A Defining Year for Bellaghy
Seamus Heaney to be Memorialised in new Landmark Building
At the beginning of 2012, a group of people from Bellaghy met at Magherafelt’s Bridewell to agree on what needed to happen to ensure that the village and its hinterland could flourish. It had been obvious for some time that something (big) needed to happen to bring new life to the dreary streets of our historic village. A mammoth task lay ahead.
Out of this discussion came a strategy of sorts, covering areas such as housing, public realm, built heritage, economic development and the literary opportunity presented by our very own Seamus Heaney. There was even a regeneration group set up to guide the way forward and to take on the custodianship of a future Bellaghy.
A Slow but Positive Start
Things started slowly. It wasn’t until late 2013 that things started to happen – a Christmas Market, a new Christmas Tree and village lights were just a few of the highlights of that fledgling year. Agreement was also reached on a solution for the reuse of the site vacated by the village RUC station. These plans were approved by the regeneration group in October 2013 and were submitted for planning permission that November. Have a look at the original plans below:-
This was followed in 2014 by the official handover of the Bellaghy Village Allotments and our first ever Easter Eggstravaganza at Ballyscullion Park. The success of these original events showed great enthusiasm among local people for high quality events and activities.
The Death of Seamus Heaney
The defining moment of course came on 30th August 2013 when news began to filter through of the death of Seamus Heaney. Seamus’ life and work had been celebrated some years before in the rehabilitation of Bellaghy Bawn, where an exhibition and library of his work remains to this day. Seamus was a long time resident of Dublin but was a regular visitor to his native Bellaghy – and he chose the churchyard at St Mary’s as his final resting place.
That Christmas, local drama group ‘Off the Cuff’ arranged an intimate afternoon of music and poetry in Seamus’ memory in the Tower Room at Bellaghy Bawn. Featuring local people reciting their favourite poem, interspersed with music, the event was a fitting and appropriate memorial to the great poet.
When the event finished I got chatting to Pat Brennan, a long term scholar of Seamus Heaney’s work and latterly his archivist. Pat had recently been in conversation with Seamus’ wife Marie who had indicated her desire to donate the contents of Seamus’ Dublin study to ‘the people of Bellaghy’. Her chief concern was that nowhere suitable could be found, as Bellaghy Bawn had long been neglected by government (the Seamus Heaney exhibit had last been updated in 2003) and in any case, it would be much to small to accommodate all of Seamus’ work.
It was on the back of that chance conversation that the replacement building at the site of the old RUC station became the new ‘Seamus Heaney Centre’. The original plans were scuppered and the substantial edifice that has now risen at the corner of Gulladuff Road and Main Street became its landmark replacement.
The Seamus Heaney Centre
Of course, this remains its working title but the new centre will be wholly dedicated to the work and the legacy of Seamus Heaney. Not only will it tell his life story, but will provide a huge archive of the poet’s work, study areas, a library and a 160 seat performance space – and not forgetting the huge personal archive donated by his widow Marie.
But what of the locals?
At the initial stages, the project promoters (Magherafelt District Council – now Mid Ulster District Council) were more concerned with getting the place built than what to do with it. Moderate community engagement has taken place in late 2015 and outreach work with schoolchildren is already underway. But I believe that the speed and the sheer size of the development has taken most people by surprise.
If this is to be truly a defining year for Bellaghy, much more needs to be done to engage with everyone in the community, of every age. Regrettably the regeneration group has ebbed away so there is no representative voice for local people. So here’s my top tips for making 2016 a landmark year for Bellaghy:-
- Begin a countdown, publicly displayed on the new building leading up to its opening on 30th June
- Put in place a programme of small events using Bellaghy Bawn and other ‘venues’
- Engage local people in the opening event – this has to be a landmark event of international significance if it is to have any impact at all
- Information, information, information – I’m just not seeing any press or communications to whet even the local appetite, never mind the wider national and international audience
- Re-establish the village regeneration group with the appropriate mix of expertise and experience in areas such as economic development, business, tourism, the arts and education
Most importantly of all though is that each and everyone of us embraces this opportunity! It’s once in a lifetime folks that a small place such as ours will have the eyes of the world turned upon us for positive reasons.
So get out there, show your support, attend those events and make Bellaghy work!