Seamus Heaney, the celebrated Irish poet, died earlier this year on August 30th. He was a frequent visitor to Scotland and friend of Sorley Maclean and Norman MacCaig. He wrote the acclaimed translation from the Early Anglo-Saxon of the founding epic poem of England, Beowulf. Heaney was a great Irish internationalist. Mary McGregor has written the following appreciation of his life.
Heaney was a poet of international acclaim. His skill and ability to convey emotions in words and images is exceptional. He was part of the land and appreciated its importance in shaping its sons and daughters. For him the Irish landscape was the repository of Irish history and yet he rejected the worlds of his father and “his father before him” in favour of writing poetry. This invariably placed him as an outsider in terms of his own family and traditions.
He could not however escape his heritage as part of a catholic and nationalist family in the north or ignore his need to chronicle the injustice and bloodshed which was the backdrop to his life.
It is interesting that much of what has been said about Heaney has focused on his early open Digging, in which he sets out his path as a poet. It is interesting but not surprising. Digging feels safe and feeds into the myth that Heaney was only concerned with the art form and not in the lives of those around him and the oppression they experienced.
Sometimes Heaney’s poetry makes me angry, as he seems too much like the angst-ridden artist proclaiming that no one understands him. However, despite this introspective aspect (his obsession with finding himself in wells and dark murky places), he captures violence, the conflicts of an armed struggle, while laying bare that despite the horrors, there is a massive difference between the violence of the oppressor and the violence of the oppressed.
It is no surprise that the mainstream media has chosen to skip over his difficult, patently political poems. There is definitely a thesis waiting to be written on Heaney’s politics as conveyed through his poems but it would not be simple. Heaney’s politics are as complex and at time contradictory as the times he was living through. When he lift the North of Ireland to settle in the Republic, he was accused of abandoning the struggle, of effectively running away. Who could deny a truth in this. But still he, like Yeats before him, was able to convey all at once the “terrible beauty” of the armed struggle while realistically conveying the inevitable brutalisation and horror of it. He became an ‘internal emigre’.
In Requiem for the Croppies – Irish history and the blood on the land soaking it through for generations is a wonderful rejoinder to Rupert Brooke’s The Soldier whose blood claims the land for imperialism, where in Heaney’s poem the land is claim for the struggle.
Until… on Vinegar Hill… the final conclave.
Terraced thousands died, shaking scythes at cannon.
The hillside blushed, soaked in our broken wave.
They buried us without shroud or coffin
And in August… the barley grew up out of our grave.
Act of Union is a disturbing poem, where the political act of 1801 which brought Ireland under direct British control is described in an extended metaphor in terms of a horrific rape.
Am I still imperially
Male, leaving you in pain
The rending process in the colony
The battering ram, the boom burst from within
Whatever you say, Say nothing shows the intimidation of the catholic nationalist community. It captures the fear and paranoia of what it was like to live in Belfast in the 1970s.
Bloody Sunday is summed up as senseless violence reaching far beyond the events in the poem Casualty. A fisherman defies the curfew after the event and is consequently killed. Another victim of the spiralling violence on both sides that would be wrought after the murders by the British army.
After they shot dead
The thirteen men in Derry
PARAS THIRTEEN, the walls said,
BOGSIDE NIL. That Wednesday
His breath and trembled.
Heaney’s poems about his family are beautiful and filled with love and the frustration of a son who has been pulled away from them via his education and career. Clearances encapsulates that inarticulate love we feel for those family members who we love in our very bones but cannot find the words to express. He takes the domestic act of peeling potatoes together and elevates it to a reflection on human relationships.
Republic of the Imagination
I remembered her head bent towards my head,
Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives
Never closer the whole rest of our lives.
Again these poems sum up Heaney’s isolation but plenty of commentators will focus on them.
For many, Heaney allowed an understanding of the human condition, which is very easily skimmed over by hedges and propaganda and half-truths. And while Heaney may not have been the revolutionary poet I wanted him to be, he gave us all an understanding of the Irish culture and struggle, which would be missing if he had not written his haunting, difficult poems. I do think Heaney picked a side – I think it was the side of freedom and struggle and justice. It was just complex and unromanticised – it was part of the truth we all seek. So many poems, a lifetime’s work. I want to list one after another that people should read. The Left should talk about Heaney and discuss his poetry because I think it is ours.
Be advised my passport’s green.
No glass of ours was ever raised
to toast the Queen.