I welcome to the Distinguished Visitors Gallery members of the late Seamus Heaney's family. You are very welcome and it is a great honour to have you here.
An Appreciation of the Life and Work of Seamus Heaney: Statements
I would like to welcome Michael, Seamus's secretary, Susan, and her husband, Ciarán, to the House.
As Friday mornings go, it was busy. Those with young families were out early, buying the last of the books and lurid lunchboxes. Everybody here was making calls, lists and readying offices for the start of the new term, all of us noticing the change in the light. All day, word of his death broke radio schedules, consciousness and the heart of a nation. It was, indeed, sad news. There would be no one now to keep the gap from Joyce's salt strand to Molly Bloom's rhododendrons and roses, or the Fianna's Binn Éadair. From that day, there would be no man marooned in his own loft, a birch planted 20 years ago between him and the Irish Sea, searching, as he put it, "for that one piece of language that fits exactly". And as he sought, so he found.
It is almost two years now since Seamus, Marie, Michael, Christopher and Catherine Ann gifted us those finds in the Heaney archive. Again, the light was changing. It was Advent, the winter solstice, in fact. On that day, we were given a gift beyond precious metal, incense or ointment, or all they signify. It was a gift from one who could disarm kings, inspire presidents, heal hurts, break hearts, make cures at Troy, burials at Thebes and miracles out of all of us, and out of all that we are and were and could be, at Anahorish, or on a tube in London, or watching our fathers dig, or peeling potatoes with our mother, or as a new family of Europeans, united through the unstrange word at the Fionn Uisce, the Beacons at Bealtaine. For him, it was only all and ever about memory and "the state of us".
So much has been written and said about Seamus Heaney in the last 26 days: oceans - continents - of words. In the media there was the particular eloquence of Theo Dorgan, Fintan O'Toole and Andrew O'Hagan. In the church at his requiem mass, we held our breath, the building itself seeming to catch itself and to listen, as Paul Muldoon shared his impeccable and devastating observations on heartbreak, general and particular, on the matter of Seamus Heaney's beauty, on the matter of his being kind and decent, and the greater business of his being the first and eternal champion of his daughter, Catherine Ann. In that moment Paul Muldoon made them every father and every daughter, because every father and daughter, present or watching, recognised in the story and its telling the power of something that was not just a life gift but a birthright. Inevitably, the politics of birthright was the backdrop to so much of Heaney's work.
In the days since his death, the lines about "hope and history" have rhymed across the world, as private and public figures reacted to the news. For me, however, it is what Seamus Heaney says about his translation of Dante's Divine Comedy that best sums up his very particular and considered view of the poetic and the political:
Poetry, let us say, whether it belongs to an old political dispensation or aspires to express a new one, has to be a working model of inclusive consciousness. It should not simplify.
Its projections and inventions should be a match for the complex reality which surrounds it, and out of which it is generated.
Across the world Seamus Heaney was and is seen not alone as Ireland's better self, but, I believe, its best self possible. It is a self alive to and alive with what he called "the potency of myth". In June, he spoke to the Paris Revue de Belles-lettres about "journeys to the underworld", not alone in Dante, but also Virgil and Homer:
The potency of the myth was [he said] a way of imagining something ongoing ...Christian myth is so contentious and exhausted ... I find that there were underworld journeys where the shades of the people you knew are met. I find it deeply, archetypally satisfactory. You don't need to believe in an "afterlife" but you get some kind of satisfaction ... I find Virgil simply beautiful, the various encounters with the lost people.
Today, I am certain he has met them, for they are his people as they are ours, those links in the human chain. Today, we miss and mourn and yet celebrate the incomparable Seamus Heaney. We give thanks joyously, graciously and humbly for the gift of him in our national life. He who was our voice, our hearth, our "home".
Seamus Heaney was a great poet. Perhaps he had we in this place in mind when he wrote the following in 1985 at the request of Ms Mary Lawlor of Amnesty International Ireland to mark international human rights day. It has since inspired a generation of human rights activists. Amnesty International's highest award, the ambassador of conscience, is inspired by his work. Members probably know it. It is called From the Republic of Conscience. It reads:
When I landed in the republic of conscience
it was so noiseless when the engines stopped
I could hear a curlew high above the runway.
At immigration, the clerk was an old man
who produced a wallet from his homespun coat
and showed me a photograph of my grandfather.
