Seamus Heaney Centre
Bellaghy Pays Tribute to Seamus Heaney in New Centre
It was mid-morning on Friday 30th August 2013 and I was still in a half-sleep, being off work due to illness, when my father quietly opened the door to my room and whispered in, “Seamus Heaney is dead”.
I felt an incredible rise in my chest; part shock, part disbelief. My heart beat harder as I lay back on the pillow desperately trying to judge the terrible news in some rational way. But it would not come. Fleeting images of the man filled my head, the remarkable sound of his voice at once in the room with me.
Like all deaths in our local area, word travelled fast, even if Seamus had lived in Dublin all those years. But his heart was always in South Derry, whose leafy lanes, abundant hedgerows and colourful characters propelled his work over all his years. And Seamus’ family remain here, in Bellaghy. So like any neighbour, we heard about his passing through a phone call from an Aunt, well before any local or global media outlet.
But it was to there that I turned, my iPad searching the BBC website, but there was nothing there to confirm the news and I had a momentary hope that it was all some awful rumour and that Seamus was alive and well.
In Conversation with Seamus Heaney
I first had a conversation with Seamus around August 1994, about a year before he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. I had seen him many times at St Mary’s Church at mass when I was growing up – he visited regularly – and in the local shops where he would always stop for a turn with the locals. But before that, I knew of his poetry – it was compulsory at secondary school where the aim seemed to be to remember the words rather than understand them. So I had no inherent love of Seamus Heaney’s work or indeed of poetry or literature.
We met informally in The Valley Hotel in Fivemiletown where we were staying for the William Carleton Summer School where Seamus had been the keynote speaker. He held a glass of Irish Whiskey in his hand, wearing his familiar crumpled jacket and tie. When I introduced myself and where I hailed from, a warm glow emanated from him and in his familiar chuckle said, “Aye, from the Cavan”, referring of course to the name used for our small part of the parish. I don’t remember much of the detail of the banter and craic that took us into the early hours…
…but I do recall the discussion turning to what was happening at Bellaghy Bawn. The Northern Ireland Department of Environment had acquired the old ‘castle’ in Bellaghy and were rehabilitating the remnants of the 17th century bawn – or hill fort – that dominated the village at the top of the appropriately named Castle Street. They had turned to the local community to ask what they considered fitting for the redevelopment of the building and of course the first thing that came to mind – Seamus Heaney.
Seamus talked to me about this turn of events at our evening in the Valley Hotel. He had already committed to the project but he seemed uneasy, yet, with the concept of it becoming a place of literary pilgrimage, given that he was never comfortable in the limelight – and that he was still alive and well and working away, or as he put it to me, unnerved at “becoming an honorary member of the ‘dead poet’s society’, so to speak”, followed again by that wry chuckle and that mischievous glint in the eye that made everyone warm to him.
Those words, uttered in jest with more than a hint of seriousness, echoed across the years to 30th August 2013 and I had a pang of overwhelming sadness – words that were no longer valid. Seamus had now joined the Dead Poet’s Society.
Bellaghy Bawn and Seamus Heaney
It came to pass that Seamus did indeed put his heart into the redevelopment at the Bawn, committing an abundance of personal artefacts, original manuscripts of his landmark poems, signed prints of him by the artist Louis deBrocquy and a wealth of intimate and personal memorabilia from his early years including his school bag and duffle coat. In a rather pleasant twist of fate, I became the first manager (and the last) at Bellaghy Bawn, shortly after it became operational.
As I endeavoured to bring life to the new space in the village, I had occasion to speak with Seamus on various initiatives and little adventures to shake the place up a bit and get Bellaghy on a journey of positivity after taking a battering for so many years during the troubles. But it was to be the most horrific of circumstance that brought myself and Seamus together in the Bawn in an emotional tribute to the victims of the awful Omagh bomb in August 1998.
I don’t remember the reason for his calling but there he was, larger than life, standing in the reception area asking how things were in the Bawn ‘world’. After walking through the building with him – I know that he was touching base to see how the old place had settled and his contribution to it – we stopped in the cafe for coffee and a chat. Naturally, conversation turned to the awful events of the previous weeks when 29 good people of Tyrone were blown away in a moment of madness in the town of Omagh.
As he made to leave, I invited him to sign our Book of Condolence for the victims of the Omagh bomb which lay opened on a table in the porch of the grand old house. He sat on the chair and flicked through the hundreds of heartfelt and emotional reflections of locals and visitors before voluntarily turning to the inside fold of the book where he wrote: –
History says, Don’t hope
on this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
the longed for tidal wave
of justice can rise up,
and hope and history rhyme.
So hope for a great sea-change
on the far side of revenge.
Believe that a further shore
is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles
and cures and healing wells.
These two verses from ‘The Cure at Troy’, written out in Seamus’ familiar italics – signed with his infamous Seamus Heaney signature – in the quiet of an afternoon in Bellaghy Bawn, did more that anything else then and since to convey the sense of utter loss, the need for justice and the desire for closure on our recent past.
