shaun o’connell Neither Here nor There: Remembering Seamus
first met Seamus Heaney after he read at Boston University in I 1976, at a reception hosted by Professor Helen Vendler on her patio along the Charles River in Cambridge. Affable, open, welcoming, Seamus greeted me like an old friend. He said I shared my name with a notable Derry Gaelic AA cornerback. I told Seamus that I was named after a Harvard halfback by a father who never went to college. He smiled at this serendipity and raised his glass in salute. This thin thread of name associa- tion became, in time, something of a family tie, for Seamus invited me, as he did so many, into his life — into both his actual and poetic landscapes: Heaney country — and changed my life in so doing. More than a lasting friend, Seamus became the brother I never had but chose. I knew then, of course, that Heaney was an original poetic voice; I’d read Death of a Naturalist (1966), Door into the Dark (1969), Wintering Out (1972), Stations (1975), and North (1975), the collection that gave him distinction among Irish poets.1 And I had heard him read his poems, as well as gloss them in extended asides — low rumbles delivered like pub snug chats, “between the fire and the wall” in Frank O’Connor’s phrase — which clarified and drew his audience into both their making and their meaning. But, from that first encounter, it was as much the man, Seamus Heaney, as it was the poet who mattered to me. As Paul Muldoon aptly put it at Seamus’s grave in 2013, “It’s the person rather than the poet I’m focusing on today.”2 No question in 1976 about Heaney’s greatness as a poet: Ireland’s best since Yeats, as Robert Lowell said. When I introduced Seamus at a Boston Public Library reading in 1979, I echoed Lowell, calling Heaney “the next generation’s great poet.” Before he read, Heaney nodded, but demurred: “I’m honored and flattered and a bit timorous under that adjective ‘great,’ so I stand back from it a bit.” But Lowell’s words were prophetic, confirmed by the Nobel Prize in 1995. In a 2015 New Yorker essay on Nobel Prize winner Saul Bellow, Louis Menand suggests that “Nobels are awarded to writers who are judged to have universalized the marginal.”3 So has Seamus
178 Heaney, following Irish Nobel laureates W. B. Yeats and Samuel Beckett (along with non-Nobel winner James Joyce) enlarged the significance of tiny, marginal Ireland. Just after the announcement of that award, a reception was held at Loeb House, hosted by Harvard’s president, Neil L. Rudenstine. As I entered the elegant, long-windowed reception room, Seamus strode toward me in his loping, cowherder’s walk; on his face — its rolling contours have been compared to an Irish potato — a characteristic grin flashed under his keen country eyes. “There must be some mistake!” he said in a loud stage whisper. Then, self-ironic about this fuss, he laughed and turned to the next guests, drawing us all into the joy of the moment. That was the man — assured yet humble, gracious but unwilling to be defined by the myths of “Famous Seamus” that others might impose upon him — who came to matter so much to so many of us. Paul Muldoon: “The Seamus Heaney who was renowned the world over was never a man who took himself too seriously, certainly not with his family and friends. That was all of us, of course.”4 “Fair enough,” I say, a phrase Seamus often uttered, words that suggest his range of tolerance and sense of balance in large and small matters. “Don’t fill your tank with petrol,” I recall him saying while gassing up his VW Beetle in the late 1970s. “Always save a few pence for a pint!”5 That was Seamus — a man who knew how to measure values. However, not everyone loved or praised Seamus Heaney. Unionist politicians, IRA members, and even some literary critics found reasons to fault him. When he moved from Belfast to Wicklow in 1972 he was accused of being a “well-known papist propagandist” by the Paisleyite Protestant Telegraph, which claimed that Heaney would find “his spiritual home in the popish republic.”6 In 1979 IRA leader Danny Morrison confronted Heaney on a Belfast-Dublin train and pressured him to write something in support of the IRA’s struggle against British rule in North- ern Ireland, but Heaney refused “to be a party spokesman,” as he notes in Stepping Stones. “If do write something, / Whatever it is, I’ll be writing for myself,” Heaney recalls saying to Morrison in “The Flight Path.”7 (Morrison remembers a more ambiguous encounter.) That era of dirty protests and hunger strikes by IRA prisoners stretched Heaney between his sympathy for the suffering prisoners — some he knew — and his anger at the implacable Thatcher government, along with his disagreement with the IRA’s terrorist policies. Though Heaney’s poetry, like that of Yeats before him, was intensified and dramatized by these political and personal conflicts, it was never narrowly politicized.
