The one and only time I met Seamus Heaney, in 2007, he was making tea in the kitchen of his Dublin home when he asked — more modestly regretful than coy — ‘Did you have to do the poems at school?’
I grew up in Belfast, and certainly we had to do the poems at school. Even in the early 1980s, in a disputatious city that was frequently contemptuous of life but rarely of poetry, it was Heaney whose reputation already seemed cast in bronze. His lines on Northern Ireland defined us internationally, like it or not: it was clear that we had somehow grown someone big, a poetic prize -marrow.
At that time, my flicker of vicarious pride was mixed with a sense of being informally exiled from the celebration. Heaney was a Catholic, nationalist poet, raised on a farm in Mossbawn, County Derry. I was a teenager in a Protestant, unionist family outside Belfast. Our vision of politics softly jarred as often as it overlapped. And the complexity of the Troubles — a dark time at once suffocating, toxic and blazingly alive — was simplified the further it travelled away from us, boiled down to digestible stereotypes.
I was aware that in fashionable English metropolitan circles there were few groupings held to be more inherently ghastly than the Ulster Unionists, whose insistence on Britishness somehow disqualified us from membership of the club. We were broadly caricatured as bigots and bores, huddled under the bawling megaphone of Paisley (in those years a minority leader within unionism). When I met a certain type of Englishman or woman, it became clear that not only were they convinced of this view, but unwilling to change it. After the interested party ferreted out my religion, I would often be earnestly asked if I actually knew or talked to any Catholic people at all. The question filled me with an inexpressible sense of exhaustion, the sense of a mountain of misapprehension to be shifted. I would answer that of course we knew some Catholics, and loved them too, including my aunt from County Sligo, and some of my father’s closest friends who came regularly to our house. My brother Kevin was named after one such friend, creating a Protestant called Kevin, a permanent curve ball thrown into the insidious Northern Irish game of deducing a religion from a first name (so memorably described in Heaney’s ‘Whatever You Say, Say Nothing’ as ‘the rule/ that Norman, Ken and Sidney signalled Prod/ and Seamus (call me Sean) was sure-fire Pape’).
These things were all true, but beneath them were other truths, also complicated: the way that Protestants and Catholics, upon first meeting, said nothing about politics or touched only lightly on it, as if mutually afraid to inflame a wound.
It was no good: as soon as I started, the eyes of my English questioners began to slide away. They wanted simple tales of religious apartheid: mercurial, romantically aggrieved Catholics and tight-lipped, taciturn Prods. It got on my nerves. I started mentally collecting famous Protestant anti-stereotypes. Look at George Best, I thought, you don’t get much more mercurial than him: in fact, his mercury seemed to be poisoning him.
And then I would read Heaney’s early poem ‘Docker’ from his 1966 collection Death of a Naturalist, about a menacing, thick Prod bigot in a pub — ‘The only Roman collar he tolerates/ Smiles all round his sleek pint of porter’ — and it appeared we were back to square one.
His later poem ‘The Other Side’, about a Protestant neighbour quietly waiting outside to come in after the Heaney family’s rosary ended, was a masterpiece of tender perception. Yet I suspected the cruder ‘Docker’ had travelled further, into receptive imaginations abroad. There were indeed thick Prod bigots, of course, and thick Catholic bigots too: just not as one-dimensional or numerous as outsiders liked to imagine.
As Heaney himself told me decades later, ‘docker’ was the wrong word: since most dockers were Catholic, it should have been ‘shipyard worker’. He left it out of his Selected Poems.
This sort of thing only mattered, of course, because Heaney mattered, and the business of culture — who had one, who allegedly didn’t — was used in Northern Ireland as a kind of feverish proxy war. In any case, his wider poetry could not be dismissed. People always grabbed for ‘Digging’, but I was most moved by ‘Mid-Term Break’ (reprinted on this page), about the sudden death of his younger brother when he was 14. Its final line, ‘A four foot box, a foot for every year’, could break a reader’s heart in nine plain words.
