Belfast Telegraph

Contemplative, kindly, unassuming: the never before seen photographs of Seamus Heaney that capture the soul of the poet

 

By Lee Henry

When Mairead Henry, a keen amateur photographer, accompanied her journalist husband Lee to interview the Nobel Prize winner at his Dublin home in 2012, little did she think she would take the picture of a lifetime.

It's not often, as a professional journalist, that you get to interview your heroes and on those irregular occasions that you do the experiences can prove to be memorable for all the wrong reasons. In the art world, my stomping ground of choice, heroes can turn to villains in the space of an over-priced cup of coffee.

I'm fortunate enough to have interviewed several of my heroes over the years, none more amiable, humble and heroic than the late Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney, who sadly passed away aged 74 in Blackrock Clinic, Dublin on August 30, 2013.

The previous spring, on a cool, crisp, sunny morning in April, I was invited to interview Heaney in his Sandymount home in the run-up to the 50th anniversary of the Belfast Festival at Queen's, now the Belfast International Arts Festival, which delivers its inaugural programme in venues across the city from October 6-18.

I recall that extraordinary event now as the artist Colin Davidson and photographers Eamonn McCabe and Geray Sweeney prepare to discuss creating portraits of Heaney at the HomePlace visitor centre in the poet's birthplace of Bellaghy, Co Londonderry.

Capturing Heaney will be a special event for myself and my wife, Mairead.

I had the pleasure of capturing Heaney in words, and on video, on that occasion in August 2012, relaying quotes from the man himself as he reminisced about the Belfast Festival in its embryonic days.

Mairead, meanwhile, was on hand to capture Heaney on film and in anticipation of that we shared a quivering excitement.

"I'm not a professional photographer," Mairead admits. "I have never taken any lessons, but photography has been a hobby of mine since the age of about six, when I started using our basic point-and-click camera to photograph everything from trees and sunsets to our pet cat.

"Somehow, those close to Seamus agreed that I could tag along to photograph him on the day and, with my ancient Olympus camera in hand, I chanced my arm. I was nervous, unsure if I would pull it off, but thankfully, Seamus could not have been more supportive."

He answered the door in person, as it happened, dressed in a modest black suit and white shirt, his shock of white hair calling to mind the bog cotton that he wrote about so eloquently and which Mairead had featured in our wedding day bouquets.

We conducted our brief interview in the sun room at the rear of the Dublin house that Heaney shared with his wife Marie.

It's difficult to describe how monumental it was for me to pose questions of the man who penned poems like Death of a Naturalist and Scaffolding, lines so eagerly consumed over the years in dog-eared collections purchased in my teens.

When the interview was concluded, we thanked him profusely, sheepishly making for the door, but Heaney had other ideas.

We wouldn't leave before shooting the breeze over a nice cup of tea, at least.

"It was incredible," Mairead says. "Having studied Heaney at school, it was already a surreal experience to be in his home. I had felt like a bit of an interloper during the interview, as I'm not a journalist, but when we all sat down to tea and biscuits I felt very welcome.

"Seamus picked up on my Derry accent and asked me questions about where I grew up in the city and about his old school, St Columb's College, which my five brothers also attended.

"We chatted about my job at the Linen Hall Library, an institution that Seamus was a patron of, and a place special to both of us.

"I remember trying to drink it all in, every wee detail of the kitchen and his house, knowing in years to come I would want to remember it clearly. I can still see the sun slanting into the room, the plate of biscuits and the mugs of tea on the large, farmhouse-style kitchen table.

"The lingering memory is the completely unassuming way Seamus spoke to us, like we were friends of his children. The atmosphere in his home was of quiet accomplishment.

"There may have been paintings on the wall by acclaimed artists and books on the shelves signed by prominent authors, but it felt all the same like a family home, comfortable and loved."

Turning his attention to me, Heaney was pleasantly surprised to learn that I hail from the seaside resort town of Newcastle, at the foot of the Mourne Mountains. In all my days spent there, I never once heard tell of Seamus Heaney working in the Cookie Jar bakery as a young man, but that he did.

I almost overstepped the mark at one point, tentatively inquiring if we might venture up to his attic office, overlooking Dublin Bay, where he had written acclaimed collections like District and Circle and Field Work. "No," he replied simply, seguing into another topic of conversation before my embarrassment became palpable.

Then it was time to go - but not before Mairead had taken the photo of her life.

"I hadn't been brave enough to ask during the interview or our subsequent conversation," she adds. "But as we were leaving he asked, 'So would you like to take a picture?' I was delighted.

"He sat a beautiful wing-back chair near a large sash window in the living room, removed his glasses and put them in his jacket pocket.

"The sun that day was strong and bright, falling on one side and bringing out all the small details of folds on his jacket sleeve, giving that luminosity to his white hair that was almost a trademark feature.

"I didn't say anything, or try to direct him in any way. He merely sat down, relaxed and let me snap away.

"I wasn't sure how many photos it was appropriate to take, so I only wound the film on three times. But with each click, I held my breath and willed my hands to stay still, telling myself I'd be incredibly lucky if any of them developed clearly."

Mairead had the photographs developed the very next morning. Both of us were stunned with the results.

Among the collection of images with this photo Heaney staring into the middle distance, thoughtful and stolid. For Mairead, there was a "magical quality" to it.

"I proudly showed it to my colleagues and friends and then, a few months later, decided I might send a copy to Heaney himself and thank him for letting me have the chance to take it," says Mairead.

"I never expected a reply, but not long after I had posted a copy of the photo, I got a small envelope in the post. Inside was a postcard with the poet's address on top and a message from his wife Marie thanking me for the 'excellent photo'.

"Needless to say, the postcard and the photo are framed and hang proudly in our house, just inside the front door, where I see it every time I come and go.

"It's loved by both of us and comes with a wonderful story to tell our son, Patrick Seamus, in years to come."

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