The woman in customs asked me to declare
the words of our traditional cures and charms
to heal dumbness and avert the evil eye.
No porters. No interpreter. No taxi.
You carried your own burden and very soon
your symptoms of creeping privilege disappeared.
Fog is a dreaded omen there but lightning
spells universal good and parents hang
swaddled infants in trees during thunderstorms.
Salt is their precious mineral. And seashells
are held to the ear during births and funerals.
The base of all inks and pigments is seawater.
Their sacred symbol is a stylised boat.
The sail is an ear, the mast a sloping pen,
the hull a mouth-shape, the keel an open eye.
At their inauguration, public leaders
must swear to uphold unwritten law and weep
to atone for their presumption to hold office –
and to affirm their faith that all life sprang
from salt in tears which the sky-god wept
after he dreamt his solitude was endless.
I came back from that frugal republic
with my two arms the one length, the customs woman
having insisted my allowance was myself.
The old man rose and gazed into my face
and said that was official recognition
that I was now a dual citizen.
He therefore desired me when I got home
to consider myself a representative
and to speak on their behalf in my own tongue.
Their embassies, he said, were everywhere
but operated independently
and no ambassador would ever be relieved.
Tá an náisiún fós faoi bhrón de dheasca bás Seamus Heaney. Déanaim comhbhrón lena bhean Marie agus a chlann, Michael, Christopher agus Catherine Ann. File den scoth, gan amhras ab ea Seamus Heaney agus bhí clú agus cáil air ar fud an domhain. Fear mór grámhar i ngach aon tslí a bhí ann. Bhí sé cineálta agus lách agus thug sé cabhair agus tacaíocht do a lán daoine, go háirithe filí na tíre seo. Cheap sé go raibh dualgas poiblí air seirbhís a thabhairt don phobal i gcoitinne agus don fhilíocht go háirithe.
There is no doubt that the death of Seamus Heaney has left a large void for all of us, but that void is very painful indeed for his wife, Marie, his children, Michael, Christopher and Catherine Ann, and his close friends, Susan and Ciaran, who are with us today. We have lost our national poet, but they have lost a loving husband and father. I join the Taoiseach and the Minister, Deputy Quinn, by expressing on behalf of my party our deepest sympathy to you. I hope that the very happy memories that you shared together and the wonderful tributes that have been paid to Seamus will sustain you in the weeks, months and years head.
His passing was spoken about all over the world. There was genuine sadness felt by all who knew him and by all who loved his beautiful poetry and prose. These were heartfelt and genuine tributes, as people were touched by his contribution to humanity through his poetry and writings. He touched many millions of people with his words over many decades and his passing leaves an enormous gap in our lives, not just on this island, but throughout the world. His fellow poets in particular feel that loss. Theo Dorgan wrote that poetry flowed into Heaney and through him, rather than being created.
In preparation for this address, I was anxious to ascertain the views of the poets of Ireland after the loss of Seamus Heaney. I spoke with a colleague and friend in Cork, a poet called Thomas McCarthy. When he wrote back to me, he stated that the poets of Ireland were bereft. Some of us from outside the poetry world might not have this sense, but they are bereft. He went on to state that, not only had the greatest Irish poet since W.B. Yeats passed away, but a great, towering beech tree, a great nurturing Ulster presence, had been taken from us. He stated that, from the very beginning, Seamus seemed to have been touched by fame. It accompanied him everywhere. Whenever he entered a room or lecture theatre, excited anticipation rose.
It was a genuine belief across all poets that one met and that one has spoken to since his death that poems such as Mid-Term Break, Follower, The Tollund Man and the great 1984 sequence Station Island will ensure that he will be remembered as long as poetry is recited. Most poets will agree that, unlike themselves, his poetic immortality is assured.
What has also emerged about him among his fellow poets was his extraordinary kindness to many poets who were on the way up or were in difficulty in life. He was the eldest child in a farming family. That background may be a clue to understanding how such a famous, busy and put-upon writer could help so many other writers. Thomas McCarthy, who has written novels about politicians and is very close to well known politicians in Waterford, Jackie Fahey being one, told me that he was a bit like Jackie Fahey among the poets, in that he minded them. He answered every letter, returned every telephone call and tried to fulfil every request to attend another poet's book launch or reading. He wore himself out helping other poets and artists because he had a profound sense of public duty. He summed this up to Thomas McCarthy by stating that, when one had a great harvest, one had to share it with the neighbours. He leveraged his own fame to enhance the status of other poets internationally, particularly in the US, by supporting them in creating their own marks through their writings when some of them may have felt vulnerable or isolated as they moved into a new world. He was a great ally and a great advocate for Ireland's interests in literature and across the board. He was very much in the mould of W.B. Yeats and Dubhghlas de hÍde in that regard.
