Great Irish Writers: Brian McGilloway on Seamus Heaney

A Libraries NI initiative saw four Irish writers make the case for four Irish writers. Read the second speech and give your opinion 

On February 10, 2011, Derry Central Library played host to one of the most fiercely contested debates the city has ever seen. The topic? No, not politics for once - but Ireland’s Greatest Writer.

Organised by Kevin Quinn and Libraries NI, and chaired by historian Sean McMahon, the event attracted a huge crowd and garnered extensive media attention in the city.

Four Northern Irish authors – Garbhan Downey, Carlo Gebler, Brian McGilloway and Anita Robinson – put forth their cases for Van Morrison, Francis Stuart, Seamus Heaney and Brian Friel respectively, with Irish News columnist Robinson eventually winning the house vote for her masterful tribute to the Derry playwright. Read Carlo Gebler's nomination for Francis Stuart here.

Culture Northern Ireland will be publishing the speakers’ four speeches over the next few weeks – and inviting readers to comment for or against the arguments made. Here Brian McGilloway nominates Seamus Heaney.

Brian McGilloway and Seamus HeaneyOne of the benefits of having small children (four under the age of eight at this stage), is that you can legitimately go to the cinema to watch Pixar movies from Disney.

While this may limit your cultural frame of reference slightly, the Pixar Studio has cornered the market in children’s animations that deal with adult issues: death, disappointment in failed dreams, abandonment, parental separation and, in the case of Ratatouille, what constitutes great art.

The film concerns a rat who wishes to be a great chef, inspired by the world-renowned cook Gusteau whose motto is ‘Anyone can be a great artist'. Over the course of the movie, Remy the Rat learns that, while not everyone can be a great artist, great art and so great artists, can come from the most unexpected places. In the case of my suggestion for Ireland’s greatest writer, the unexpected place was the farm of Mossbawn in County Derry.

I should preface this with a caveat. Those who know of my own background may feel that Seamus Heaney is a natural choice. He is an Alumnus Illustrissimus of the school where I work and, as a past pupil of the school myself as well, I was one of numerous generation whose introduction to poetry was 'Digging' and 'Mid Term Break'.

I would contest that this, if anything, would militate against my championing Heaney. I left St Columb’s never wanting to read anything by Heaney again.

This may require some explanation.

Even when still at school I wanted to be a writer. And surely the benefit of having alumni like Heaney, Deane and Friel is that it offers those who follow something to aim for, some form of encouragement.The problem is, how do you aspire to the standard that these writers have reached?

Furthermore, simply by being there, on the curriculum, the poetry lost its edge. First by being explained to death through constant analysis and secondly because their inclusion suggested they were acceptable to the authority that school represented to the 18 year old me. The kiss of death for literature.

What changed all that was, when I was at university, a friend of mine commented on Heaney being a past pupil of my old school and went on to say just how much she loved his work. She had lost her mother to cancer a year previous and said that she had struggled with her feelings and her grief until she read Heaney’s Clearances. In particular the sonnet ‘When all the others were away at Mass’.

It had, she said, spoken for her, expressing her contradiction of emotions so perfectly, so succinctly, that it had allowed her to begin to understand them herself, seeing them articulated for the first time.

Encouraged by her, I read my first Heaney poem in years and was stunned by it. It is but one example of Heaney’s understanding of what it means to be human. In particular, how relationships within families change and are expressed through the activities of daily living.

In the poem Heaney reflects on the death of his mother. The closest time they spent together, that he can recall, was peeling potatoes together while the other members of his family are at Mass and he didn't have to compete with them for her attention. The seeming simplicity of the image of solder, connoting both weeping and that which binds things together, is a hallmark of Heaney – simple images which defy a single interpretation.

What is also remarkable about the poem is the lack of dialogue. The sense of connection comes through physical closeness and the act of sharing a task. It is similar to thematic treatments by Robert Frost, where individuals are joined or divided by a basic rural task. It is a similarity born from both poets’ rural upbringing, love of the countryside, and concern with the individual attempting to understand their place in the world and their connections with others.

And of course, both poets produce works that elude a single simple interpretation, containing layers of meaning that become clearer with each subsequent reading.

