The Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann week is getting into its Wednesday swing on the streets of Derry~Londonderry, when inside the Millennium Forum, airless and hot, two men – one now in his late 60s, the other in his 70s – hold a packed and delighted audience in the palm of their hands.
The Poet and the Piper, with Seamus Heaney and uilleann piper, Liam O’Flynn, is not really a performance, and not really a show either. It is, rather, an easy-going evening of magic, in which the two men take turns to read or play to an audience buzzing with expectation.
Heaney seems to know this is a special night too, reading his own work to his own city, in a theatre for which he showed frequent admiration. He is clearly moved throughout, but always at ease.
The stage is plain, featuring a lectern littered with books and sheets in no apparent order, and two chairs separated by two low tables. Heaney moves from chair to lectern to read his poetry, while O’Flynn stays seated, the pipes in his lap.
Heaney begins with a reading of 'The Given Note', a poem of music and humour, after which O’Flynn plays a melody suggestive of mists and hills and melancholy, his uilleann pipes full of a message of the native. And so the evening continues, alternating between poem and pipes, the mood always on the shift, from plaintive to rousing, from mourning to laughter. Both men are funny and relaxed.
The Poet and the Piper was recorded and released as an album in 2003, and Heaney and O'Flynn are now fully comfortable with the material. They frequently began their pieces with anecdotes and reminiscences, with never a sense of anything being planned.
In a full theatre with seating for over a thousand, it is an intimate performance – and the Millennium Forum feels more like a parlour at times. These are two friends meeting, with a few others in who happened to drop by. Heaney shuffles his work at the lectern with a casual air, as if to say, 'Here’s something you might like'.
That something might be a brief translation of a piece supposedly written by St Colmcille, or it might be 'The Conway Stewart', a poem recalling Heaney's first days as a pupil in Derry~Londonderry's St Columb’s College.
Or it might be 'Midterm Break', familiar, poignant poem, read in a voice itself simple and undramatic, with never a hint of the pain aching beneath the surface of the text. Then, playful and undercutting, comes O’Flynn playing a jig, 'I Buried my Wife and Danced on Her Grave'.
The pipes provide a beautiful thread to the whole evening. The melodies dance or saunter or walk forlorn between the poems. Regardless of whether playing a jig or a reel, O'Flynn maintained a note of the plaintive and ancient, the humming sound of his instrument always holding a feeling of yearning and loss.
Once, O’Flynn puts aside the pipes and takes up the whistle to play a song about emigration. Thin, strong, fragile, haunting, tragic, the music fills the air and grips the audience. And when O’Flynn plays, Heaney watches him rapt and intent, no movement save for his foot lightly tapping the stage.
The words and music tell stories of the land and the island and the men and women who worked on it and left it, who drank too much or laboured too hard, who made music to celebrate and commemorate. Heaney’s 'Digging' is greeted with the joy and pleasure, and so too is O’Flynn’s 'Dark Slender Boy'.
Towards the end of the show, O’Flynn plays a full length version of 'The Fox Chase'. The notes and tempo chart the course of the hunt – processional, active, rejoicing. And this is followed by Heaney’s final reading. Throughout the evening he has been relaxed at the lectern, completely assured, even though he might stop and then start again after recalling something he wanted to say.
But there was no need for recollection to preface his final reading, his own addition to his translation of Sophocles’ 'The Cure at Troy'. The extract itself says all he wants to say. He reads it quietly, a humble call to arms, as he reminds us that 'once in a lifetime the longed-for tidal wave of justice can rise up, and hope and history rhyme'.
Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann continues in venues across Derry~Londonderry until August 18.