Planned road through Heaney country polarises opinion
It is not particularly beautiful countryside. It is a flat plain at the north west corner of Lough Neagh, where the River Bann flows in. Most of us know the tedious stretch of road between the blue bridge at Toome, past the Elk Bar and Mal's Place to the Castledawson roundabout. We pass the signpost to the Old Thatch Inn and think, perhaps, that that looks like a nice place if there was time to stop.
This is the main road to Derry from Belfast. It is near lots of beautiful places, but there is not much about this spot itself which is engaging. Yet tourists come, because that road down to the right to the Old Thatch Inn has its place in literary history.
Just past the inn is an old shed that was once the hall of the Hibernians. Nothing special about that. But the next house is a bungalow belonging to Bronagh and Sean McLaughlin, who breed chickens.
Their house was thatched once. It is called Mossbawn. It is where Seamus Heaney was born and played as a child.
Up that same Hillhead Road, Seamus's wee brother, Christopher, was killed when he was struck by a car. Seamus wrote a poem about being called home from St Columb's in Derry to the wake and the funeral. That was a dangerous road. At that time, it was the main road between Derry and Belfast.
That's hard to credit, yet the bypass we now use is only about 20 years old.
But it is no longer good enough and a new road is to be built. And the plans for this new road, as always, annoy some and please others.
Bronagh and Sean McLaughlin's house, Heaney's birthplace, was one of those to be most affected.
Behind that Hibernian shed next door to them is the Fire Glass Direct company, whose vans come out the lane by the shed to deliver all around Northern Ireland. The company employs 40 people.
But it's current exit, that lane, is to be blocked.
A slipway to a bridge over the new road, starting to rise in front of Mossbawn, will put an end to Fire Glass Direct having access past the green shed.
So, the first plan was to cut through the garden at the front of Mossbawn, the garden where Seamus Heaney played as a child and developed his imagination, and began to see this area in a personal way that is now shared by millions of his readers around the world. Most have never been to Mossbawn, but they have seen it, and known exactly what the child Heaney felt "when the sun stood like a griddle cooling against the wall of each long afternoon".
That was one of the lines quoted by Eugene Kielt when he spoke in defence of Mossbawn and argued, successfully, that the garden should be left intact and a different route should be found for the lane from Fire Glass Direct.
Eugene went as a witness to the public inquiry into the new road plans, convened at the Elk Inn by the Department of Regional Development in November 2007, nine years ago.
He spoke as a board member of Sperrins Tourism, the lead agency charged with promoting tourism in the area. He also runs the Laurel Villa guest house in Magherafelt, which has rooms dedicated to poets, and conducts tours of Heaney Country.
He told the inquiry: “If someone proposed putting a road through Hardy’s cottage in Dorset, I think it wouldn’t be a runner. This is the class of thing we are talking about.
“We are talking about a major writer, who in years to come will be even more famous and widely known, like Burns, Hardy, Shakespeare and others.”
He urged them to think in the long-term.
He quoted references to Mossbawn in the Heaney poetry and in the Nobel Prize citation which described it as “a place that has become mythical”.
Eugene was speaking as a tour guide, who brought international visitors to Mossbawn and other sites made historic by Heaney’s writing, like the primary school at Anahorish.
And the plan was changed.
Now a petition has been started to protest against the new road scheme. It is supported by many literary and cultural figures — several associated with the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen’s University in Belfast — including Edna and Michael Longley, Bernard O’Donoghue, Colm Toibin, Roy Foster and Stephen Rea, but by last night had attracted just 1,090 signatures.
The McLaughlins at Mossbawn are not happy that the road will be raised in front of them, that they will be coming out to a flyover, but their garden is safe now.
Eugene Kielt is not happy that the new road will cut Mossbawn off from other parts of his tour.
And Caroline Evans across the road is not happy than she is now to lose land to a more meandering route for Fire Glass Direct’s vans. But the garden will remain untouched. The Heaney homestead will be preserved, albeit that it is now a chicken farm and has a slate roof.