However, I am getting too far ahead of myself. I should first define what, for me, constitutes a great writer. Anais Nin suggested that the role of a writer ‘is not to say what we all can say, but what we are unable to say'.

This is an interesting point, for Yeats argued that great writing should allow those who come after to see that someone else has suffered as they now suffer. To know that they are not alone. Sylvia Plath made a similar comment when her mother asked her why she didn’t just write about something cheery like knitting circles. James Lee Burke, the American crime writer, argues that great writing is that which gives voice to those who have none.

Taken all together, is great writing that which encapsulates the commonality of human experience and emotion and also expresses the inexpressible? That can articulate that which we all have felt, but, for whatever reason, have not had the means to express?

If this is the case, then I offer Seamus Heaney as an example of the greatest of Irish writing.

Heaney is perhaps strongest when dealing with family relationships and the emotions and failures in communication which exist there. An experience we can all understand and often struggle to express. 'Digging' and 'Follower' are well known examples of his relationship with his father, but by far the more poignant for me, the more heartbreaking in its understanding of masculinity and its emotional limits, is 'A Call' from The Spirit Level.

The simplicity of the images - of the clock, the change from digging potatoes to pulling frail weeds, the phone call which ironically highlights the breakdown in communication - all prepare us for the aching beauty of the final line, ‘Next thing he spoke and I nearly said I loved him'.

Is there a more succinct summary of the love, and difficulty in communicating that love, that often exists between fathers and sons? Particularly in this case, for the eldest son of a potato farmer who might view such outburst of emotion as unmanly. It is a theme Heaney has returned to again and again, often focusing on his failure to embrace his father when first he was left at the doors of St Columb’s.

With regards to St Columb’s, his understanding of the impact of his education for good and bad is superbly realised. He does, in some instances, express the universal feelings that a child has on his first day at school: their wonder at their developing understanding, their fear at being separated from their parents for the first time and the mixed pride that comes with that separation successfully survived. The Ministry of Fear that stalked his grammar school experience. Yet also the joy he found there in school productions and a growing awareness of the breadth of the world and the knowledge of it that education allowed him.

Heaney also recognises the connection, not just between people, but between ages. He often uses classical imagery as a vehicle for greater understanding of present distress. In examining 'The Cure at Troy' as an insight into Northern Irish society he mentions those in particular who ‘admire themselves for their own long suffering, highlighting old scars and flashing them around like decorations'.

He uses 'The Grauballe Man' as an image of sacrifice - ‘hung in the scales… with the actual weight of each hooded victim, slashed and dumped’ - made by present day paramilitary squads. Indeed, in 'Tollund Man' he succeeds in drawing the two worlds and societies so closely together through time that we, like him, ‘in the old man-killing parishes, …will feel lost, unhappy and at home.’

True, some of the classical references are obscure at times. His knowledge of the classical world is so in depth that it can leave behind those of us not as well read as him. Its use, however, is simply part of a larger Irish poetic tradition. Both Yeats and Kavanagh were interested in the connection between the classical and the contemporary.

Just because people may struggle to understand some of the references does not detract from the greatness of the writing. The often deceptively simple expression Heaney uses brings to life the world of 'Beowulf' or 'The Burial at Thebes'. It reconnects the reader with literature of the past, showing the clear relevance to our present experiences.

Yet, while Heaney is rightly recognised for his erudition, his understanding of the classical world and its parallels, this is not what, for me, makes his work great. It is the understanding of what it means to be human.

In his own Nobel lecture he commented that poetry should ‘have the power to persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness in spite of the evidence of wrongness all around it, the power to remind us that we are hunters and gatherers of values, that our very solitudes and distresses are creditable, in so far as they, too, are an earnest of our veritable human being'.

It is in this that Heaney excels for me and his poetry achieves greatness – his understanding of the human condition, and in particular of human relationships.

There is, to conclude, no more eloquent an expression of Heaney’s understanding of the links between us, and indeed the links between past, present and future, than the title poem of his most recent collection, Human Chain. In a collection marked by the poet’s awareness of his own mortality following a stroke, it is this poem which best encapsulates all that makes Heaney great.