only winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature to be born in Northern Ireland, spent his childhood. In spirit and in imagination, he never really left them.

The deep pull of the landscape around Bellaghy is intensely felt through so many of Heaney's poems, especially the early ones: Blackberry-Picking, Death of a Naturalist, and The Strand at Lough Beg, in which he described the "lowland clays and waters of Lough Beg, Church Island's spire, its soft treeline of yew".

He called Anahorish "My place of clear water, the first hill in the world", and spoke of shiny grass and darkened cobbles, the way the lamps swung through the yards on the winter evenings.

"It wasn't just a desiccated memory," said the late poet's son, Michael. "It was a living place and that is important… he left there as a child, but he was writing about it 50 years later."

Now, vast expanses of Tarmac, together with the roar and fumes of fast-moving traffic - thousands of vehicles a day - will cut an ignorant, stinking swathe through those quiet boglands.

Some will say that it doesn't matter, that you can't let a few forgotten old fields get in the way of economic progress.

I say that these people are philistines, with the crude instincts of hucksters and corner-boys. We are regrettably over-endowed with them in this country, especially among the political classes.

It would matter less if Heaney's works were not so intimately connected with the landscape from which they sprung, or if Heaney himself were not our own great poet, a man of deep insight and luminous, humane vision.

But they are, and he was. Indeed, as a petition drawn up to protest against the new road scheme points out: "The argument for preservation has taken on a new resonance after the poet's death: it is imperative now, more than ever before, that we protect this site of great cultural heritage".

The campaign to re-route the road is supported by many important literary and cultural voices such as Edna and Michael Longley, Bernard O'Donoghue, Colm Toibin, Roy Foster and Stephen Rea.

Here's the thing: people travel to these lands to connect with Heaney's words in the same way that they go to Hyndford Street in east Belfast to search for the strange mysticism that spoke to Van Morrison.

So what does it say about us, as a society, that we so willingly trash what is unique and beautiful and precious, in favour of getting from one place to another a few seconds faster?

The official who made the decision to send a dirty great motorway through the Heaney homelands is Chris Hazzard, the Sinn Fein Infrastructure Minister.

This is significant because members of Sinn Fein have been noticeably keen to champion Heaney and his legacy, to claim him for their own - some with more convincing sincerity than others.

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams called Heaney a "national treasure". Well, he would. But Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness seems to be a more genuine admirer of the man and his poetry. Can't he have a word in his junior colleague's ear and get him to find another way?

Heaney himself protested against the plans for the road back in 2007, expressing his fear that it would be "a wound on the ecology" of the place.

And the fact is that there are a number of other clearly determined alternatives for the location of the dual carriageway.

There is nothing necessary or indeed inevitable about the current plan, if enough of us raise our voices against it.

Later this month, a new £4.25m arts centre, known as HomePlace, dedicated to the life and works of Seamus Heaney, will open in Bellaghy.

Ian Milne, the Sinn Fein MLA for the area, has welcomed it, remarking that the centre will "help boost tourism in the area as people come from around the world to learn more about Seamus Heaney and his poetry".

But what will they say to those people when they ask to be taken to the places that Heaney wrote about with such rare beauty?

Sorry, there's a motorway there now?

Belfast Telegraph

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