Caroline Evans says: “I don’t want this road. It’s going to take away a lot of my property.”
She is the one who will now lose a bit of land that would otherwise have been taken from Mossbawn.
She also fears for the character of the neighbourhood.
“This road used to be the main road and the traffic went up and down and up and down and it was terrible. You could hardly get to sleep at night.”
She is driving her brother, Thomas, to an appointment.
Thomas played in the garden of Mossbawn with the Heaney children as a child. He went to school with Seamus at Anahorish.
She says: “Seamus used to leave Mick McQuade’s pipe tobacco in the Thatch for daddy.”
The Heaneys are remembered as “wild civil” people. Thomas says they were good neighbours. “He wasn’t a boisterous fella.” Caroline says she is too young to remember them, because they moved away when the child was killed up the road.
She says: “Seamus’s parents came to mammy’s wake.”
Heaney remembered the Evans family when he wrote about the death of little Christopher:
“In the porch I met my father crying — He had always taken funerals in his stride — and Big Jim Evans saying it was a hard blow”.
Over at Fire Glass Direct, Thomas Farrell is happy about the new road. He says: “Anything that does away with the congestion has to be welcomed.”
Thomas travels every working day from the other side of Dungiven and suffers the inconvenience of traffic jams that he hopes the new road will ease.
He thinks we are looking too much to the past and not thinking enough about the future and the economy.
Which is not to say that he is insensitive to the importance of Heaney’s legacy and his reputation. “But in all arguments, you have to look at the overall context and, as I see it, anything that is going to link Belfast and Derry together is something we can’t stand in the way of.”
Isn’t there a prospect that preserving Heaney Country as a tourist destination — like Keswick, where Wordsworth lived, or Yeats’s Ben Bulben — would be good for the economy, too?
Of course, Keswick and Ben Bulben were beautiful places even before their poets found them so.
“Yes, because of what he achieved and his being known all over the world ... there is going to be an attraction there. But I still think that we have to think of our families and putting food in fridges and oil in the tanks.
“A lot of these things are very romantic and all them type of things, but there is a realness about our economy, making sure we have good road network is a high priority.
“I’m not saying you do that to the destruction of our beautiful countryside, but I think this is real stuff.”
That’s pretty much how they feel about it in the Old Thatch Inn, too, where Sara McGuigan says: “With them building the Heaney Centre in Bellaghy, they can always show photographs. A lot of the area has been disrupted, anyway, with people building houses and farmland and things like that.”
The office manager there, Ailish Keenan, who is from “up towards Derry”, says the road will be good for the bar and the restaurant.
“The only concern we would have is that it is going through our local area and that will bring increasing traffic, and also that it is going through Seamus Heaney’s home place.”
The restaurant commemorates Seamus Heaney with two portraits and framed copies of his poems.
Ailish says: “This is quite a rural area and we like to maintain that kind of feel, especially for the pub itself. And I do know that that is something that the locals themselves are concerned about.”
In Bellaghy, the new Heaney Centre, or Home Place, is being readied for opening. There people will see Seamus Heaney’s duffel coat in a glass case and get a sense of his connection to this area.
Down at Anahorish, where people are too busy for an interview, the main comment is one of concern for how the new road will affect the hooper swans that come to Lough Neagh.
One teacher says he thinks the children coming to the school will be much safer on the new road.
The coyness in many about stating a public opinion was often explained as consideration for neighbours, who might disagree.
If the new road is rerouted in response to a growing campaign to preserve Heaney Country, then others elsewhere will be inconvenienced, as Caroline Evans is by the sparing of Bronagh McLaughlin’s garden at Mossbawn.
And some people close to the Heaney family defend the road plans. One said: “I think people would rather get home quicker.”
Now, there is a growing feeling that ground made almost sacred by the poet’s vision is to be violated and that this road is a decision we will regret.
That decision might have been changed nine years ago at the public inquiry, where Eugene Kielt made the case for preserving Mossbawn.
But there were few standing with him.