179 THE MASSACHUSETTS REVIEW
“The end of art is peace,” he wrote in “The Harvest Bow.”8 But peace for Heaney came dropping slow. Desmond Fennell, a mav- erick Irish intellectual with a distaste for American culture and capital- ism, published a forty-three-page pamphlet in 1991 titled Whatever You Say, Say Nothing: Why Seamus Heaney is No. 1.9 Fennell accused Heaney of betraying Ireland by fellow-traveling with corrupting foreign critics, with the particular sin of consorting with Harvard’s Helen Vendler. In an essay for the Boston Phoenix, I described Fennell as “well known in Dublin as a Catholic cultural nationalist, a man impatient with what he sees as heresy,” and his attack as “a long draught of Irish bitters, tossed full in his face by a chauvinistic Irishman.”10 Finding Heaney lacking in nationalist political passions and provincial patriotism, Fennell ignored Heaney’s goal of a “poetry of divination, as a restoration of the culture to itself.”11 Heaney did not reply to Fennell’s attack, but he did tell me he was pleased by my public counterattack against the denigration of his poetry and character. Now, with Fennell’s fulminations forgotten and Heaney gone, all that partisan accusation and literary backbiting seems dated, distant, too much ado, and misleading. “The words of a dead man / Are modified in the guts of the living,” as Auden wrote in “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” the year Yeats died and Heaney was born.12 Seamus invited me to visit him and his family in their tall Sandymount Strand house, which he had recently bought after having lived for four years in Glanmore, a pastoral Wicklow cottage. Glanmore had a distin- guished lineage — a former gatekeeper’s cottage on the Synge estate, rented to Heaney by Professor Anne Saddlemeyer, editor of Synge’s letters — but it was cramped and humble. (Years later he would buy and expand the cottage, using it as a writing retreat.) Seamus liked to recall how the aris- tocratic Robert Lowell — the scion of ascendency Boston’s Beacon Hill and Back Bay, visiting that one-room dwelling, crammed with three young children — was amazed and a bit appalled that Heaney could live and write in such a place. Seamus laughed with glee as he imitated Lowell’s patrician voice: “You see a lot of your children, Seamus!” The Heaneys moved to Glanmore in 1972, away from the bombs and sectarian murders that were tearing apart Belfast, explosions that made Marie shake in telling about them. Seamus left his Northern Ireland homeland “determined to put the practice of poetry more deliberately at the center of my life,” though it would be a poetry of exile and cunning. The Heaneys’ Dublin half-house, enclosed by a low wall, rose high above traffic-clogged Strand Road and overlooked the wide strand, across
180 Shaun O’Connell
Dublin Bay to the hill of Howth beyond. “Ah, God, I never thought I’d own a house so large,” said Heaney on my first visit, not long after I met him. When I stayed with the Heaneys in those years he moved one of his boys, Michael or Christopher, out of his bed to put me up. (When I last saw them, mature young men, at Harvard’s memorial service for Seamus in 2013, I belatedly apologized for taking their beds. Christopher waved me off, saying, “Ah, that happened all the time.”) Other nights I slept in the snug attic garret Seamus used for his writing den. Years later, after the Nobel Prize, Seamus erected a three-story addition, adding an office, pushing out the side of the house and opening up the roof into a grand study with a proper desk, files, stuffed bookcases and, beyond the long window, a long view across Dublin Bay to the hill of Howth, where Molly Bloom said Yes, which is just what this visitor said upon seeing how Heaney’s former under-the-roof rabbit warren was opened up. When he won the Nobel, Seamus said he felt like he was “walking on air,” which may be a reason why he built for himself such lofty writing rooms by raising his roofs in Dublin and Wicklow. Back in the late 1970s and ’80s Marie Heaney invited me for meals at their kitchen table, where Seamus ate heartily from his own plate and plundered leftovers from the plates of his children. (“Christopher, take that chicken away from your father,” said Marie, watching Seamus gnaw scraps from a near-stripped chicken breast.) One morning Catherine Ann, then around ten, hosted one of her girlfriends and Seamus served them breakfast while assuming the persona of a Dublin waiter. “Are you enjoying your stay in Dublin, Miss Heaney?” he