It is fair to say that the conflict on the island of Ireland challenged him as a poet and an Ulsterman who was conscious of what was going on around him. Conflict scenarios present unique challenges to poets. It was not easy for him. His poetry highlights and mourns the needless loss of many lives and neighbours. Colm Tóibín poetically wrote: "In a time of burnings and bombings Seamus Heaney used poetry to offer an alternative world." Seamus Heaney wrote in his poem, Terminus: "Two buckets were easier carried than one. I grew up in between."
From the phase of his poetry dealing with the North, one gets a sense of wrestling with the issues - divided tribal loyalties to different communities and endeavouring to walk a path through. More than most, he captured the emerging hope that the peace process brought to the island of Ireland and to its people.
Is mór an onóir domsa an deis seo a fháil chun mo fhíor-chomhbhrón agus comhbhrón Sinn Féin a chur in iúl inniu do chlann Séamus Heaney, agus urraim a thabhairt dá gcuimhne.
I am honoured to have the opportunity, on my own behalf and that of Sinn Féin, to join Dáil colleagues and others in the North, including in the Assembly and in south Derry, in expressing to Seamus's widow, Marie, and their children, Christopher, Michael and Catherine Ann, our profound sadness at his passing and our solidarity with them. I cannot recall any death in recent times that was felt by so many people. I know that sense of loss can only be a fraction of what his bereaved family and close personal friends are feeling.
Seoid náisiúnta ab ea Séamus. Táimid fíor-bhuíoch do Marie agus a teaghlach mar thug siad Seamus duinn. He was extremely modest, approachable and humble, and had a great sense of humour. He had a profound and humane understanding of us as a people because he was of us as a people, with all our faultlines, flaws, strengths and weaknesses. Until his death, he was the world's leading living poet in the English language. He was a proud Tamlaghduff man from south County Derry who loved his place and his people. He made them universal because he wrote of them often.
Seamus and Michael McLaverty - another wonderful writer - taught for a time in my home area of Ballymurphy. Michael was headmaster of St. Thomas's secondary school on the Whiterock Road and Seamus was a teacher there. It was from the graffiti there that came, much later, the legend "Is there a life before death" that Seamus used in his poem, Whatever you say, say nothing.
In the early 1970s, when I was on the run, I remember travelling on a bus down the Falls Road reading Death of a Naturalist when the British army stopped the bus and boarded it to check the passengers. They were from the parachute regiment and were menacing. They were asking everyone their names and addresses, as well as where they were coming from and going to. For a second, one Brit stared at me and then he moved on and questioned the passenger behind me. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief when they got off the bus. From that point on, Seamus Heaney became a talisman for me and I told him that much later.
In Long Kesh, where I was a prisoner for a time, I remember one 12 July sitting with a couple of other prisoners in a cage. We could hear the Orange drums outside on Blaris Road. To our surprise, one of our comrades started to recite, from memory, the poem Orange Drums, Tyrone, 1966:
The lambeg balloons at his belly, weighs
Him back on his haunches, lodging thunder
Grossly there between his chin and his knees.
He is raised up by what he buckles under.
Each arm extended by a seasoned rod,
He parades behind it. And though the drummers
Are granted passage through the nodding crowd
It is the drums preside, like giant tumours.
To every cocked ear, expert in its greed,
His battered signature subscribes ‘No Pope’.
The pigskin’s scourged until his knuckles bleed.
The air is pounding like a stethoscope.
Almost 20 years later, I was writing Hope and History - whose title I stole - which deals with the 1980s and 1990s and the birth and evolution of the peace process. I contacted Seamus and asked if he would mind if I quoted from his poem The Cure at Troy. He generously and speedily agreed.
