Heaney, Sir! St Columb's Remembered

One-time peers including Phil Coulter recall the poet's college years with revealing anecdotes, recitals and an audience panel

Another trip they seemed to keep repeating

Was up to Glenshane Pass – his ‘Trail of Tears’,

As he’d say every time, and point out streams

He first saw on the road to boarding-school.

- From Seeing Things (Faber & Faber, 1991)

Post-war St Columb’s could be a lonely, brutal and hungry house for the young boarder.

Addressing a packed Helicon at the Seamus Heaney Homeplace, Liam Donnelly, Heaney’s South Derry neighbour and college cellmate (they didn’t have rooms in the early years but rather partitioned cubicles), twice chooses the verb ‘endure’ to describe his stretch at the Derry school.

It's also the insightful Donnelly who reads out the bittersweet verses above, recalling the students’ common outbound journey over the Pass.

Heaney, in an interview with Dennis O’Driscoll, had previously spoken of ‘brimming with grief’ at watching his parents walk away from him at the door of the Junior School. ‘The sword of sorrow swung widely on that day,’ he recalled.  

Donnelly and Heaney, despite living only a couple of miles apart, had never met before they went to St Columb’s, but they would rapidly become best friends. ‘When I heard Seamus got a food parcel in the post,’ says the now Father Donnelly, ‘I would be as delighted as if it were for myself - because I knew I was going to get fed that night. Likewise, if I got a parcel, Seamus got fed.’

It was clear from the off that Heaney was a gifted student. ‘He got nineties in everything... In some of the classes there were the two Seamus’s [Heaney and Deane] and two Liam’s [Donnelly and A.N. Other]. And let’s just say the Liam’s couldn’t touch them academically.’

Heaney was particularly prodigious at Latin, eventually scoring 394 out of 400 in his ‘Senior’ (A Level) exam. This contributed to him winning a State Exhibition Prize – a highly prestigious university scholarship given to those rare few who averaged over 80 percent across their Senior exams. Phil Coulter would later get one too.

Phil Coulter

Phil Coulter

Jim Sharkey, Ireland’s former Ambassador to Russia who was a few years behind Heaney at St Columb’s, jokes that Heaney’s academic success had possibly saved Sharkey’s young life.

Sharkey, it seems, had decided not to do his homework in the belief that Heaney’s State award would automatically lead to the principal giving the boys the next day off.

‘Seamus, who was also then Chief Prefect, went up three times to Father McFeely to ask him for the special school holiday. But he got knocked back every time. I was in real trouble. But Seamus then went back up a fourth time and, as he came back out we could see him smiling with the two thumbs up, and we knew we were saved.’

The student poet, we also learn, was a serious sportsman, played in goals for the college Gaelic team, and could easily have competed at Minor level for Derry.

‘I can tell you something he was never any good at,’ interrupts Coulter to long laughs. ‘He couldn’t sing! He never made the cut for any of our college shows.’

Heaney, however, took this obstacle and turned it on its head – using his observer status as fodder for his later archive. And Coulter, who of course went onto win Eurovisions with his songwriting talent, took great delight in reading aloud the poet’s recollection of the St Columb’s Drama Society:

‘The boy-men reappear/Who’s-whoing themselves like changelings./So will it be/Ariel or the real name, the already/Featly sweetly tuneful Philip Coulter?/Or his brother Joe as Banquo, dressed in white,/Wise Joe, good Banquo, fairest of the prefects?’

- From Electric Light (Faber & Faber, 2001)

After Heaney

Coulter, who goes on to perform a full solo show at the Helicon later this evening, then jocosely offers to re-read the line about himself (‘Featly, sweetly…’) – just in case anybody has missed it.

Sharkey, however, is able to take that one-line mention and raise it. Heaney dedicated a full poem to him when his diplomatic career was recognised with an ‘Alumnus Illustrissimus’ award in 2005 from St Columb’s.

The bond that exists between ex-College Boys of that generation is a lasting one, not unlike that between men who fought a war together. And Sharkey discloses that, in the years to come, the poet would quietly do him many favours in the course of his ambassadorial service.

The questioning of Heaney’s peers is conducted by the veteran broadcaster Paul McFadden – who announces at the off that he would have walked (the 38 miles) from Derry to Bellaghy for the privilege of hosting the event.

His cross-examination is very relaxed - but probing and always productive. It helps to have a chair who knows what he is talking about, and McFadden, as both a Heaney addict and St Columb’s old boy (Class of 1979), is the perfect choice.

The interrogation of the panel by the audience at the end is also illuminating. A current St Columb’s teacher asks about the younger poet’s own role models. And Liam Donnelly regales the room with tales of two genius College teachers, both incidentally very kind men: Fr Michael McGlinchey, to whom Heaney dedicated his translation of ‘Aeneid VI’; and the legendary Sean B. O’Kelly, who is widely acknowledged as one of Heaney’s most profound literary influences.

Donnelly notes that Heaney began writing rhyming Latin couplets at the age of 14 to impress Fr McGlinchey, and by his Sixth Year was replicating Virgil’s verse style perfectly.

Still other questions evoke a series of horror stories about beatings and other depredations at St Columb’s - ‘Damn the bit of harm it did us,’ quips Coulter, in a voice laden with irony.

In spite of that, a panel consensus seems to emerge that even the most savage College teachers could be skilled at mentoring the older boys and the more talented students like Heaney and Coulter. The example is given of ‘The Bird’ – the late Fr Eamonn Tierney - a brilliant mathematician patently unsuited to educating children, who wrought terror in St Columb’s for more than 30 years. But one of The Bird’s better students Michael McCrudden not only won a State Exhibition award in Heaney’s time, he ended up getting an honours degree from Queen’s in just two years (instead of four), and a doctorate in another two.

Overall, the enthusiasm, and recall, of the three 70-something panelists is an inspiration – as is the warm respect in which they hold their subject, with an entire audience left wanting more. ‘Heaney, Sir’ easily contains the material for a documentary, if not a full series, and certainly deserves a much wider airing.

There is just one small flyspeck, perhaps. While the problems with the sound in the Helicon at the beginning of the event are quickly dealt with, a couple of seats towards the back might be a bit uncomfortable for a long sit. Or maybe it is just the flashbacks to St Columb’s. It’s hard to tell. Its mark never leaves you.

The HomePlace itself is undoubtedly on its way to becoming one of this island’s iconic cultural venues. As an exhibition and performance space, it is a credit to the people of Bellaghy and Mid-Ulster, as much as it is a fitting tribute to their favourite son. And the centre’s programme for the next twelve months, as curated by Liam Browne and Sean Doran, is groundbreaking and exciting.

Saol fada agus breac-shláinte chugaibh uilig.

For upcoming events and more on Seamus Heaney HomePlace visit www.seamusheaneyhome.com.