asked in a West Irish ac- cent as she and her friend giggled. Heaney flourished a towel and wiped off their dishes with a flair, blathering about this “fine Irish morn.” As he hustled about the kitchen, scrambling eggs and serving tea, Seamus, mixing parody and history, sang “the French are on the say [sea], / Says the Shan Van Vocht,” a folk song from the failed rebellion of 1798. The girls, like all who knew him, were used to his play and whimsy. As one of his students at Carysfort College of Education told me at the time, “Mr. Heaney sees a bit of humor in everything.” Perhaps more in his person than in his poetry, which is pitched well past the humorous, for in his poems he sought to shape “befitting emblems of adversity,” Yeats’s phrase, for a troubled land.13 But he was particularly at his ease that morning in his own kitchen. After the girls left, he sat at a long wood table appropri- ated from Carysfort, beneath a hoisted rack of drying clothes, drinking tea, slicing bread for his guest, talking and joshing. “Do you know that
181 THE MASSACHUSETTS REVIEW
Oscar Wilde said he drank to keep body and soul apart? That’s good, isn’t it?” Marie entered the kitchen, picking up the conversation in perfect timing and pitch. “And Paddy Kavanagh said he drank to keep the wolf from the door, lest he get out.” How beautifully they worked together to let their guests feel welcome. And I see in retrospect how much effort they invested in graciousness, for Seamus, ever thoughtful and self-ironic, never assumed the manner of the great man. A sly mime, Heaney could lapse into other voices and accents: parody- ing the pukka Brit don (“awfully nice”) who fell asleep in the first row during a Heaney reading, or assuming the guttural voice of the tinker Paddy who came to his door to sell a table (“pure oak boss”) or, failing that, to borrow a tenner. In retelling these anecdotes, Heaney threw his head back, laughed heartily, his eyes (described by one observer as slit- eyed tubers) squinting. In Heaney I saw a man who had the whole world in his hands and handled it with grace, care, and joy. Seamus served not only as an Irish cousin to this American innocent abroad, but as host to his country. When he and Marie drove my wife and me in their battered VW Beetle to Joyce’s Martello Tower in Sandy- cove, we climbed to the top where Seamus, looking out on Dublin Bay, slapped the thick stone parapet, saying, “The Admiralty didn’t do things by half, by God!” On another day Seamus walked me around Dublin, serving as his nation’s tour guide. “I’ve saved the afternoon for you,” he said, leading me to Parson’s Bookshop, where packets of books once perused by Patrick Kavanagh were displayed in boxes. Then we walked along the Grand Canal, talking of Kavanagh, whom Seamus revered. We then strolled through Stephen’s Green, up Grafton Street, past Trinity College where Seamus, laughing, recalled that Joyce’s Stephen had passed the Thomas Moore statue “without anger.” Literature and those who wrote it were ever alive in Seamus’s mind. That long-gone afternoon so quickly spent climaxed with a pint at Mulligans, on Poolbeg Street, where I remember Dublin’s slanted winter light leaking in through the greasy stained-glass window, penetrating the fog of cigarette smoke as we sipped and told tales out of school. Seamus also served as Ireland’s representative man in America, particu- larly in Greater Boston, where he, as self-elected Irish culture missionary, drew a community around him at readings, parties, lunches, and cof- fees — wherever he went. When Seamus was at Harvard, teaching a poetry workshop each spring, starting in 1981, the Greater Boston literary com- munity gathered: for events at Adams House, where he stayed in a tiny
182 Shaun O’Connell room (now a sitting room in his name), at dozens of parties in many houses, and, of course, at many readings. In February 1982, for example, Heaney read at the cavernous Saint Ignatius Chapel, Boston College, packing the pews, then again a few nights later at the Cambridge Boat Club. Before these readings I published a profile of Seamus in the Boston Globe, for which he thanked me, but I claim no credit for attracting standing-room-only crowds at these events. Seamus Heaney, one of us, needed no introduction in Greater Boston.14 Once, walking with him along Boston’s Washington Street to see the Famine Memorial, he drew a crowd of admirers that Bono might have expected. Heaney’s classes at Harvard included brilliant students and de- veloping poets. Sitting in