More recently, in 2010, and I have wonderful memories of that day, he returned to west Belfast for the rededication of a stone at the grave of the playwright, Sam Thompson, and to speak about Michael McLaverty. Sam Thompson was a well-known and influential writer who wrote a wonderful play called Over the Bridge. This was in 1959 when I was only a child. It came under huge pressure from the old Unionist regime and the Group Theatre in Belfast refused to stage it. Jimmy Ellis, who became well known later for his part in the television series "Z Cars", left the Group Theatre to set up his own company which staged the play. It was a hugely courageous thing to do at that time.
Seamus was to speak at Féile an Phobail on all these matters. A group of us gathered at Sam Thompson's grave in the city cemetery, including Sam's son and Jimmy Ellis. It was raining but I cannot tell the story because it would be embarrassing to one or two of the people there, but it was hilarious. It was rescued by Seamus at the end who paid tribute both to Sam Thompson and Jimmy Ellis.
Afterwards, he and Marie went off to visit St. Thomas's school with Danny Morrison. I am told that was the first time he was in the school since he left around 1961. It was a very emotional visit. In his talk that day in the big hall in St. Mary's University College on the Falls Road, he told us about the first time he saw his future wife sitting there. He also spoke about being a student and paid tribute to Michael McLaverty. His comments were peppered with humorous insights and telling observations about writing, literature and Belfast at that time. Everyone was enthralled, and then he read us some of his poetry. He thoroughly enjoyed that event and, just as importantly, so did Marie.
I believe one of Seamus Heaney's greatest gifts was to make poetic themes accessible and relatable to people who, by and large, were not interested in poetry. Two thirds of poetry collections sold in the UK in the year prior to our national celebration of his 70th birthday were Seamus Heaney's books. Very few poets, contemporary or otherwise, can lay claim to such popularity. Quite fittingly, numerous events organised to mark culture night last Friday paid homage to Seamus Heaney.
Generations of Irish people will have been familiar with Seamus Heaney's poems. His place in Irish culture and not only Irish poetry was incomparable. Following his death, it was noted that he possessed what he himself once prescribed to Yeats, namely, the gift of establishing authority within culture. Seamus Heaney once said, "Ireland is not a country but a manuscript." With this in mind, he always had something to convey about what mattered, be it home, nature, history or moral choice. In a typical articulate speech at the National Museum last March he excellently summed up the frame of mind of the nation during this economic climate when he said, "We are not simply a credit rating or an economy but a history and a culture: a human population rather than a statistical phenomenon." No doubt the great poet was keenly aware of the manner in which the Irish art sector is being institutionally devalued these days. He spoke often about that.
Some years ago, Pat Moylan, chairman of the Arts Council, while reacting to cuts in the arts funding pondered from where the next Seamus Heaney would come if the Government continued to treat the arts as some kind of luxury that can be easily cut in a recession. She warned that this thoughtless hacking at the Arts Council's budget would reduce our chances of future champions of the Irish arts, like Heaney. The arts sector has suffered 30% cuts in State funding in the past five years. Anyone who thinks these cuts have no affect is seriously deluded. This sector has no fat and had none to begin with. Hence, the cuts are going straight to the bone.
To save money, one of the oldest theatres in the country, the Theatre Royal, went dark for several months this year. The internationally recognised Spraoi marked its 21st year with severely pared back budgets. I have personally written letters of recommendation for several gifted artists, actors and poets who have emigrated to seek work in the arts in other countries. There is simply nothing left here for them. Names like Seamus Heaney act like a magnet when it comes to attracting tourists to the country. With culture tourism worth €2.1 billion annually to the economy, it cannot be cast to one side. This talent needs to be nurtured.
It is wholly fitting that we celebrate the national institution that was Seamus Heaney here today. However, we need to do more than pay lip-service. We need to provide a solid framework in which young emerging artists, about whom Seamus Heaney often spoke, can thrive. Today, as we mark the immense legacy which Seamus Heaney has made to this country, I implore the Government to ponder the question, "From where will the next Nobel Laureate come?" As the final touches are put to the budget I hope the Taoiseach and Cabinet will be able to look back on the cuts made and ask, "Was it worth it?" In the words of Seamus Heaney, "The next move is always the test."
One of the greatest love poems ever written was Valediction, which is about, Marie, the woman Seamus Heaney loved. It is a simple poem which he wrote when Marie went shopping and he missed her from the house. The last few lines of that poem are absolutely immaculate and will go down in history as some of the greatest words ever written in a love poem. It reads:
Pitched from the quiet sound Of your flower-tender Voice. Need breaks on my strand; You've gone, I am at sea. Until you resume command.Self is in mutiny.
