No better way to end a night celebrating the poetry of Seamus Heaney than with a Powers whiskey and a bit of craic. The only thing missing was a turf fire, but this is Phoenix, Arizona. No need yet for a hot whiskey, not the way my father makes it as a cure for the cold or whatever ails you, methodically warming the glass before adding two spoonfuls of sugar and a decent ‘nip’ of Powers. So the glass won’t crack, he’s always careful to place a metal spoon in it before pouring in the boiling water. The final touch, a slice of lemon studded with cloves.
A man like my father would have been right at home in the McLelland Irish Library, which rises like a 12th century Norman castle from a spot just north of downtown Phoenix, a city that is not even 200-years-old. In my mind’s eye, he is surveying the arch above the doorway, calculating how much limestone and labor went into it, and marveling that it was quarried, cut, and carved in County Clare by master stonemason Frank McCormack, the kind of Irish craftsman who would not be out of place in Heaney’s poetry along with the blacksmith, the diviner, and the thatcher, well-practiced in the techniques and tools of time-honored crafts, just like my father:
If you look at that doorway, you’ll see old history. You’ll see we used the chisel the same way stonemasons did 1,000 years ago.
Within the walls of this latter-day castle, ten of us, including the library’s founder, Norman McClelland, paid homage to the poet, our readings and reminiscences proving again and again that what Heaney had to say applied not just in Anahorish but in Arizona, not only to the Irish but to people anywhere.
Lines I had only ever heard read aloud in Northern Ireland were delivered in American voices and then the familiar lilt of Derry, Dundalk, and my own Antrim, as each of us stepped up to the microphone with our notes and our dog-eared collections of his poetry.
Perhaps she was in the audience on Friday evening, the reporter who had asked me if I thought you had to be Irish to appreciate Seamus Heaney’s poetry. Her question caught me off guard, and the way she asked it suggested she was unfamiliar with his work. Still, I responded inadequately. What I meant to tell her was that in the crucible of Heaney’s poetry, she would no doubt find herself represented along with everyone else; she would find “the music of what happens” then and now; she would find not what it means to be Irish, but all that it means to be human and “searching, always searching - digging.”
After the event, I remembered a story in The Observer about Heaney and his great friend, the poet Ted Hughes. Young and bold, they were drinking poteen and singing songs in Belfast one evening after a poetry reading, the world at their feet. Sipping my cool whiskey, toasting him silently and so far away from Northern Ireland, I wondered what our poet would have said about the gathering in Phoenix. His words would have been modest and more about us than about himself, I’m sure.
In 1996, he delivered the Commencement address at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, telling the graduating class:
“Make the world before you a better one by going into it with all boldness. You are up to it and you are fit for it; you deserve it and if you make your own best contribution, the world before you will become a bit more deserving of you.”
Oh, Seamus, I hope you know you made the world a better one for us. Thank you.