one day in 1979, I was impressed not only by what he said to them — drawing upon the rattle-bag thesaurus of poems in his head for examples — but also by what he did not say, for he would occasionally ask a provocative question and then wait and wait until the room pressure built and some student at the seminar table could no lon- ger hold back from speaking. Christopher Benfy, who later became the Mellon Professor of English at Mount Holyoke College, was in that class; he recalls that, “Seamus believed that much of the craft of writing could be taught. ‘I can help you with that part,’ he told us. ‘The other part is up to you.’”15 At a Yeats Society meeting held at Harvard, Seamus read “The Collar- bone of a Hare” three times, so that a cryptic image could sink in, where Yeats described looking through a space in the hare’s bones “with a gimlet and stare / At the old bitter world where they marry in churches.” Finally, we all saw what Heaney wanted us to see that Yeats saw.16 Though I witnessed Heaney read many times (once even for a graduate seminar I taught at the University of Massaschusetts Boston), two of his readings stand out in my memory. Both were beyond the Pale of Greater Boston, for he was much like Owen MacCarthy, the wandering Gaelic poet hero of Thomas Flanagan’s epic novel of Ireland, The Year of the French; Flanagan walked the four fields of Ireland with Heaney, who in- spired his novel. On October 2, 2002, he came through a driving rainstorm to Law- rence, Massachusetts, to honor Robert Frost at Lawrence High School, where Frost and his wife, Elinor, graduated (and were co-valedictorians) in 1892. Driving north of Boston, the heavy rain was nothing like the more frequent but gentler showers he was used to in Ireland, he noted. As usual at such events, Heaney was worked hard and measured up to his
183 THE MASSACHUSETTS REVIEW host’s great expectations. Never the grand man, Heaney spoke, laughed, read his poems, listened to questions, and suffered praise, though it wore him down. Meeting with a group of students in the afternoon, he said “The Pasture,” a poem Frost used to preface his collected poems, has a “voice calling you in.” A voice that engages us, “makes us belong to speech.” The poet in the poem invites someone to join him as he goes “out to clean the pasture spring”; so too does Frost invite us to the source or spring of inspiration. Through Frost, Heaney extended his own invi- tation into poetry. At his evening reading, Heaney recalled how Austin Clarke told Frost he, Clarke, wrapped himself in golden chains and then tried to devise a way to escape. Frost, for Heaney, was himself such a “wizard.” Frost’s “Out, Out” first caught Heaney’s attention — the earthy Frost who recorded a farm accident and seemed to know the world Heaney would live in. Frost’s “Mowing” makes the case for both fact and mystery. “The work a day world and wizardry,” said Seamus. And so on through a long evening of reading his own poems, then commenting upon them and their relations to those of Frost. After all of that Heaney stood chatting with guests who lined up to meet him, many carrying books to sign. Never abrupt or impatient, Heaney gave each person proper atten- tion, standing there so long that his friends had to rescue him from his own generosity and get him back to Cambridge. After his stroke in 2006, Heaney did cut back on appearances, but he still overextended himself for his wide circle of friends. His closest friend, poet and publisher Peter Fallon, wryly noted how often Heaney’s friends told him he must cut back, but not before he did this one last favor for them: an appearance, a blurb, an honorary degree, an essay, something. “Fair enough,” Seamus would too often say. The other memorable reading, on December 14, 1996, was held at Deerfield Academy in honor of Peter Fallon, who was poet in residence that academic year. At the large meeting room of Deerfield’s Memorial Building — filled with students, faculty, friends of the Heaneys, and oth- ers who drove to Deerfield for the reading — Peter introduced Heaney as a man who wrote poetry not just of remembering, but of re-membering, or of remaking a whole. His is a poetry “out of this world,” for it comes from this actual world and occupies a world shaped by his imagination; it is a poetry, adopting Heaney’s words, that combines “the actual and the marvelous.” Fallon talked of his long-standing (twenty-five-year) friend- ship and admiration for Heaney. Fallon introduced Heaney with “pride, admiration, and love.”