Brilliant. Thank you.
Our statements this evening are more than tinged with sadness. When Seamus Heaney died so suddenly last month his loss reverberated around the world. We feel this loss most keenly here in Ireland where he lived, worked and wrote. Like many in this House, I met Seamus Heaney on a number of occasions. In 1991, we were both on a tour of American cities, including San Jose and Pittsburgh, and our itinerary overlapped in a number of locations. I had the opportunity to speak with him informally over the occasional cup of coffee about his work and about the popularity of Irish writing in the United States. I recognised then, as did many others, that Seamus Heaney was Ireland's supreme cultural ambassador. I saw at first hand the respect that both the academic world, the Irish diaspora, and the reader held for him and his work.
I subsequently met Seamus at the Listowel Writers' Week, which he attended on a number of occasions, reading each time to full houses. His genuine friendship with John B. Keane was coupled with an openness to help and mentor emerging writers and poets, such as John McAuliffe. Many have remarked on his generosity in providing assistance to young writers. Many have also commented on how down to earth and unassuming he was. I was present with the Taoiseach at an event to mark the donation of his archives to the National Library of Ireland almost two years ago. This was a very important occasion. However, I was told afterwards of the background to this donation and how Seamus had arrived at the library, papers in boxes in the back of his car. He had carried the precious boxes of letters and pages from his car into the building, quietly and without any fuss. This was the mark of the man - a great donation but done simply, without pomp and circumstance.
In joining in the welcome other speakers have expressed to Michael, Susan and Ciaran, it is appropriate to thank the Taoiseach and the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Jimmy Deenihan, for giving Deputies an opportunity to pay tribute to Seamus Heaney at this early stage after his untimely death. We all value the opportunity to pay tribute to one of the greatest Irishmen.
In history, Ireland has been renowned as an island of great learning and scholarship. We have always deeply valued learning and the pursuit of the ideals of the mind. We often forget or neglect these values in these most difficult of times, understandably so. Higher thought can seem very far away when concerns are focused on incoming bills, worries about employment or caring for a loved one. Increasingly, the national narrative has focused on the cold, calculated statistics of GDP, GNP, bond yields and unemployment which, in recent times, have provided little comfort for our people.
As a nation, we have faced challenging and testing times before. The foundation of the State was a bloody and vicious battle which stemmed from a national awakening and driving sense of unity and purpose, only to end with a searing civil war which vibrated for decades afterwards. The crisis at the outbreak of the Second World War, colloquially known as the Emergency, resulted in rationing and great hardship, although thankfully we were spared the horrors that engulfed the rest of Europe. The nation also faced a crisis of confidence and conscience when the Troubles erupted in Northern Ireland at the end of the 1960s. This conflict would devastate thousands of families, North and South, east and west, and inflict hurt on hurt, build wound on wound and create a sense of despair which hung over these islands until the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. It was difficult in those times to reflect, to learn deeply and to find value in pursuing the higher ideals of the mind. So much hurt created little room for such thought, yet there are those who break through the hurt, embrace the best of humanity and inspire. Today, we pay tribute to a man who lived through those times, broke through the hurt and inspired the world. Through his use of words and his writing and wit, Seamus Heaney became a shining light in a world which had little.
A boy from rural south Derry, Seamus Heaney would begin his most rewarding relationship with writing at St. Columb's College, a Catholic boarding school in the city of Derry, where his journey as an academic, teacher and poet began. His talent shone from a young age and he earned a scholarship to attend St. Columb's College, an opportunity he grabbed with both hands to expand his already burgeoning knowledge and grow his deep love of literature. In 1957, Seamus moved to Belfast where he began his studies of English language and literature at Queen's University. He graduated with first class honours in 1961 and it was during his time in Belfast that he wrote one of his first collections of poetry, Death of a Naturalist, in 1966. This work, consisting of 34 short poems, won the Cholmondeley Award, Gregory Award, Somerset Maugham Award and Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize. The many prizes awarded the work were an indication of the success that was to come.
