Seamus Heaney Connections
Making the Seamus Heaney Centre a Success
I always knew Seamus Heaney as a man of great humility. He was celebrated the world over for his contribution to literature and the written word. In Bellaghy he was simply ‘famous Seamus’, somewhat taken for granted yet with something of a churlish admiration.
As the Seamus Heaney Centre rises from the ruins of our former police station, conversation has turned to how the centre can make a lasting contribution to Bellaghy, its economy and above all, its people. Yes, I know that it is equally in the mindset as to how it fits in globally, but for the purposes of this article I’ll explore how I believe it can take a central place in local lives – and for the greater good.
The arc of Seamus Heaney’s life took him from humble beginnings at Mossbawn, in the Broagh near Castledawson through an exceptional literary and academic career, to his final resting place in St Mary’s Churchyard, Bellaghy. Seamus told me many years ago that he harboured some discomfort with the public attention and scrutiny that accompanied his passion for writing and poetry. But at the same time he had become resigned to it and would rather it was managed than exploited.
Even when he was asked to contribute to the redevelopment of Bellaghy Bawn in the early 1990s (within sight of the new building in Bellaghy), he thought carefully about his legacy, “far removed from souvenirs and his face on a mug”, he said at the time. Though he did give generously to Bellaghy through his contributions to the Bawn. His generosity, accompanied by the affability and humour at the opening of the centre should have set the tone for its future, but in the intervening years, his contribution was lost. Why?
When Seamus stood on the back steps of the 17th century Bawn, he reflected on its history, the history of Bellaghy and his own close ties to the place and its people. He looked forward to a future ‘where hope and history rhyme’ and where the Bawn would become a focal point, not just for the people of Bellaghy, but the people of the world.
This did not happen for a number of reasons – and in these lie lessons for the new centre. Firstly, no one knew what to do with the place. What was it for? Who was it for? No thought had been given to this. The government sponsors thought that the name of Seamus Heaney in itself would guarantee success, that they would ‘build it and they will come’. Then there was the central conflict within the Department of Environment (at the time) between conservation and education – with senior management more concerned with the bricks and mortar of their properties than what to do with them.
In May 1997 I took over as development manager at the fledgling Bawn. On that first day I walked through its quiet rooms thinking about how I could fill these spaces. I was not new to this type of scenario, being one of those people in whose career choices there had never been a ‘previous incumbent’. But this place had its own unique set of challenges – its ownership, its location, its own history, its symbolism – all of which had to be overcome.
In those early days, there really wasn’t an ‘internet’ like we have today, and Bellaghy Bawn didn’t even have a brochure! With my two colleagues, we set about establishing a plan for the place on 3 separate fronts; education, visitor experience and local people (in no particular order). I had come from a community development and cultural background, so it fell to me to harness local energy and to bring people into a building to which many had little interest and others were hostile.
A simple programme of events took shape, where we aimed for one event a month targeted at our local audience and two major events in the 1st year targeted at wider audiences and visitors. And so with those first tentative steps, people started arriving at the Bawn – more importantly, they began to feel a certain ownership and pride in the old place.
The Next Generation
Even Seamus himself would have admitted that he had become the perennial mainstay of the literature curriculum in Irish schools. So we created a curriculum based study tour which we targeted at what are now Year 11 students. Very quickly the Bawn filled with youthful voices on a fun quest to find their facts and complete their workbooks. In tandem with this, The Plantation of Ulster was also on the history curriculum so we were to benefit from two strikes of the hot iron at once.
In early 1998, we were fortunate to receive substantial investment to establish a joint venture with Armagh (Jonathan Swift) and Inishkeen, County Monaghan (Patrick Kavanagh) to set in motion a cross-border project celebrating the literary arts. This involved local people at every level and included a major pageant that toured Bellaghy, Armagh City and Inishkeen. Significantly it brought together other aspects of the literary tradition, principally in song, as well as the arts and crafts. It was a success and had set a benchmark for future years. So what happened?
The core frustration for all of us trying to establish the Bawn was with government, local and national. Central government seemed content to add a lick of paint every 10 years; local government was more concerned with refuse and rates collection than fiddling around with that difficult term ‘culture’. At every turn, our best efforts at growing visitor numbers were stymied by central government bureaucrats and local government inertia.
Exhausted by all of this, I left in September 1998. The remainder of the team struggled on for a few months before they too scattered. None of us were replaced.
The building itself remains – opening 2 afternoons a week (help yourself – there are no guides) – maintained as a ‘statutory duty’ by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency. Shamefully, Seamus Heaney’s gifts to the people of Bellaghy remain locked away in climate storage, invisible to all but the key holder.
The New Seamus Heaney Centre – What to Do!
For my background history and analysis on the new Seamus Heaney Centre click here.
If the Seamus Heaney Centre is to make any lasting contribution to his legacy and to Bellaghy, here are a few observations based on my long experience of such developments in Northern Ireland – or indeed anywhere in the world: –
- Engage, engage, engage!! Before a sod is turned, get everyone involved, just not a select few, nor the local community association
- Put a programme of events in place at least 6 months before the doors open and continue in the same vein 6 months after
- Put in place 4 ‘major’ events each year, preferably of international significance
- Avoid the ‘summer school’ – Seamus participated in many, but was lukewarm to one in his own name
- Connect the centre to the grave – there is nothing attractive nor inviting about the journey from centre to grave or vice versa – major public realm improvements and visitor signage need to be put in place in tandem with the centre
- Connect the centre to Bellaghy Bawn – under no circumstances upset the legacy that Seamus left just a few hundred yards and twenty years away – connect the two, as Seamus lived and breathed in Bellaghy Bawn. He will never do that in the new space
- Connect the centre to the wider heritage – built, natural, historic – it is still all there to be found and enjoyed, with the added beauty of Seamus’ writing
- Connect the centre to the other poets of Ireland and develop partnerships
- Connect early and often with Tourism Ireland/NI and get on their tour operator familiarisation rota now!
- Establish a local creative steering group, of no more than 6 people to inform and energise the management team
- There is a huge academic interest in Seamus Heaney across the world – don’t try and replicate that in Bellaghy – there are others doing it already and doing it better. Keep Bellaghy about Seamus Heaney – the man – and we will succeed.
About Fergal Kearney
Fergal Kearney is a graduate of Queen’s University Belfast, Ulster University and University College Galway. An artist and photographer, he has enjoyed a lifelong interest in the life and work of Seamus Heaney, counting him among some of his most revered friendships. A career in local government, principally in the arts and heritage sector, predated a long period in cultural management at the Northern Ireland Tourist Board (now TourismNI), which he left in 2013 for health reasons. He is now a full time photographer, artist and blogger and a dedicated proponent of the legacy of Seamus Heaney, particularly in his beloved South Derry.