184 Shaun O’Connell
Heaney was moved by this introduction, so he began haltingly, speak- ing of his own esteem for Fallon and Heaney’s appreciation at coming once again to Deerfield. He opened his reading with “Personal Helicon,” a poem of 1964 from Death of a Naturalist, which moves from his youthful fascination with wells, in which he saw his reflection, to his adult fascina- tion with poetry. “I rhyme / To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.”17 “Poet,” suggested Heaney, is one of those words that retains the sense of the sacral, as does “well.” Beyond the ostensible topic of any Heaney poem is his celebration of the form itself. He then read “A Drink of Water,” from Field Work, a poem that he explained called upon his memories of an old woman who drew water from the Heaney family well when he was a boy in County Derry; her cup was inscribed “Remember the giver.” As the moon rested on the water she drew, so too did he dip in memory “to drink again, to be / Faithful to the admonishment on her cup, Remember the Giver fading off the lip.”18 Heaney’s poems are laced with the taste of memory. Then he read “Marking,” from Seeing Things, prefaced by his observa- tion that boys playing football in twilight can still see the ball after dark- ness has fallen, though those who pass them along the road cannot. The “kicked ball came to them / Like a dream heaviness.” They passed the limit of the ordinary. These and other markings “entered you / As if they were both the door and what came through it.”19 Heaney’s poems mix memory with magic. “A Kite for Michael and Christopher,” from Station Island, prompted Heaney’s reflections on his father, a reticent man who seemed “to regard human speech as an affectation.” One day, to the astonishment of the Heaney children, his father made a kite from newspapers and wood strips. “The kind of kite that needed a force-9 gale to lift it and then you’d risk being carried off, but he did it.” In the poem Heaney, by then himself a father too, gets the kite aloft, then passes the line to his sons, urging them to “take the strain.” Including all his children, he read “A Hazel Stick for Catherine Ann,” from Station Island.20 “The Grauballe Man,” from North, prefaced by Heaney’s memory of first seeing pictures, then the actual remains of the 1,500-year-old man- gled corpse, which had been preserved like tanned leather in a Jutland bog and did not seem like a corpse so much “as an object of contempla- tion,” even “a work of art.” For Heaney the aesthetic struggled to freeze the savage in poetry.21 “Casualty,” from Field Work, was prefaced by Heaney’s reconstruction
185 THE MASSACHUSETTS REVIEW of the events of January 1972, the “Bloody Sunday” when British para- troopers fired upon and killed thirteen citizens of Derry. “Provos 13, Derry Nil” read the wall graffiti afterward. He explained how each side saw it: the soldiers saying they were responding to attack, the Catholic eyewitnesses not necessarily in support of the IRA, yet angry at the Brit- ish — pubs closed during the wake and funeral that followed, but some then opened. One man, the subject of this poem, went out for a drink to a pub that was closed at the front but open at the back; he was killed when the pub was bombed. He was a fisherman Heaney had known well, for he frequented the Devlin pub of Heaney’s father-in-law. The fisherman took Heaney out in his boat in the mornings and they some- times drank together at night. Heaney admired the carriage and style of the man. He was drawn in the poem to the conflict the fisherman’s death revealed: between tribal loyalty and individual expression. The fisherman was at once a betrayer to his own kind and a man who insisted upon his own freedom to choose. He illustrated the tense balance between “we” and “I”; if there is too much “we” the “I” disappears, but if there is too much “I” the “we” disappears, said Heaney. The poem echoes Yeats’s “The Fisherman,” though Yeats’s fisherman was an imaginary ideal, while Heaney’s fisherman was an actual victim.22 Repeatedly Heaney reflected upon poetry: its enticements, its capac- ity to lift, its ability to take the strain of living. He read “Lightenings,” section viii, from Seeing Things, a parable of the actual and the marvelous, though in his version the conditions are reversed, for the boatman climbs down from a boat afloat in air to release the anchor that keeps it from sailing on in the air above the altar; when the monks of Clonmacnoise help him the sailor climbs back up the rope, “Out of the marvelous as he had known it.”23 Heaney also reflected upon his move with his family to the small house in Wicklow in 1972, “when I became committed to poetry and my wife became committed to my commitment,” as he graciously put it. They visited nearby Glendalough, the site of his poem “St. Kevin and the Blackbird,” from The Spirit Level. Then “At the Wellhead,” also from The Spirit Level: a tribute to his wife, who sings with her eyes closed; he compared her to the Heaneys’ blind neighbor, Rosie Keenan, who played the piano all day. She “saw” them by their voices. “When I read / A poem with Keenan’s well in it, she said, / ‘I can see the sky at the bottom of it now.’”24 Heaney then read, first in Irish and then in his English version, “I
