Seamus Heaney’s powerful recall of home and tragedy one year on


Our poet, Seamus Heaney is buried in Bellaghy, his body brought home from Dublin to rest next to the grave of his little brother, Christopher, whom many of us know from “Mid-Term Break,” a poem now learned by heart by Irish children in schools North or South of the border.

The first time, I heard Mid-Term Break, was when Brian Baird, the late UTV newscaster and my beloved Anglo-Irish Literature Tutor at Stranmillis College, read it aloud a seminar one morning. It cleaved my heart open:

"Mid-Term Break"

I sat all morning in the college sick bay
Counting bells knelling classes to a close.
At two o’clock our neighbors drove me home.
In the porch I met my father crying–
He had always taken funerals in his stride–
And Big Jim Evans saying it was a hard blow.
The baby cooed and laughed and rocked the pram
When I came in, and I was embarrassed
By old men standing up to shake my hand
And tell me they were ‘sorry for my trouble,’
Whispers informed strangers I was the eldest,
Away at school, as my mother held my hand
In hers and coughed out angry tearless sighs.
At ten o’clock the ambulance arrived
With the corpse, stanched and bandaged by the nurses.
Next morning I went up into the room. Snowdrops
And candles soothed the bedside; I saw him
For the first time in six weeks. Paler now,
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.”
The young Seamus Heaney wasn’t there when it happened. He was away at school. Just another mundane evening, Christopher and another brother had been sent to the bus stop to give the bus conductor a letter to post in Belfast, as was the way in those days; his mother was at home, hanging clothes out on the line; his other two brothers, Pat and Dan, were walking down the other side of the road, on an errand to fetch paraffin oil. Heaney tells Dennis O’Driscoll in Stepping Stones that he can hardly bear to think about his little brother, just three and a half, noticing his big brothers on the other side of the road and running out from behind the bus to greet them. The driver of the oncoming car hadn’t a chance, and within only hours, Christopher died at the Mid-Ulster hospital in Magherafelt. He was later buried at St. Mary’s Parish Church in Bellaghy, where his big brother, Seamus, will be buried too, in the South Derry earth from which his father, Paddy, famously cut turf:
from “Digging"

“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.”
If you were to ask me to draw a map of my child-world, the one in which I moved before I started school, all Heaney’s places would be marked on it. I belong to those places too, and they are mine: Magherafelt, Bellaghy, Castledawson, the Moyola river, The Moss, Upperlands,The Hillhead, Toomebridge, Cookstown, the Lough shore – and The Broagh – where my mother grew up.
from “Broagh

. . . Broagh, its low tattoo
among the windy boortrees
and rhubarb-blades
ended almost
suddenly, like that last
gh the strangers found
difficult to manage.
One of seven children, she was reared on a farm not far from the Heaneys. She remembers the man Seamus immortalized in “Digging,” his father, Paddy Heaney, in yellow boots and a heavy coat, trading cattle at the local fairs. She remembers Seamus as well, riding his bicycle, his face against the wind, his sandy hair flying behind him.
As a young mother, she frequently took me “up home” on the bus from Antrim to the Hillhead and then we would walk the rest of the way along the back road to my grandparent’s house. I still remember being scared of what might be hiding in the shadows of sprawling rhododendron bushes and the beech and alder trees that hung over us, but of course there was nothing to fear.

As I grew older and The Troubles boiled, indeed there were other things to be afraid of on the road back to Antrim. Real things, as we wondered silently what lurked behind the questions asked by British soldiers when they stopped my father’s car on our way home. Dimming our lights for them. Answering obediently. Waiting for them to release us onto our roads.
from: "The Toome Road"

“One morning early I met armoured cars
In convoy, warbling along on powerful tyres,
All camouflaged with broken alder branches,
And headphoned soldiers standing up in turrets.
How long were they approaching down my roads
As if they owned them?”
But when I was a little girl, I was oblivious to all of this. I stayed at my grandparents house in Broagh (Irish for riverbank, bruach), absorbing the rustic rhythmic speech of the men cutting turf, digging potatoes or baling hay, and the lovely heartsome sighs of my granny as she carried buckets of water in from the pump in the yard and then made milky tea for the men coming in from the fields, men like Big Jim Evans. Forty-five years later, and I can still see her, wiping her elegant hands on a flowery apron, wearing a sunny yellow cardigan and a big indulgent smile for me. How she loved me.
"1. Mossbawn Sunlight"