In the same year as Death of a Naturalist was published, Heaney was appointed to a lectureship in Queen's University. It was in this post that he came into contact with Michael Longley and Bernard McLaverty. His works were gaining popularity at home and abroad following publication in the New Statesman. His themes of familial love, heartbreaking loss and sense of renewal and reward appealed to a broad audience of all ages. They reflected the most vivid of emotions in everyday human life, which was one of the most endearing aspects of Heaney's poetry. His mix of literature genius with everyday themes was a testament to a man who never forget where he came from.
One of his most popular and striking poems is Mid-Term Break, which encapsulates the devastating loss of a younger brother while Seamus was away at boarding school. No one can forget the devastating line which, on reading it, leaves a numbing silence hanging in the air: "A four foot box, a foot for every year."
Heaney was always inspired by his surroundings and his Derry childhood was to influence much of his poetry. He was not immune from feeling the bitterly cold wind of discrimination and despair, which were hallmarks of Northern Ireland society in the late 1960s and 1970s.
The Irish people have a great love for language, a great feel for the pithy phrase and a quick wit. Even in the day-to-day speech of the ordinary man or woman in the street there is great poetry and colour. I believe this is due to our bilingual nature as a nation, and due to our rich cultural and literary heritage.
Ireland has always produced great poets and writers who have commanded the attention of the nation, and indeed of the world, and caused us all to marvel at their command of language, their craft and their creativity. We are all familiar with the names: poets such as Yeats, Art Mac Cumhaidh, Boland, and Ó Ríordáin; and writers such as Ó Criomhthain, Joyce, Beckett, and Swift. We have a literary tradition that can compare with any in the world, and we are justifiably proud and honoured to have had among us such masters of the English language and of the Irish language.
Though our great writers are legion, few are held in the same regard and with the same genuine affection as was Seamus Heaney. The phrase is used often in the media, but truly it can be said that following the passing of Seamus Heaney a nation mourned. A full house at Croke Park applauded with respect and admiration. Many thousands watched the funeral live and conversations in the street all ended up on the subject of our great loss.
Everyone had their own Heaney poem, perhaps their own line, which meant something very particular to them and had a personal significance. Many of us can remember being introduced to Heaney, perhaps the first time that we read Mid-Term Break. Those last few lines are so sudden and cruel, and visceral at the same time. Rarely has poetry carried such power and force.
It was felt deeply by the Irish people when he passed, because we all felt that we knew Seamus Heaney. He was a part of our lives and meant something to us all. Even those of us, who would not be avid readers of poetry, individually, but more specifically as a community, felt we had lost something special, a wealth of language, talent and joy. Truly he was a treasure.
Seamus Heaney was held in such affectionate regard by the Irish people because he was not exclusive, but inclusive. People felt as though his poetry was written for them because it was written for them. He wrote with that poetry that Irish people speak with. He spoke with an articulacy that was simple and comprehensible. With a great economy of language, he could write about complex emotions with simplicity and even in a colloquial way. While his art was equal in terms of skill and craft to anything being produced anywhere in the world, any person on the street could read his poems and understand and appreciate them.
Since his passing, words such as "earthy" have been used to such a point as to approach cliché. However, it reflects a certain aspect of Heaney’s work. He wrote about ordinary things, often in a rural context, in a humble, simple and yet vivid way. He captured Irish country life, at different times and in different places, in a particularly poignant way. At a time when rural areas of Ireland face great pressures, his poetry reminds us of the great heritage, history and indeed poetry and beauty which exists in our rural communities.
He also cast a light on the realities of growing up in the North of Ireland in the 1950s and 1960s. He cast a light on the deep sectarian divisions which existed in Northern society, and underlined the distrust and suspicion which underwrote those divisions. He put the violence and conflict which erupted in the North in the late 1960s and early 1970s in its historical context and in terms of human experience in a way that was compassionate. He neither glorified nor simplified such violence or its causes. He chronicled the key events of his time, not from the perspective of the powerful or the influential, but from the perspective of the ordinary people, detailing their struggles, hardships and feelings.
In spite of his undoubted insight into, and understanding of, the Irish people, it would be a mistake to characterise him only as an Irish poet. He was a poet of the world, and his poetry and writing crossed all borders and spoke to something very deep in the human condition. Upon his passing, tributes flowed not alone from Dublin and Derry, but from the whole world, from the literary world and from wider circles, with former US presidents and the head of the European Commission acknowledging their regard and admiration for him.
