Be Inspired by HomePlace this Season
Events programmer Liam Browne on 'encapsulating' Seamus Heaney's vision and spirit at the new multi-function arts space celebrating his legacy in Bellaghy
His wife Marie described it as ‘his Eden’, the rolling hills folded in on one another, the rich green meadows and mysterious boglands surrounding Bellaghy, County Derry, one of the oldest planned towns in Ireland. It was a place to which Seamus Heaney returned, time and time again, in his memory, in his spirit and in his poetry. Mossbawn, Anahorish, Broagh … the plangent musicality of these townland names were familiar and dear to him, offering a seemingly infinite source of inspiration and reflection. It is here, under a sycamore tree in the graveyard beside his parish church, that Heaney is buried. This peaceful, slightly elevated plot, overlooking the beloved landscape of home, has become a place of pilgrimage.
‘When we started planning the year ahead, we were taken on a tour of the area,’ says Liam Browne, one half of the team responsible for a wide-ranging programme of literary, musical and theatrical events at the Seamus Heaney HomePlace in the poet’s native town.
‘It was wonderful seeing for real the places from the poems, the names which help us understand the poetry in all its nuances and subtleties. As a young man, he travelled those roads on a daily basis and knew where every townland ended and the next one began. It was somewhere that he was coming back to towards the end of the collections. In the earlier work, the references are more realistic. In the later poems, one senses a translucent quality in how he is engaging with them, as though he was moving into another dimension. It’s thrilling to read and observe that arc. Heaney was a poet who was always challenging himself, never resting.’
Browne and Sean Doran are highly experienced arts programmers, who have worked together many times over the years. Their modus operandi is both creative and heavily research based. They are the driving forces behind the much-missed Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival and the fledgling Beckett Paris Festival, whose inaugural outing in March of this year made a significant impact on the cultural life of the French capital. For the past year or so, their collective attention has been focused on Bellaghy and the converted police barracks, which Mid Ulster District Council has imaginatively transformed into a multi-function arts space in celebration of the enduring legacy of its Nobel Laureate son.
The 190 capacity performance space, The Helicon, is the main venue but over the months events are held in a variety of intriguing settings, including the town’s churches and Barney Devlin’s forge, which Heaney passed every day going to and from school and which was the inspiration for his poem ‘The Forge’. The artisan craft which took place inside its whitewashed walls was one of the central images of his second published collection Door into the Dark.
Browne and Doran were commissioned to shape the first year for the HomePlace. They constructed a template, whose constituent parts would focus upon and emanate from the poetry itself. It would take the form of two packed weekends of events per month, encompassing work across a number of art forms with poetry always at its heart. What, in less assured hands, could easily have turned into a rattle bag affair was given unexpected symmetry and direction by Heaney himself, who, over some 47 years of writing had published twelve poetry collections - one for every month. The perfect road map.
‘It was almost like a gift from Seamus,’ says Browne. ‘It is quite remarkable the way the titles and themes of the collections lay themselves out across the months - Death of a Naturalist for the autumn of October, Door into the Dark for the dark days of November, Wintering Out for December, Field Work for February, Seeing Things for May. There are little echoes happening, resounding from within the poems and leading the way. With Heaney, there is such rigour to the work but also a playfulness, which is reflected in the scope and tone of the events.
‘We are aware that we are only scratching the surface in terms of the entirety of the work, which is so rich, has such depth and resonates off in so many directions. The complete canon includes plays, epic poems, essays and critical writing and these will inspire events into the New Year and right up to September 2017. Heaney was a very fine critic and essayist, whose work is not only inspiring in itself but sends the reader to other writers, some of whose names will appear as the months go by.
One monthly event is a series of dramatic readings, in which some of Ireland’s best known theatre companies are invited to offer their own perspectives on the featured collection. In December, under the direction of Lynne Parker (niece of the distinguished Belfast playwright, the late Stewart Parker), Dublin’s Rough Magic will respond to the poems of the 1972 collection Wintering Out. Each company may conjure up a combination of performance, music, lighting and visual art to generate dramatic excitement and echo the voice of Heaney, himself a brilliant reader of his own work.
The final event of the current programme falls on January 5 with a recital of Franz Schubert’s great winter’s tale 'Winterreise', a song cycle, which, like the poems of Wintering Out, is soaked in the bleak bitterness of the depths of winter. Soloist Alice Cooke and accompanist Julius Drake will be calling to Bellaghy en route to a date at Carnegie Hall in New York.
‘Sean and I like to provoke thought and discussion, to create surprises for audiences,’ says Browne. ‘Our aim is to make the HomePlace a destination for the arts, to offer events which are one-off and exclusive, which can only be seen here. Bellaghy is less than an hour’s drive from Belfast, so by coming up on a Friday or Saturday, people can explore the area, discover places which feature in the poems, go for something to eat locally, stay over for a night then head back home in good time.
‘The opening weekend was a tremendous event. The building was packed and everything was a virtual sell-out, which we sort of expected. There was, naturally, a lot of goodwill because it is Seamus. The hard work starts now, to build an audience, to keep the HomePlace on the radar and encourage people to build a relationship with the area. The relationship between visitors and place is very important. Our ongoing aim is to emulate the arc of his own work and career through the programming, starting locally and gradually reaching out across the water then into the United States, Europe and Eastern Europe, where he had many close connections.
‘Now more than ever before, we are conscious of how much we miss Seamus’s calm, wise voice. He was constantly inspired by home, by family, by a sense of openness and embrace, by what binds us not what what separates us. We are living in a climate of global pessimism, in a world where there is such a disparity between rich and poor. His poetry had the power to galvanise and empathise. We are pledged to encapsulating something of his vision and generosity of spirit in the events we have put together for this first year of the HomePlace.’
Seamus Heaney HomePlace is situated in the centre of Bellaghy Village approximately two miles off the main Belfast to Londonderry Road (A6) and just 45 - 50 minutes drive from both cities. Tickets for the events, priced from £5 - 12, are available to book online or by telephone 028 7938 7444. For more information visit www.seamusheaneyhome.com.