Seamus Heaney is one of the greatest people to have come out of Northern Ireland. There is no disputing that.
So, if you wanted to sing the praises of this place abroad you would no doubt cite Heaney, perhaps alongside Van Morrison and Mary Peters, if only to jog memories and make connections in people’s minds with this place.
You would also have to say that this is the place which is famous for sectarian division. They’d say, “Oh, now I know where you mean.” Here, everything becomes contentious, a question of which side or the other is affronted by — take your pick — same-sex marriage, the invasion of Iraq, Brexit.
It has never seemed quite decent to section off Seamus Heaney for one faction here, but that has been happening this week.
It started with the revelation that a picture of Heaney was being used to promote discussion around the centenary of Northern Ireland next year.
Colum Eastwood, of the SDLP, chipped in early with a quote on Twitter from Heaney’s line about his passport being green, no toast in his family ever having been raised to the Queen.
Heaney wrote those lines in mockery of his inclusion in the 1982 Penguin Book of British Poetry. Britain too often claims the Irish as their own when they are doing well.
And in line with that disinclination to take royal honours — though the offer must have been considered — he did not get a CBE, like his friend Michael Longley. His friends now call him “Commander Longley”.
There was immediate umbrage on Twitter after Eastwood’s comment. It was seen as ungracious and raking up the past.
But the fact is, Seamus Heaney was a Catholic and he was Irish. He was out of a rural Catholic tradition, more culturally than theologically Catholic, and he was buried with the rites of the Catholic Church.
You cannot divorce Heaney from Catholic, gaelic, rural Ireland. You can’t extract him from it all and make him stand for something else.
His achievement was to stay rooted in the south Derry area around Bellaghy, strongly connected to his family, and from there to address the whole world about that locality and its features and its people.
Often, when Irish people become famous abroad, they are derided at home, accused of forgetting where they came from.
Not only had Heaney no affectations, he could lecture at Harvard about poetry without causing anyone to worry that he had lost touch with rural life around Lough Neagh. That said something about that country culture, that it could absorb education and remain true to itself.
But the question raised this week is whether Heaney can be branded as a representative of Northern Ireland.
If we were talking just about the territory and the culture and the people, then Heaney would be a natural choice.
But the centenary next year marks the creation of the state and the implication that appals many is that Heaney is being used in a way that suggests that he endorsed partition.
The organisers of the commemorations have been trying to slip that noose and make the occasion diverse and inclusive, basically to find ways in which people of the nationalist, or Catholic, traditions can take part. And good luck to them; weren’t plenty of other countries born in blood?
But in rejecting the use of Heaney as a symbol of Northern Ireland and what’s good about it, aren’t nationalists committing the same offence of claiming Heaney proprietary rights over him.
He was indisputably Irish and he grew out of a part of Ireland which was inside the UK, though you would perhaps have had few reminders of that around you in peacetime, anyway.
He understood Irish identity and Catholic education and theology because he was shaped by them. He would have written differently if he hadn’t been.
He also stood back from them, quizzically and detached. He peels spuds with his mother, “when all the others were away at Mass”.
Why is he not at Mass himself? At her deathbed, he sees the priest “going hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying”. This isn’t reverential involvement. It is the voice of someone who is not taking part.
There has already been a lot said and written about whether Heaney did enough to support or condemn the IRA.
He had much to say about the Troubles, sometimes obliquely as in North, a collection of poems reflecting on the neolithic bog bodies, which can be read as remarking on punishment beatings like the tarring and feathering of women who went out with soldiers.
He talks of the “exact and tribal, intimate revenge”. And, in the way of poetry, it seems almost a premonition of the bodies of the disappeared being dug out of bogs years later.
Heaney wrote a song about the Bloody Sunday funerals. It was intended for Luke Kelly, but his ideas of how to arrange it were different.
There are three surviving stanzas. The song ends:
And in the dirt, lay justice like an acorn in the winter
Till its oak would sprout in Derry, where the thirteen men lay dead.
In Station Island, Heaney himself agonised about whether he was responding adequately to the violence, with one poem having a victim accuse him, saying he “whitewashed ugliness”, and another saying there was nothing to forgive him for. And both poems evoke the horror of the killing with disturbing clarity.
Bobby Sands sneered at the poets who did not support the protesting prisoners in Long Kesh. Sands wrote:
They sketch the moon and capture bloom/with genius so they say,
But they never sketch the quaking wretch/Who lies in Castlereagh.
Danny Morrison quoted that in a letter to the Irish Times, in which he recalled how he approached Heaney on the Dublin train to urge him to be more supportive of the IRA men in prison.
Sands himself is an example of how people can come to be used after death in causes which they never endorsed when alive.
He is the hero commemorated in a mural on the wall of the Sinn Fein offices on the Falls Road, but assuming that he would be satisfied with the peace process is just as far-fetched as roping Heaney into a celebration of the state of Northern Ireland.
But the dead don’t get to decide how they are used. Stuart Baillie has enlivened local culture considerably with the new magazine Dig With It.
It features photography and interviews and brings together different strands of culture, from the music of young bands to the poetry of Frank Ormsby. But that title is a line of Heaney’s from his most famous poem, Digging.
The young man watches his father digging peat and likens his wielding of the pen in his hand to his father’s use of the spade.
We don’t know what Heaney would have made of the bands in Stuart’s magazine, but perhaps this is more homage than appropriation.
There is a pub named after the poet John Hewitt. Hewitt, when he was alive, had no notion, I am sure, that he would be memorialised in such a way.
There is a Heaney beer, but it is brewed by the family, so no one is cashing in on a brand that isn’t their own, but still, when served to tourists in the Heaney Home Place in Bellaghy, the connection is made and, no doubt, enjoyed.
And Heaney has been adopted by the peace process, with his lines from The Cure of Troy about hope and history rhyming.
These lines have been recited to exhaustion. Joe Biden, perhaps, thought there was some novelty in quoting them during his election campaign.
And it might sound churlish to say that the great “sea change” did not come here and that we are not at “the far side of revenge”.
And justice does not “rise up” like a “longed for tidal wave” and that it is purely fatuous to interpret our politics through those lines. But we can’t blame Heaney for that. The damage is done by those who claim his words as endorsement of devolution and power-sharing, or of the Biden/Harris ticket.
Heaney was not a propagandist for any ideology and he is therefore never going to be a perfect fit for those who try to corner the brand to their own advantage.
He was, however, of this place, deeply rooted in it and he is an indispensable witness to the character of it, as also to his own personal anxieties about it and his relationship with it.
If the centenary is to be an occasion for reflecting on what we have been through and discussing what we can make of it, then Heaney’s work has a lot to contribute.
But if it is to be a celebration of some imagined achievement of creating a coherent state Heaney has no place in it, for the one thing he was most wary of was kidding himself.