Friday, 30 August 2013

Seamus Heaney 1939-2013

I hope I'll not be accused of band-wagon jumping, but as an ardent admirer of 20th century English verse I can't let the passing today of Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney go unmarked. The more so as he was so archetypically Northern Irish. And that, for me, has been something of a problem.

I've nothing against the Northern Irish. Some of my best friends are or have been from 'the province' and I've spent many happy hours drinking in Belfast bars, sampling Bushmills at the famous distinllery after stamping on the nearby Giant's Causeway or spending summers rowing on Lough Erne with my friend 'Seamus' (not his real name!) from Enniskillen.

In my personal experience Northern Irish people are the most welcoming, friendly, open, honest and entertaining people on the planet. But there's still something about a Norn Iron accent (especially on the BBC which seems to have a fetish for employing huge numbers of correspondents with an unmistakable Ulster twang) that makes my stomach lurch. I can only put it down to the dark days of the troubles, a father who worked away in Wakefield during the height of the IRA mainland bombing campaigns (which included frequent car-bombings in that city thanks to there being several provisional IRA prisoners in the maximum security prison there) and - later - my own interrupted schooldays when, thanks to a succession of scares, we would troop out of school to line up on Thornes Road for hours while the buildings were thoroughly searched for (thankfully) non-existent bombs.

Years laters, as a teacher myself, I was faced on a Monday morning by traumatised students who had been shopping in Warrington on the fateful Saturday when an all-too-real Irish bomb killed Tim Parry and Jonathan Ball.

There's something primitive and irrational about it, but no matter whom the BBC employed to read the words of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuiness during the ridiculous ban on direct broadcasting and no matter how many wonderfully warm words I've heard from genuine Irish friends that accent, the knee-capped vowels and choking consonants, have never really seemed to me to be poetry.

Until I discovered Seamus Heaney. For Heaney didn't just use the written word, the content of sublime Irish poetry or the rhythm of Celtic-inspired English metre to communicate. He used his voice, his own Northern Irish voice. And with it, a gentler, soothing and altogether calming influence on my own nerves. Not that his poetry is pretty. It deals full on with the 'troubles' of both Northern Irish history and life itself, humanity and the condition of humanity.

But the tone is soothing, calming, timeless and magically musical. His readings smooth the rough edges of an accent that had previously jagged its way into my worst nightmares. He was a one-man, linguistic peace process. His poetry is probably the greatest poetry written in English in the twentieth century.

I once almost met him. Fleeing from an overdose of art at Tate Modern one afternoon I escaped and stood by the river for a few blissful moments, during which he passed, all white hair and larger-than-life gait. 'That's Seamus Heaney' I thought and tried my hardest not to stare. The hordes on the Thames embankment hadn't noticed or - if they had - were less impressed, less star-struck than I was. I watched as he walked passed, yards from where I was leaning against the railings and recovering from a surfeit of Chagall and Mondrian. Maybe I looked as if I'd overdosed on modern art, I don't know. But as the great man walked by, I caught his eye (or he caught mine) and he smiled - the most wonderfully clich├ęd Irish twinkle in his eye.

And I looked out across old Father Thames and I smiled too...

1 comment:

  1. I still can't believe he's gone. He was nothing short of my hero. Somehow, maybe because I admire his poetry and prose so much, I must have seen him as more than human and thought him immortal. He once wrote me a letter. Such a generous gesture to reply to an undergraduate student that I was at the time.

    Not having been exposed to the Troubles reporting in English (we Germans are big into dubbing), I actually like the Northern Irish accent, which never ceases to bewilder, ahem, most people. I even tried to emulate it in my younger days until I realised that it was probably as disadvantageous as a German accent.

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