Beloved Irish poet Seamus Heaney was born on this day, April 13, in 1939 in Derry. Here, a personal look at the life and work of the Nobel Prize winner.
Ireland's poet, Seamus Heaney, died on August 30, 2013, and was 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 and 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 at a seminar one morning.
It cleaved my heart open.
Here, Seamus Heaney reads the poem:
"Mid-Term Break" by Seamus Heaney
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 the book "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.
Christopher was later buried at St. Mary’s Parish Church. in Bellaghy, where his big brother, Seamus, has been buried too, in the South Derry earth from which his father, Paddy, famously cut turf:
“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.
". . . Broagh, its low tattoo
among the windy boortrees
suddenly, like that last
gh the strangers found
difficult to manage. "
One of seven children, my mother 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 armored cars
In convoy, warbling along on powerful tires,
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"
There was a sunlit absence.
The helmeted pump in the yard
heated its iron,
in the slung bucket
and the sun stood
like a griddle cooling
against the wall
of each long afternoon.
So, her hands scuffled
over the bakeboard,
the reddening stove
sent its plaque of heat
against her where she stood
in a floury apron
by the window.
Now she dusts the board
with a goose’s wing,
now sits, broad-lapped,
with whitened nails
and measling shins:
here is a space
again, the scone rising
to the tick of two clocks.
And here is love
like a tinsmith’s scoop
sunk past its gleam
in the meal-bin.”
There were the long walks with my grandfather, down well-trodden Broagh byways that were wild with bluebells and foxgloves. On warm days, with my hand in his, he took me to McGurk’s shop for sweets and ice-cream sliders. Sometimes we spotted gypsies, or tinkers, as Granda called them, setting up camp. I remember thinking they must live charmed lives in a story-book world, with their tents and their colorful clothes and their caravans and ponies. Then, as now, I grappled with the idea of always being in-between places.
The men were tinsmiths, hence the name, and one of them, Mr. Sweeney, used to visit my Granny. She made him tea and in exchange, he brought hand-made tins for milking. The older I get, I find myself pausing to appreciate hand-made things, such as those my father still turns over in his hands, things I would have too-quickly dismissed all those years ago.
“That heavy greenness fostered by water“
“At school I loved one picture’s heavy greenness -
Horizons rigged with windmills’ arms and sails.
The millhouses’ still outlines. Their in-placeness
Still more in place when mirrored in canals.
I can’t remember not ever having known
The immanent hydraulics of a land
Of glar and glit and floods at dailigone.
My silting hope. My lowlands of the mind.
Heaviness of being. And poetry
Sluggish in the doldrums of what happens.
Me waiting until I was nearly fifty
To credit marvels. Like the tree-clock of tin cans
The tinkers made. So long for air to brighten,
Time to be dazzled and the heart to lighten.”
I shared with Seamus Heaney the phenomenon of being first in the family to go on to university – to go away to school. "In Stepping Stones," he explains to Dennis O’Driscoll:
"Even Belfast was far away to me. In those days, I was outside the loop, my family had no familiarity with universities, no sense of the choices that there were, no will to go beyond the known procedures, no confidence, for example, about phoning up the local education authority and seeking clarification about what was possible – no phone, for God’s sake."
University education in Belfast was a world away from the Broagh and necessitated a kind of verbal dance with his mother, when he returned from it to the family home, full of new knowledge, new words, and new sensitivities. I can almost picture him – in that tight space between elevated and plain Derry speech, watching every word he says, weighing its impact before he utters it. My mother and I have danced that very dance, her telling me to this day, "you know all them things.”
from "Clearances IV"
""Fear of affectation made her affect
Inadequacy whenever it came to
Pronouncing words ‘beyond her’. Bertold Brek.
She’d manage something hampered and askew
Every time, as if she might betray
The hampered and inadequate by too
Well-adjusted a vocabulary.
With more challenge than pride, she’d tell me, ‘You
Know all them things.’ So I governed my tongue
In front of her, a genuinely well-
Adjusted adequate betrayal
Of what I knew better. I’d naw and aye
And decently relapse into the wrong
Grammar which kept us allied and at bay.
There are other tricky steps to learn as you move through the various dances of Northern Ireland, but once learned, they stay with you for a lifetime. In "May the Lord in His Mercy be Kind to Belfast," based on his interviews with the people who live there, Tony Parker makes an unsettling but astute observation that those born and brought up in Northern Ireland have this mutual need to know, right from the start, about a person’s background, so they can proceed in the dialogue, in the longer relationship, without saying the wrong thing, “the wrong word.” The schools we attended, our last names, the housing estates where we lived, the way we pronounce an “H” or an “A,” all became clues to help establish “who we are.”
“Derry” or “Londonderry?” “The Troubles,” “the struggle, or “The Irish Question?” “Ulster” or “The Six Counties?” I remember the first day of my teaching practice in a Rathcoole classroom, when one of the pupils, showing off, asked me if I was a “Taig,” a derogatory word for a Roman Catholic. He thought I was “by the look of me,” but he had his doubts. My surname was Protestant, and my first name, Yvonne, could have been Catholic. How should I answer, knowing where I was and who I was?
from "Whatever You Say, Say Nothing"
“The famous Northern reticence,
the tight gag of place
And times: yes, yes. Of the “wee six” I sing
Where to be saved you only must save face
And whatever you say, you say nothing.
Smoke-signals are loud-mouthed compared with us:
Maneuverings to find out name and school,
Subtle discrimination by addresses
With hardly an exception to the rule
That Norman, Ken and Sidney signalled Prod
And Seamus (call me Sean) was sure-fire Pape.
O land of password, handgrip, wink and nod,
Of open minds as open as a trap.”
Artfully, we balance these two worlds, at once straddling the one that made us and that stretching far out in front of us, unknown. Far out. With age, I find myself turning inward and back to that first, to the Northern Ireland that made me and filled me up with questions and doubts.
Yet, at the same time, on an August evening when I’m alone in the car, a Phoenix sky a-tremble with gunmetal thunder-heads, I look intentionally homeward to the vast and too-bright spaces of the Arizona desert:
from "Known World"
""Were we not made for summer, shade and coolness
And gazing trough an open door at sunlight?
For paradise lost? Is that what I was taught?
Whatever I am made for, I am sad that there will be no new words from Seamus Heaney to help me get there, that he has gone back to his first place just when I need him most.
My ‘place of clear water,’
the first hill in the world
where springs washed into
the shiny grass
and darkened cobbles
in the bed of the lane.
Anahorish, soft gradient
of consonant, vowel-meadow,
after-image of lamps
swung through the yards
on winter evenings.
With pails and barrows
go waist-deep in mist
to break the light ice
at wells and dunghills.
*Originally published in 2014, updated in April 2021.
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