Yet ‘Punishment’, from the 1975 volume North, left me unsettled too. The poem dealt with Heaney’s feelings when looking at the corpse of a murdered adulteress hauled from a bog, comparing it to the Catholic girls tarred and feathered by the IRA for going out with British soldiers. ‘I who have stood dumb/ when your betraying sisters/ cauled in tar/ wept by the railings/ who would connive/ in civilised outrage/ yet understand the exact/ and tribal, intimate revenge.’ It felt as if the real emotion lay in the silent understanding, rather than the veneer of outrage. At such cruelties — I couldn’t stop thinking of their poor damaged skin — wasn’t it the job of the poet to roar in indignation?
My own indignation had been delayed: by the time I was reading these poems they were already old. Heaney had long left Northern Ireland — in 1972, he and his family departed for Wicklow, and later Dublin — and the brutal lunacy had stayed in Northern Ireland. I think Heaney went away primarily to stay sane, to prevent his keen poetic instinct from being buffeted and corrupted by rage and malice. He valued harmony and courtesy, and Northern Irish politics offered neither. Away, his generous spirit expanded.
A staunch nationalist, he was no friend to the Provisional IRA: its strident fanaticism ran counter to his instinct for sympathy. His eye couldn’t miss the IRA’s horrors, and his 1995 Nobel lecture dealt profoundly with the stultifying effect of political violence. A snapshot of the early times: in 1974, the IRA one morning murdered at breakfast a QC friend of Heaney’s called Martin McBirney, a Protestant magistrate and left-leaning Belfast literary figure. Five minutes later, it also murdered a senior Catholic judge called Rory Conaghan, in front of his young daughter.
Heaney’s dear friend Michael Longley wrote a shocked, short poem about McBirney called ‘The Civil Servant’, describing how his clever, talented friend had been cooking an Ulster fry when ‘a bullet entered his mouth and pierced his skull/ The books he had read, the music he could play’. The Ulster poets did what they could in the midst of carnage: reeling, they wrapped words around the dead, and bore them into memory.
An awareness of threat quietly resonated with me: my father was a lawyer and involved in unionist politics, both areas in which the IRA retained an active interest. In the midst of a happy childhood, one could never be entirely free of the small stomach-knot of unease: nausea at the sectarian murders of the loyalist paramilitaries, and apprehension over what the IRA might be planning next.
Yet what impressed me, when I met Heaney six years ago, was that he had never stopped considering and investigating both himself and the country he was born into, never grown rigid. His element was earth, both literally and metaphorically, and he loved to dredge things from the mud to the light, inhaling their secret scent. I read ‘Punishment’ differently now with that understanding: he was tugging the unspeakable truth out of himself, and squinting at it. It didn’t much matter that I didn’t like what I saw. Indeed, disliking it was possibly the point.
On ‘Docker’, he said that he had been ‘writing from within a nationalist collective sense of things. So yes, I became far, far more alert to that.’ Yet at the time he had needed ‘to draw the boil and get it out’. Poems are fixed in a feeling and a moment; poets move on. Age and eminence had freed him to forage where he wished: in 2007, he was busy translating the 15th-century Scottish poet Robert Henryson.
He was interested in my name, McCartney, and whereabouts ‘my people’ came from. I ascribed it to his natural feeling for roots, but names, too, float back like ghosts: it was only later that I remembered his poem ‘The Strand At Lough Beg’, written for his cousin Colum McCartney, murdered by loyalist paramilitaries in a sectarian ambush in 1975, aged just 22. In it, Heaney imagines washing the dead man clean with dew.
The Czech author Milan Kundera once wrote of the ‘poetic memory’, an area of the brain which records ‘everything that charms and touches us.’ He spoke of its power in the context of romantic love, but I think it also applies to places. Northern Ireland — its customs, people and pain — was imprinted on Heaney’s poetic memory; in a much less productive sense, it has lodged in mine. He acted as a safe-house for our words — the lively dialect one locks away when one comes to England — and a careful trapper of detail: bread, sweets, place names.
You see as friends get older how they draw together, keenly aware that only their dwindling group holds these memories in common. I came to feel that about Heaney, who was three decades older and whom I knew mainly through his published writing. There was an inexplicable loneliness when he died, the sense of an end to a long conversation, of remembered passions fading. It is good still to have the poems. It all mattered so much, you see, and he understood its weight.
Jenny McCartney is a columnist and film critic for the Sunday Telegraph.
More Spectator for less. Stay informed leading up to the EU referendum and in the aftermath. Subscribe and receive 15 issues delivered for just £15, with full web and app access. Join us.