186 Shaun O’Connell
Am Raftery,” the early-nineteenth-century poem written in Irish by An- thony Raftery. Heaney’s version was published by the Deerfield Press, a limited-edition broadside prepared by Fallon.25 Heaney concluded with his memorial tribute to Joseph Brodsky, “Audenesque,” in the rhyme and meter of Auden’s famous tribute to Yeats:
Joseph, you know the beat Wystan Auden’s metric feet Marched to it, unstressed and stressed, Laying William Yeats to rest.26
Art for Heaney is “leaving nothing to chance.” Heaney breaks bread with the dead, as Auden said, and, Heaney added, his use of their rhyme and meter shows good table manners. Looking back on Seamus’s reading of “Audenesque” stirs association and speculation. In “Under Ben Bulben,” Yeats famously insisted that “Irish poets, learn your trade, / Sing whatever is well made,” but not alone for the aesthetic sake of poetry. Rather, those who follow him should “Sing the peasantry, and then / Hard-riding country gentlemen,” monks, “lords and ladies gay / That were beaten into clay.” Above all for Yeats, the Irish poet who would succeed him should “Cast your mind on other days / That we in coming days may be / Still the indomitable Irishry.”27 Poetry for Yeats was a means of national redemption. Auden’s “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” — written upon the death of Yeats and Auden’s arrival in New York at the beginning of World War II — took a more global perspective. Auden urged poets to “make a vineyard of the curse” of their times and “teach the free men how to praise.” Heaney, born in 1939, commemorating Brodsky in 1996, renewed his connection with poets past and his covenant with poetry in “Audenesque”:
Do again what Auden said Good poets do: bite, break their bread. After the Deerfield Academy reading, the Fallons hosted a gathering at the house they occupied, a modest but beautiful colonial, close to the Academy, a residence owned by the Academy and used by its faculty. The headmaster presented Seamus with a commemorative silver dish. Heaney responded with characteristic originality and graciousness, saying that he had always been drawn to the word “deer” and thought it, like “poet,” sacral. He recalled a couplet from Blake, tying deer to soul, then said that this occasion made him aware of the resonance of that related word
187 THE MASSACHUSETTS REVIEW
“dear.” Playfulness and graciousness were Heaney’s alternating currents. Seamus Heaney, in those years a smiling public man (after his stroke he grew more grave and hesitant), read hundreds of times, in many countries and continents, to thousands of listeners who came to appreciate him, his nation’s fraught history, and his poetry. I was privileged to attend several of these public gatherings. And some more private. On a Dublin evening in the late 1970s, in a pub on the north side of the Liffey, the barkeep tried to get the attention of leaners and drinkers, urging them to leave after closing time. “Gentlemen, it’s time! Well past time!” Heaney ignored him and kept talking for another half hour while the barkeep hustled other drinkers out. When Seamus finally decided to leave, he turned, smiled, and said, “Sorry to drink and run off.” “Very good,” replied the barkeep with a knowing nod. Fair enough. One evening in 1980 Seamus gathered his family in his Strand Road living room to watch a BBC One broadcast, “Ulster in Focus,” in which Seamus appeared as a guide to the North. “A bit out of focus down here,” said Seamus, adjusting the blurry television set. Finally the focused image of Seamus emerged from riverbank foliage to talk of the Boyne Valley’s legends, castles, monasteries, and tombs, particularly of Newgrange, “a remarkable piece of building at the heart of a hill where no stone has moved for 5,000 years.” These were “builders, artists, farmers, with a re- spect for their dead,” which led Seamus to praise the Boyne Valley poet Francis Ledwidge and the Monahan poet Patrick Kavanagh, two poetic ancestors who honored the dead. As, of course, did Seamus. See his own tribute to building permanence in stone and poetry, “In Gallarus Ora- tory,” a tiny, thousand-year-old stone church on Dingle.
