Belfast Telegraph

Rvealing journey into the life, work and words of revered poet Seamus Heaney

By Malachi O'Doherty

When you enter the lobby of the HomePlace in Bellaghy you are confronted by two large photographs of Seamus Heaney, the poet honoured by this new exhibition space which opened yesterday.

One of the photographs shows the face of Seamus the boy. The features of the man are there. But the little lad looks so vulnerable and poor that the image evokes a protective instinct. The eyes squint with curiosity. This is a bright youngster facing into life without any clear sense of purpose or direction but with an evident energy to engage with the world and his future.

There is a sad contrast in the picture chosen to represent the man Heaney, taken in the last years of his life. It is poorly chosen. The eyes are grim. There is a wariness in them. He looks disappointed with life.

The pictures, between them, tell a story, but is it a true story?

There were other pictures taken of Seamus Heaney in later life which show him smiling and vital. The truth is that those quizzical eyes never dimmed and that Heaney in his 60s and 70s engaged with life and the world with a freshness and fascination that survived the decades, even thrived.

So perhaps the organisers could have matched a different picture to the old photo of the boy, one that told a different story, one that affirmed that the flame that burned behind those lively eyes, burned to the end.

This is one quibble with the new HomePlace exhibition space, and perhaps the only one.

To enter the old converted police station is not to enter a home, as the name suggests, but to encounter the record and the remnants of a life.

Outside, the building says nothing of rural south Derry as Heaney had known it. Yes the old stone is there in the walls of the ground floor. But the pine cladding and the shades of grey in the frontage are entirely modern.

It was a busy space yesterday. There were workmen on the road still preparing the surface, delivery people bringing flowers to adorn the doorway and communications staff fussing round the journalists they had invited.

But the management was saying everything would be ready for today and for the first events.

The first ritual of preparation was the arrival of the Heaney family - widow Marie and the three grown-up children - to pose for pictures. This was managed like a security operation, with press being kept out of the building for nearly an hour until the family arrived, and the photographers then being told precisely where they would stand.

And even as the pictures were being taken, the man and woman with the potted plants walked through them.

One of the communications people, trying to explain to the media how things would work said, 'I'm new to this; my last job was in a bank.'

Perhaps what had made the communications staff so edgy and fretful was the fear that we might be more interested in the protest against the A6 road which is to be built through Heaney country. Coinciding with the opening was a 'pilgrimage' along the sites familiar from Heaney's poems which protesters say will be disrupted by the new road.

But there could hardly have been a more enthralling journey to be made around the countryside than the one on offer inside - through the life of Seamus Heaney.

The exhibition space offers a tour which connects the poetry to his life. Beside photographs of himself and his family are little touch screens which bring up the poems, like his love poems to his wife Marie, his reflections on his children.

There is his duffel coat in a glass case, something that must have seemed unlikely in the years he wore it as a student. His wee black Conway Stewart fountain pen now hangs by a line in a transparent pillar where it can be spared ever being touched again.

Brian McCormick, the manager of HomePlace, is a nephew of Heaney's; son of his sister Sheena, who was the closest in the family to him, the next in age.

Brian says he "bounced on his knee. He came to visit my mother quite often. The whole Heaney family are a close knit family. I'm very proud that he was my uncle and proud that I am working in a building dedicated to his life and his works and his legacy."

Christopher Heaney, one of Seamus's sons, recalls that some of the poems are about himself.

Christopher is named after Seamus' brother who was killed in a road accident and memorialised in a poem about the wake at the family home at Mossbawn.

He said: "There is a poem specifically for us, A Kite for Michael and Christopher."

In that one Heaney describes how he gets the wee boys to take the string of the kite and feel its tug. "You were born fit for it."

He says he has "happily never felt the urge to write creatively".

His brother Mick is almost a double of the young Seamus but perhaps Christopher has more of his mother's looks, more a Devlin than a Heaney.

So how much influence did his mother have on the poems themselves? "Creatively, I don't know," said Christopher. "But as she says herself, she was the first reader of a lot of them. When a poem was finished he would give it to her."

He doubts that she changed them, but who but themselves know if he was prompted to change them himself in response to her comments?

"There is a lot of poems about her. He inspired her and she influenced his work."

But how does he feel when he walks through the exhibition and, for instance, reads the love poems to his mother. Does he blush? "Not at all. These were poems that he was happy to share with the world."

At what age did he discover that the whole world was interested in the man he called Daddy?

"When I was a child he frankly wasn't as famous. I was in my 20s before he won the Nobel Prize, which really puts any writer on to a global stage. And if someone is well known, you can't walk around dwelling on that. It becomes the norm; it's just what happened."

The Heaney family is pleased with the exhibition space and staying out of the quarrel about the new road, though Seamus's brother Hugh has said he doesn't want the Heaney named used in the protest.

Christopher says he loves this space and the way in which the exhibition centres on the poems themselves.

People will visit the HomePlace and they will see the family pictures and the artefacts and the portraits, but they will primarily be invited to read and to share the observations of a countryman on love and parenting, and sickness and the surrounding area. And no-one will go away without knowing some of the words.

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