SEAMUS HEANEY CENTRE
THE TRUTH BEHIND THE HYPE
So how did this Seamus Heaney Centre come about. This site has for the last 7 years made every effort to bring you the positive news about what is happening in the cultural world of its author and commenting on new creative opportunities for those of us who live and work here (or look in regularly from overseas). Now its time to turn the spotlight on a new cultural centre in my native Bellaghy. Time to look at the Seamus Heaney Centre – The Truth Behind the Hype – in all its ugly detail.
You may or may not have noticed that over the past number of months the page has fallen completely silent on its coverage of the Seamus Heaney HomePlace, which was officially opened in Bellaghy on 29th September 2016 before a private, invited audience. Let’s explain that silence.
When I first started covering the literature of Seamus Heaney in my blog, it coincided with the beginning of a conversation with the then Magherafelt District Council about how we might regenerate Bellaghy. In January 2013 a number of us from Bellaghy gathered at Magherafelt’s Bridewell, spending a Saturday looking at the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats of developing a better Bellaghy. Out of that day came a strategy of sorts, which included a more focused development on the tourism offering, including that of poet Seamus Heaney.
That summer of 2013 a community group of sorts was formed in Bellaghy. One of the big issues then was the acquisition by Magherafelt District Council of the site of the former police station on Main St. The Council approached the group to look at the potential of turning the site over to community use. Architects were deployed (that’s a separate story) and a new community and mixed retail/office development was drafted to planning application stage (Pictured).
Then the news of Seamus Heaney’s death came through. Although nothing changed that autumn of 2013, it was through a chance conversation between this page admin and a long time collaborator of Seamus Heaney in Bellaghy Bawn that Christmas, that things changed. And changed utterly.
It became apparent in that conversation that Seamus Heaney’s widow Marie wished to donate the contents of Seamus’ Dublin study to what she called ‘the people of Bellaghy’. This prompted me to take the matter up at the community group, including the likelihood of including some space in the new community building to house the collection.
Then Magherafelt District Council decided unilaterally to forge ahead with a complete rewrite of what was agreed for the police station site and ‘Seamus Heaney HomePlace’ was born that Spring of 2014. When we compare this with the complete intransigence and cultural apathy this group encountered with that same council in our 1st anniversary event for Seamus, the speed and vigour of their sudden embrace of all things Heaney was astonishing.
That is the moment that the focus shifted from developing Bellaghy to developing a memorial to Seamus Heaney. The council’s focus shifted south to Dublin, where Seamus Heaney’s immediate family were brought on board in support of the venture up north. That is when it became clear that this was becoming a vanity project for the council. Indeed, in Spring 2016 your page admin was summoned to a meeting with a senior official of Mid Ulster Council to be told what was and was not acceptable to ‘council’ in the posts on this page.
The decision was made there and then that this page, which had always exercised good will towards the project but which had on occasion questioned the judgement of its sponsors and the scale of expenditure, would no longer give coverage of any kind to HomePlace. Until tonight.
I am not alone in feeling left outside the gates of my own home town and when I bear witness everyday to the extravagance being lavished on the new centre, I do admit to feeling angry. You should be angry too.
Tomorrow the circus will be wheeled into town, just as it was 20 years ago at Bellaghy Bawn (now stripped bare of all association with Seamus Heaney). They will have a party and then they will leave, never to be seen again. Then on Friday, those of us who live here – and were critical players in making it happen at all – will be invited to cross the threshold.
I won’t be among them.
Knowing Seamus Heaney
I knew Seamus Heaney when he was alive, enjoying his company at many literary events across Ireland over the years and on his visits to Bellaghy Bawn when I was centre manager there. Tonight I think he will be spinning in his grave.
Seamus Heaney was a man of great humility and integrity. I and many others believe he would be appalled at the excess of this building in his name and memory – and the dereliction of duty of care to the rest of our village and area. He told me at the Carleton Summer School back in August 1994, when the Bawn project was taking shape in his name, that he was uncomfortable with any hype or anything that would suggest largesse. I don’t believe he would have felt different today.
Bring on the Corporate Bully
At the end of August, in the week before we ran our Poetry House event, Mid Ulster Council declined us grant aid, citing that it did not find favour with the Heaney’s in Dublin (this did not appear anywhere on the criteria for applying of course). This was accompanied by a letter from Seamus Heaney’s daughter telling us that we were not permitted to use her ‘dad’s image’ in any of our promotional work.
This was followed up days before the event with official intervention by officials at Mid Ulster Council with BBC Radio 4, who were doing two programmes from our event. The council cancelled a planned interview with Seamus’ brother Hugh with BBC Radio 4’s Open Country. They also tried to censor the content of the broadcasts. The BBC production team were not amused. Watch this space for how the BBC follow up on this.
And finally, a gulf of unedifying proportions has now opened up between HomePlace and the established Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen’s. Tomorrow, QUB professors, assorted luvvies and students of the Queen’s centre will come to Bellaghy at the same time as the launch of HomePlace to protest the building of the road through ‘Anahorish’ – a protest, in reality, against the impertinence of Mid Ulster Council and the Heaney’s to building a rival centre in the sticks!
You really couldn’t make it up.