You can still feel the community pack This place: it’s like going into a turfstack, A core of old dark walled up with stone A yard thick.28
While he was teaching at Carrysfort College, a teacher-training school in Blackrock, Seamus and I spent an evening with some of his colleagues. Drinking ensued, accompanied, predictably enough, by jocu- larity and whimsy. Well into the wet evening, Seamus, with a sly smile, suggested that I teach his class on The Catcher in the Rye the next morn- ing. Full of goodwill and Guinness, I agreed. So, still a bit bleary-eyed the next morning I stood at a lectern before an array of bright-eyed, faintly amused, young Carrysfort students. Afterward, I apologized to him for
188 Shaun O’Connell my somewhat hungover ramble, but he reassured me that all was well. “Ah, they loved hearing your accent,” he said, laughing. (When, decades ago, I gave up drinking, Seamus took me to a Wicklow pub and bought for me a bottle of “premium de-alcoholized wine” named inappropri- ately after James Joyce!) Seamus enjoyed drinking and talking, but I never saw him incapacitated, as I once was during an all-night, Strand Road confab of Ireland’s best poet, Heaney, playwright Brian Friel, and critic Seamus Deane. The craic went on until dawn’s light, most of it sadly lost from my memory, though I do recall answering the doorbell the next morning and being greeted by Seán Ó Tuama, Irish language poet and scholar, who was holding a ham, arriving from Cork to keep the gather- ing going. Seamus often assumed a good-fellow, jokey voice, particularly when passing around lines picked up from Dublin wags. Like the one he at- tributed to architect Michael Scott: “Outside of every thin girl there’s a fat man trying to get in.” Or the one he heard from novelist Ben Kiley, who said that while he was musing over a pub pint a barkeep told him “You’re here to be drinking, Mr. Kiley, not to be daydreaming.” Or the one about the Abbey Theatre patron offended by the portrait of Brendan Behan, calling it “The unbearable likeness of Behan.” Seamus and his achieved fellow-gossip, novelist and critic Tom Flanagan, guffawed over off-color Paddy Kavanagh anecdotes. Yet there was never a hint of malice in these behind-the-back cracks, just delight in the pleasure of language. Random memories pop up, like flipped pages of a photo album, spots of lost times. Once, when I was heading to Northern Ireland for the first time, Seamus urged me to take Flanagan’s car, another beaten-up VW Beetle, parked outside Seamus’s Strand Road wall, but the battery was dead, so I left without it. Seamus then filled out a sheaf of papers with hand-drawn maps of Heaney country around Castledawson in Derry, numbers to call, and instructions to visit David Hammond — Belfast singer, filmmaker, and broadcaster — in Belfast and playwright Brian Friel in Donegal. By the time I returned to Dublin the stalled Flanagan car had been crushed by a passing lorry. So it goes. So it all so quickly went. Fall 1988: Cambridge, Kirkland Place, where Seamus, Marie, and Catherine Anne were living in a splendid, Victorian manse that stood in the quiet snow like a dream of what Harvard’s Cambridge should be like. In the huge living room, we sat around the fireplace, passing the afternoon in idle chat.
189 THE MASSACHUSETTS REVIEW
I: So, Seamus, are you comfortable here? Seamus: I was a bit self-conscious about it at first, but then I got used to it. [Pause.] The story of my life! [Laugh.]
June 2000: My wife and I were in Dublin to lead a Harvard Museum of Natural History tour, “Birds and Bards.” Seamus read his poems and Marie sang before the tour group at a dinner on North Great Street, in the old John Pentland Mahaffey house — a gesture of generosity that I can never repay. The gracious and eccentric hostess showed us around the big house where Oscar Wilde’s Trinity College teacher once lived. On the second floor she had installed in the middle of her bedroom an elaborate tub with claw feet and gold faucets, a baroque curiosity that attracted wonder from the “Birds and Bards” group. When we all were leaving after that festive evening, Seamus, stopping at the door, whispered confidentially to our hostess, “When I think of you later, I will see you always in that tub!” She was charmed, delighted, and honored by Sea- mus’s presence. As were we all. May 1996: Dinner at the Dolphin, Cambridge with Seamus reflecting on the Nobel: “You have to be forgiven for getting it, even apologize,” adding with a sly grin and self-irony, “though you don’t mean it!” But he did regret that his friend Brian Friel, a rumored candidate for the prize, did not get it, and he fretted over other Irish poets who might have expected it — Thomas Kinsella and John Montague. Seamus always recounted his debt to and his respect for the work of other Irish poets. June 2004: My wife and I, along with two of our children and our daughter-in-law, spent an evening at the Heaneys’ Strand Road expand- ed manse. Seamus was buoyant, leading us around the rooms and up the stairs to show us his treasures — a lamp that once belonged to Yeats, a huge painting of a cow over his desk, his Nobel award, his grand under- the-roof study and his clear view of Howth — inviting us to share his joy. In 2000 we attended a Dublin funeral at the Church of the Three Patrons in Rathgar with Seamus and Marie. Jean Fallon, who ran Gallery Press along with Peter, was observing the loss of her father, so her fam- ily and Dublin’s extended literary community came. After the Mass, the mourners gathered in the courtyard to talk and reminisce. Perhaps they felt relieved to be outside the church, as Heaney imagined parishioners who emerged from the dark, small confines of the Gallarus Oratory: “Out they came, / The sea a censer, and the grass a flame.” Seamus was exuberant, moving from group to group, greeting and joking with old
190 Shaun O’Connell friends, for, as many have noted, he loved funerals. But Marie, growing hungry and impatient, went over to tug at him to tell him it was time to leave. He shook her off and she returned to us, smiling and saying wryly, “Seamus would crawl into the casket with them if he could!” Hard now to ease past that line. This is how I see Seamus Heaney: at once Irish oracle, exemplary practitioner of the art of poetry, a friend and spiritual brother, but even more as a decent and joyous man who touched everyone he met with his big hands and bigger heart. In “The Choice” W. B. Yeats insists:
The intellect of man is forced to choose perfection of the life, or of the work, And if it take the second must refuse A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.29
A bleak, rock-and-hard place choice, but those of us who knew Heaney before and while he was “Famous Seamus” know better. He never chose. His life and his art were fused. As we can see in my favorite Heaney poem, “Postscript,” which closes his anthology Open Ground. A poem that came on Heaney suddenly, a remembrance of “a windy Saturday afternoon when Marie and I drove with Brian and Anne Friel along the south coast of Galway Bay,” as he says in Stepping Stones, into “this glorious exultation of air and sea and swans.” There he invites us to “some time make the time to drive out west / Into County Clare” and, buffeted by winds, drive between the wild ocean on one side and on the other “a slate-grey lake is lit / By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans.”
