Belfast Telegraph

Patriotic poets ought to be the country's moral compass

By Maurice Hayes

The Gift of the Mage: the singular form loses perhaps some of the magic of the original, but there can have been few Christmas gifts more precious, more generous and, indeed, more essentially patriotic than Seamus Heaney's decision to present his papers to the National Library of Ireland.

It was characteristic, too, that, he should deliver the trove himself, packed in cardboard boxes, in the back of the family car.

There must be something in the Derry air which has enabled two past pupils, and near contemporaries, from the same school, to win a Nobel Prize - and something even more special which programmes them to public spirit and to giving it away again.

John Hume donated his prize to charity through the Salvation Army and St Vincent de Paul. Heaney, no less generously, has given a treasure of inestimable value to the Irish nation - an act of practical patriotism if ever there was one.

Seamus Heaney's greatest gift has been, while elevated to the stratosphere of critical acclaim, to have remained firmly earthed in the soil of Ireland.

His great contribution has been to make poetry ordinary by writing extraordinary poems.

Like the water-diviner in his poem, the artist can catch the vibrations of the subterranean currents that presage the tide of events and can, by holding hands, help the less perceptive masses to do so, too.

At a time when there is a gaping void in leadership in Ireland and across Europe, for want of courage and conviction, passion and imagination, it may well fall to the poet and the artist to fill it.

The high peaks in society are all filled with men who are not quite up to the job - lacking courage and conviction, passion and imagination, and the pillars of society in politics, religion and banking have crumbled.

In this crisis, the insights of the poet and the philosopher may be of more value as a moral compass in finding a route back to a stable society than the BlackBerry and the opinion poll.

In Ireland, as the exchanges in the presidential election showed, there is a burgeoning, if unacknowledged, debate on the very nature of Irishness, on the linkage between state and nation, on the foundation narrative of the state itself, the location of an identity with which most can be comfortable and which can accommodate a history that is at once shared and contested.

It is a fortunate accident of fate that Aras an Uachtarain is now occupied by a president who is himself a poet, which places him in a unique position to marshal the army of the imagination and the arts in the search for social solidarity, a sense of purpose and political renewal.

These would not be recruited as pseudo-legislators or administrators, but as pathfinders of the spirit, like the haw lantern in Heaney's poem "keeping the wick of self-respect from burning out".

The poets might be better companions than the politicians in the search for a new form of politics, a new ordering of the relations between citizen and state which would carry the confidence and trust of most as being fair and equitable, and which would replace the crumbling certainties of Church and commerce.

They might, in the end, lead a disillusioned people towards a new republic of conscience, where, Heaney averred, public leaders, at their inauguration, must weep to atone for the presumption to hold office.

There are many in Ireland, and in Europe, who should be weeping even now - who took office on promises not yet fulfilled where they have not already been broken, and who crucially have failed to make the difference which the people were led to expect when they empowered them.

And not even a Mage could manage that.

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