Is pribhléid agus onóir é dom caint faoi Seamus Heaney. Mar is eol dúinn, is ócáid bhrónach í seo, go háirithe dá chlann agus dá chairde. Ní cheart dúinn bheith brónach, i slí eile, os rud é go bhfuil a fhios againn go mbeidh Seamus Heaney againn go deo - trína chuid filíochta, trína chuid léachta agus trína chuid scríbhneoireachta.
The playwright, Robert Bolt, wrote a play some years ago about Thomas More called A Man for All Seasons. I believe that is an apt title for Seamus Heaney because he was a man for all seasons, not only in the seasonal sense of spring and summer but also a man for all seasons for people in their relationships and moods. Those moods encompass everything in his writing from sadness to happiness and from despair to humour. I always particularly liked his sense of humour which is encapsulated in the poem he wrote about his loving wife Marie, entitled The Skunk in which he used imagery of the animal. We see the man for all seasons aspect in the titles of the collections of poetry: Death of a Naturalist, Door into the Dark, Field Work and Seeing Things. It is also part of all the seasons in our past because in his fourth volume, North, he ranges over 3,000 years of European civilisation stretching back to classical Greece and up to 19th century Ireland.
He was a poet of the people, whether he was writing about his aunt Mary in Sunlight, his father in The Harvest Bow or figures from his childhood. I recall the air of menace and fear created in A Constable Calls. He wrote a poem called Bogland. I am unsure of his view about the current debate about bogs but he had an interest in bogscapes, the many bogs, and the way bogs preserved traces of our past in such a way that they are like museums. We saw that in his poem Bogland.
Poets write poetry because they have something to say and have an urge to communicate. Ezra Pound said that good poetry is "news that stays news" and that is relevant to Heaney's poetry because there is a relevance and resonance that is with us and will be with everyone who reads poetry from here on in.
There are interesting things in his writings particularly in The Redress of Poetry: Oxford Lectures. He said "the poem is asked to set the balance right". He was talking about the political, social and personal balance. He was writing about a poem by Elizabeth Bishop called One Art. He says about Bishop that she manages to advance poetry beyond the point where it has been helping us to enjoy life to that even more profoundly verifying point where it helps us to endure it. That is true of his poetry too. His was a compassionate and wise voice that helped us to endure as well as appreciate life. He spoke about the social character of poetry and how the poet is concerned with his fellow man, among whom he lives, and that the poet is a source of truth and a voice with people.
Another point he made is interesting because we are in a political establishment. In The Redress of Poetry: Oxford Lectures he wrote about how poetry offers a response to reality which has a liberating and verifying effect upon the individual spirit. He went on to say how that is not sufficient for the political activist because the political activist will always want the redress of poetry to be an exercise of leverage on behalf of his point of view and that he would require the entire weight of the thing. This is reminiscent of Yeats's dilemma. He debated whether there should be art for art's sake or art for politics' sake. For Heaney, the redressing effect of poetry comes from its being a glimpsed alternative. We could all do with lots of alternatives.
As a direct response of his award of the Nobel Prize for literature, the Ireland chair of poetry was established between Queen's University, UCD, Trinity College and the arts councils of Northern Ireland and Ireland. As a Dubliner and a north-sider I am delighted that another Dubliner and north-sider, Paula Meehan, is taking up the chair. They have in common their voices of compassion, tolerance, empathy, sensitivity and humour.
A debate is going on at the moment about the Seanad, but my view is that the Seanad should be a place where people are honoured to be Senators. It is an honorary position. I can only imagine a Seanad of people like Seamus Heaney and his fellow poets, including Montague and Longley, and the type of debate it would ensure. It could help us to get away from looking at society and life from a purely economic point of view.
Two particular lines encapsulate Seamus Heaney for me. In The Forge he says "All I know is a door into the dark", but I believe he showed us more than a door into the dark. In Postscript he said "And some time take the time to drive out west". He had us driving all over the place to have views of other perspectives.
I am privileged to be able to join in this tribute to Seamus Heaney. I pass on my sympathies and commiseration to Marie and all his family. I pay tribute to the Government for facilitating these statements. It is a great thing to spend a little time thinking about poetry and writing in the Parliament. We would do well if, before we came in to start our political day, we read the lines of From the Republic of Conscience that the Minister read out earlier. I was planning to read them out myself.
-----which is about dealing with human suffering, that is, starting from that point and trying to do something about it.