Useless to think you’ll park and capture it More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there, A hurry through which known and strange things pass As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.30
As Seamus Heaney, man and poet, has done for us, leaving us neither here nor there, our hearts blown open, but with his memory of earthed lightning.
191 THE MASSACHUSETTS REVIEW
NOTES 1 Heaney, Seamus. Open Ground: Selected Poems 1966–1996 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998). 2 Paul Muldoon at Heaney’s funeral, September 2, 2013, Irish Culture and Cus- toms: www.irishcuturalcustoms.com/AWriters/SeamusHeaney.html. 3 Menand,Louis. “Young Saul,” The New Yorker (May 11, 2015). 4 Muldoon at Heaney’s funeral. 5 Here and throughout the essay, Heaney comments are based on my personal notes and journals. 6 O’Driscoll, Dennis. Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney (London: Faber and Faber, 2008), 149. 7 Ibid., 257–258. 8 Heaney, Seamus. “The Harvest Bow,” Open Ground, 175, and “The Flight Path,” Open Ground, 385. 9 Fennell, Desmond.Whatever You Say, Say Nothing: Why Seamus Heaney is No. 1 (Dublin: ELO Publications, 1991). 10 O’Connell, Shaun. “Erin Go Ugh!: Pamphleteer knocks Heaney for aesthetic detachment,” Boston Phoenix (August 1991). 11 Heaney, Seamus. “Feeling Into Words,” lecture given at the Royal Society of Literature (October 1974). 12 Auden, W. H. “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” Poets.org. 13 Yeats, W. B. “Meditations in Time of Civil War,” The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats (New York: Macmillan, 1967), 200. 14 O’Connell, Shaun. “Poet Seamus Heaney,” Boston Globe (February 26, 1982), 3, 55. 15 Benfy, Christopher.“What Seamus Heaney Taught Me,” New York Review of Books (September 1, 2013). 16 Yeats. “The Collar-bone of a Hare,” Collected Poems, 134. 17 Heaney. “Personal Helicon,” Open Ground, 14. 18 Heaney. “A Drink of Water,” Open Ground, 144. 19 Heaney. “Markings,” Open Ground, 312. 20 Heaney. “A Kite for Michael and Christopher,” “A Hazel Stick for Catherine Ann,” Open Ground, 214–215. 21 Heaney. “The Grauballe Man,” Open Ground, 110. 22 Heaney. “Casualty,” Open Ground, 147; Yeats. “The Fisherman,” Collected Poems, 145. 23 Heaney. “Lightenings,” Open Ground, 332. 24 Heaney. “St. Kevin and the Blackbird,” Open Ground, 384; “At the Wellhead,” Open Ground, 408. 25 Heaney, Seamus. “I Am Raftery,” (Deerfield, MA: The Deerfield Press, 1996). 26 Heaney, Seamus. “Audenesque,” Times Literary Supplement (February 9, 1996). 27 Yeats. “Under Ben Bulben,” Collected Poems, 341. 28 Heaney, Seamus. “In Gallarus Oratory,” Poems 1965–1975 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980), 52. 29 Yeats. “The Choice,” Collected Poems, 242. 30 Heaney. “Postscript,” Open Ground, 411.