In the Footsteps of Seamus Heaney
An Insight Tour by Fergal Kearney
I grew up in a place called Tamlaghduff, a townland on the periphery of the village of Bellaghy in County Derry, Northern Ireland. As a boy, I shirked work on the family farm as much as I could – denying my parents any help with the turf-cutting in the ‘moss’, reluctantly building the hay bales onto the trailer and then into the shed; then even more reluctantly, tidily building the turf into the cart for their onward journey to the turf shed. Here, the turf were once again lovingly handled into a ‘peat’ wall, as meticulously planned and executed as that of any monastic building.
I suppose in many ways this reluctance was borne out of some sub-conscious rite of passage for my generation, from a background of the rural Catholic poor to the more progressive, optimistic nod to an equal future. My petulance was no doubt the result of trying to break the reins that might hold me forever in this past, of fleeing the narrow boundaries; of escaping the suffocating confines of the march ditch. My parents were probably from that last innocent time, before mass media, television and the attendant political awakening. My mother regaled us with stories of walking barefoot to school, of hard work on the farm, of tough economic times and of a generally awful existence. I’ll never know the extent to which these tales of woe were embellished, but they were a throwback to a time that I never knew, nor cared to.
I came into this world in the late 1960s, when the ‘swinging’ sixties had almost run their course and when a newly enlightened youth were setting an agenda of protest and civil rights. By the time I was born, Seamus Heaney was already a published and respected poet, a man of words and letters and one who had broken the mould of the subservient Catholic citizen; keeping the head down and ‘keeping going’.
In 1978 I went to grammar school in Magherafelt, the first of a cabal of boys in a convent school. Seamus had followed a similar path, but he went to boarding school at St. Columb’s in Derry. I was of course a day student in Magherafelt, a mere 7 miles down the road from home, but the wrench from normal family life was just as complete.
It was in 1st year there that I was introduced to the work of Seamus Heaney through his eponymous poem ‘Digging’. I had heard of Seamus Heaney, mostly because his father had taken the land beside us for grazing and I could see the family home across the fields from our house. I had lesser knowledge, or indeed grasp, of his poetry; any poetry for that matter. But I came to hate that poem ‘Digging’ with an unforgiving passion.
I did of course develop a similar loathing of Mark Twain and Charles Dickens and W Somerset Maugham and Shakespeare and…the curricular list could go on. But let me explain. It wasn’t ever so much a dislike of their work as the manner in which it was taught. When I was 12, school reading was not considered a pleasure or an escape. It was to be drilled into us, passages learned by rote; entire chapters to be summarised and analysed; exam day the most important in any calendar; siphoning any last vestige of joy from the poem, the passage, the play.
So it was that my ‘literary’ awakening was through the pages of “The Hardy Boys” and “Nancy Drew”, and the westerns of Louis L’amour. Later on the horror writing of Stephen King would open my eyes to a whole new world, not just of the supernatural, but of character building and immersive prose.
Mid Term Break
The poetry of Seamus Heaney never really went away ‘you know’, always hovering somewhere at the back of my literary consciousness. When I was 21 years old, my grandfather died. Death had never visited my family so closely and it was on the back of this life-changing moment that I revisited Seamus Heaney through fresh eyes. For one thing, I was now a good bit older and the words on the page were easier on the eye, but it was a re-reading of Mid Term Break that compelled me to a new appreciation and love of Seamus’ work.
It was my own close experience of death and loss that threw his words into sharper relief, making them real, vivid and connecting with me emotionally. I don’t know of anyone who can read that final stanza in the poem and not feel immediately and suddenly overcome, if not with emotion then with a certain wave of anxiety.
Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple,He lay in the four-foot box as in his cot.No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.A four-foot box, a foot for every year.
So it was that I turned to ‘New Selected Poems 1966 – 1987’ to reacquaint myself with the poetry of Seamus Heaney. My eyes opened wide to the rich complexity but earthy simplicity of his words and I felt that reconnect between his world and mine – the same world.
Death and Legacy
I have written elsewhere on this website on the death of Seamus Heaney and his legacy (you can read more here). But in the last few years I have given much thought to how I can play my part in keeping his legacy alive and relevant in our fast moving world. I have helped develop the centre in his name, currently under construction in his native Bellaghy (read more here), but I have also put my mind and imagination to how I might share our world with the world – in a manner that is both honorific and respectful.
Last year on the occasion of his 1st anniversary I helped to organise ‘The Poetry House’ and during that event ran a tour of the places and spaces and people of Seamus’ literary world. At the same time I was terribly conscious that this was my own world and that I would be sharing my own deep love of my place. Thus ‘In the Footsteps of Seamus Heaney’ was born. It is a journey that is at once appreciative, respectful; and grateful.
I have realised now that my life has followed in the footsteps of Seamus Heaney and I hope sincerely that one day you will join me on it.