Seamus Heaney was a giant in both Irish world poetry and to try to do justice in words to someone who was a master of words is quite intimidating. Anything Members say in this Chamber will be poor tribute to the enormous poetic and literary achievement of Seamus Heaney and in some senses, the most important thing one would wish to say about Seamus Heaney is read his poems and reread them again and again and experience the richness, the beauty and the power of words when they are in the hands of a master poet and wordsmith. I believe Seamus Heaney's work is a body of work that when taken as a whole, is an unparalleled word painting of modern Irish history and society from the 1960s right up until his death. It is, however, a word painting of that history from the particular perspective of an individual, of a sensitive human being and of a writer trying to grapple with the conflicts, difficulties and problems of that history and society.
Before I became involved or was dragged into politics, I was a student of English literature in UCD and my ambition was to be a poet. Right from the outset, Seamus Heaney's writing inspired me. At the time, I was a student living in a little flat in Sandymount and I was even more thrilled to find, in Gleeson's pub in Ringsend, Seamus Heaney and his wife sitting in the corner enjoying a pint and listening to the traditional music being played there. I of course was blown away by poems like Death of a Naturalist. The great power of his writing was the manner in which he wove together wonderful images of family, of his childhood, of place and of people with the great political concerns, the great conflicts and the great problems, of history as he experienced them and as he felt the need to try to dig beneath and get beyond such conflicts to some sort of better place. In that sense, a poet to whom I was speaking on the telephone beforehand said that in a way, Seamus Heaney was a utopian. He was a passionate utopian who yearned-----
Unlike you, comrade, he lived in the real world.
Yes, but he yearned for the republic of conscience, as the Minister stated.
Yes, he did.
Moreover, I actually do live in the real world. I think we all live in our different real worlds.
I also recall the debate in college about the relationship between politics and literature and there always were people who thought writers should be more engaged with the Northern conflict in particular. While this of course is not a place to rehearse that interesting debate, Seamus Heaney always featured very strongly in it. While from what I can see or have read, he resisted formal affiliation to any partisan cause or party political agenda, it is important to state he was always engaged with politics in the bigger sense of the origin of the word, which is people.
He was political but not partisan.
Absolutely. He also took positions on things that mattered to him and got involved in them. He was a supporter of the anti-apartheid movement. He took a stand on the issue of protecting the Hill of Tara when the motorway was being built through it and he of course wrote the poem, From the Republic of Conscience, as his contribution to International Human Rights Day and was a supporter of Amnesty International. Consequently, his politics was a commitment, as was his poetry, to our shared humanity and to trying to look to a place where we could get beyond some of the conflicts and disputes, that is, to a better place in which our shared humanity would be at the centre of what we did and how our society was.
It also is important to mention he was extremely popular among many diverse writers, including those who perhaps had a different perspective on many things. I spoke to one such writer earlier, who is a much more politically engaged poet, but who recalled that he received his first bursary award from a board on which Seamus Heaney sat. He made the point that Seamus Heaney never was open to the idea of there being competition between poets but that he wished to nurture, encourage and support poetry of all kinds, as well as to assist younger poets and to uphold the importance and relevance of poetry to the world in which he lived. He certainly achieved that in spades, to coin a phrase.
If I may, I will conclude with the poem by him that inspired me. It probably is his most famous but it truly inspired me and sums up everything he set out to do and did during his life, namely, Digging.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.
The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.
By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.
My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
He dug a rich vein.
I wish to express my thanks to the Heaney family, Marie, Michael, Christopher and Catherine Ann, for their attendance and presence in the Chamber today. The appreciations have been moving and full and have shown that Seamus Heaney had a wonderful life for which he was very grateful.
He understood his own soul, mind and heart, and he fulfilled his human potential with great generosity in his life. Personally, I felt moved in sharing his funeral farewell in Donnybrook church. Everybody who contributed to that made it a very lovely occasion. Seamus will live on. His appreciation is only in the early stages because his work lives on and is timeless. His life will remain in the mind's eye of everybody who knew him. He was kind, courteous and very human. He has given all of us, as a man, great example in how to live a family life and the life of an individual and to share with others the things he was good at and able to understand and appreciate. What more can I say?
On a practical note, we have moved from appreciation to the hard-nosed stuff. I noticed the interchange between the Minister and the Deputy. It is said that one campaigns in poetry and governs in prose.
Much of the time not in very good prose.
We will conclude on that note.