And greeted with unbridled emotion when handed to the Omagh families.
Last Words with Seamus Heaney
I last spoke to Seamus at the wake of his sister Anne, back in 2002. He recognised me right away and with the usual twinkle in his eye asked after my health and career. I had long ago left Bellaghy Bawn for a job with the Northern Ireland Tourist Board (now TourismNI) and since my departure, the Bawn had gone into a slow and almost terminal decline.
In an effort to revive its fortunes, I took upon the idea of including something from Bellaghy in the programme for the UK Capital of Culture in Derry/Londonderry in 2013. So it was that I started a correspondence with Seamus in January 2012, using snail mail of course, to gauge whether he would be interested in lending his support. It was with some trepidation that I read his response but was quickly warmed by his offbeat humour and his colloquialisms about friends and neighbours. I had mooted a title for the event ‘The Poetry House – An International Celebration of Literature and Place’ and having invited his ‘imprimatur’ we got it in full, with the annex ‘Nihil Obstat’, ‘Let Nothing Stand in the Way’.
I made the mistake of placing my trust in my concept with others who I believed would champion it and help bring it to life. Sadly, with hindsight, these individuals had no interest in the concept other than for their own material gain and in the promotion of their own business in Magherafelt. At a mature stage of the project I was sidelined and the project was hijacked and renamed by them as ‘On Home Ground’. They took advantage of my falling ill at the time to convince Seamus that I had ‘abandoned’ the project and ‘left it to them’
to deliver. Thus hoodwinked, Seamus’s allegiance switched to ‘On Home Ground’. Normally I would have fought the good fight, but getting my health back was more important at the time.
As Marilyn Monroe’s character says in that great motion picture ‘Some Like it Hot’, “Sometimes life deals you a dirty curve”, so it came to pass with ‘On Home Ground’. With their programme complete and Seamus secured as their keynote, word began to filter through just 3 weeks before the event that Seamus had died unexpectedly.
Shifting the Axis
Questions were asked about why an event about Seamus Heaney would be held in Magherafelt instead of Bellaghy. In response, I and a few others were invited by Seamus’ family in Dublin and South Derry to prepare for the 1st Anniversary of Seamus’ death. ‘The Poetry House’ was thus resurrected and with the full authority of the Heaney family we set about delivering an ‘appropriate’ event on Seamus’ home ground in Bellaghy, where he is interred in the graveyard of St Mary’s Church. And deliver we did. Seamus’ brother remarked when asked by the Belfast Telegraph how the weekend had been viewed by the family, “It was appropriate”.
That previous Christmas following Seamus’ death the local drama group invited individuals and performers to Bellaghy Bawn for an afternoon of reflection and readings of Seamus’ work. I attended as one such participant, but having forgotten about it until that day, had not prepared my poem. But I quickly rehearsed and delivered a very personal rendition of ‘Personal Helicon’ to the audience.
As the event ended and conversations started over tea and scones, Seamus’ longstanding archivist stopped with me on the staircase to ‘pick my brain’. Seamus’ wife Marie had tasked him with finding somewhere suitable – and that word again ‘appropriate’ – as she wished to donate the entire contents of Seamus’ study to the people of Bellaghy. Bellaghy Bawn was clearly inadequate, since it had been unviable for many years due to lack of public funding and curious opening hours. As well as that, it was far too small. Another solution would have to be found, and quickly.
Thus the axis shifted once more towards Bellaghy. At the time, I was working with partners in the community on the redevelopment of the former RUC station in the village, the site of which had been acquired by the local Council. The Council were determined that the site be developed for community and economic use and had employed architects to prepare drawings for a multi-purpose community facility on the 1.9 acre site.
Now we had the vexed question of where to put Seamus Heaney’s archive and the answer was right there. The new building was at planning stage and we quickly availed of a short time window to completely revisit the concept. The Seamus Heaney Centre in Bellaghy was born!
Rising from the Ashes
The former RUC station had once been The Manor House, a victorian pile on the edges of the village surrounded by thick stone walls. In later years it tried to be a hotel and restaurant with limited success. Then at the height of our troubles it was taken over by the state and transformed into a rather intimidating RUC station, complete with bomb proof bunkers and mortar-proof roofs. An eyesore in anyone’s language.
But as the peace process took hold and police reform brought sweeping changes, the station became redundant and was closed. It lay vacant for many years before being put on the market. It was bought by Magherafelt District Council.
In a short space of time, the ramparts and blast proof infrastructure on the site disappeared and the plans for the new Seamus Heaney Centre were approved. Building work is now advanced, with the landmark building dominating the skyline on one of the main approaches to the village from the south. Here’s how things are looking in mid June 2015:-
So begins another extraordinary chapter in the life, death and legacy of the great Seamus Heaney. Over the next year I will keep you updated with this brilliant story as it unfolds.