On Home Ground Festival Commemorates Seamus Heaney

Nuala McAllister Hart peruses the literary festival programme dedicated to the late Seamus Heaney

It’s a tough assignment to direct a festival in honour of Seamus Heaney on the first anniversary of his death.

I saw Heaney in his last public appearance in Northern Ireland, at the Millennium Forum in Derry in mid-August 2013, during the week of the All-Ireland Fleadh. He was appearing with uilleann piper Liam O’Flynn in an evening of music and poetry, entitled The Poet and The Piper. It was a moving performance, at the end of which the two men quietly left the stage to a standing ovation.

Given how much has been written, spoken, analysed and reminisced of Heaney’s life, writings and his Mid-Ulster background in the year since his death – he passed away on August 30, 2013 – it was always going to be difficult to put together a festival programme that reflects the totality of the man in a new and exciting way, without being either overly reverential or pretentious.

Marie-Louise Muir, presenter of BBC Northern Ireland's The Art Show and Radio Ulster’s Arts Extra, has taken on this task in curating the second On Home Ground literary festival, which returns to venues in Magherafelt from September 11 – 14, close to Heaney’s home turf and the root of so much of his poetry.

It is a wide-ranging programme, featuring over 40 events spread over four days, focussing on everything from cooking to creative writing, poetry to portraiture, travel to topography, plants to pop culture. There are concerts too, with a closing performance by Liam O’Flynn and friends including excerpts from The Poet and the Piper, reminding us of that last Derry performance.

Muir, who interviewed Heaney several times, says that she wants the festival to celebrate Heaney’s ‘aliveness’. Coincidentally, just last week at the Edinburgh Festival, Northern Irish poet, Paul Muldoon, said something similar: 'Heaney is still with us.' So Muir faces an unenviable challenge in doing justice to Heaney, a man of whom many in and around Magherafelt have their individual memories.

They include Eugene and Geraldine Kielt, founders of the festival and owners of the Laurel Villa guesthouse, where On Home Ground is principally held. During the festival, Eugene, a keen local historian, leads tours of ‘Heaney Country’.

Heaney had agreed to be patron of the inaugural festival in September 2013 and was expected to attend. His death a couple of weeks before the event was remembered by poet Iggy McGovern as leaving a ‘state of collective shock, of disbelief even’. Tributes were paid to Heaney at that festival by his contemporaries, and fellow writers and friends, Michael Longley and Bernard MacLaverty.

McGovern returns again this year, an experience he describes as ‘pleasure tinged with sadness’. He plans to read those of his own poems which he sees as 'connecting in some way with Heaney, topped and tailed with two poems written in his memory'. He recalls ‘drinking deep from the well of the quartet of Northern poets, Mahon, Longley, Muldoon and Heaney’, with the latter two named as the more ‘subtle influences’.

Among other writers appearing at the festival is novelist Carlo Gebler in conversation with Hugo Hamilton, speaking of his struggles as a writer and his new book, Confessions of a Catastrophist.

Celebrity chef Paula McIntyre presents a session on cookery with the intriguing title ‘Heaney and the Eaten Word’. Speaking beforehand, McIntyre recalls the impression made on her as a schoolgirl by Heaney’s first collection of poems, Death of a Naturalist. In particular, she remembers ‘Midterm Break’, about his little brother’s sudden death, the first poem to reduce her to tears.

Later, Heaney’s poetry eased McIntyre's homesickness when she relocated to London as a young chef in the 1980s. It accompanied her to America too, where, at university, she introduced fellow students to Heaney's work. 'Heaney’s words have echoed in my ears with failed love affairs, births of important children in my life, deaths of grandparents and even with a glass of wine on a wet Sunday afternoon.'

McIntyre savours Heaney’s references to food in many of his poems. There are 'elderflowers and berries in ‘Glanmore Sonnet V’, peeling potatoes in ‘Clearances in Memoriam MKH’, and a bounteous array in between'.

She hopes Heaney’s words and poetry will ‘resonate’ through her food, and says she is looking forward to 'cooking with blackberries, making sodas on a griddle, sharing last year’s sloe gin, grilling perch and much more, all sprinkled with quotes from his poetry'. Now there’s a feast to look forward to.

Other prominent Northern Irish figures taking part in On Home Ground are journalist Liam Clarke, musician and composer Brian Irvine, novelist Glenn Patterson and poet Medbh McGuckian.

The media, as one might have expected of someone with Muir’s background, are well represented. Former BBC Northern Ireland controller Pat Loughrey will speak about Heaney’s early broadcasting, while journalist Henry McDonald and broadcaster Seamus McKee will talk about their favourite Heaney poems.

Among the novelties on offer are a ‘Poetry Trail’ with Heaney’s poems placed alongside plants in the Laurel Villa grounds, and Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody talking about Heaney as the ‘Chieftain of that "Invisible Tribe" of creative touchstones’. And there is a Saturday afternoon discussion of ‘Belfast Noir’ – the new wave of Ulster thriller writing – hosted by BBC reporter, Darragh McIntyre.

The festival’s publicity material is arguably a little too free with phrases like ‘living legend’ and ‘the Heaney Experience’, marketing talk that would have been anathema to a writer with such a sensitive feel for language. Muir herself admits: 'Heaney would have had a gentle shudder at the idea of being "celebrated", of being put centre stage, especially a few miles down the road from where he grew up.'

On the plus side, this year’s programme has a homely, not to say home-spun, quality, which plays up Heaney the local man, the Bard of Mossbawn, rather than Heaney the Nobel Laureate and international man of letters.

It is noticeable that few of participants are from outside Northern Ireland. Even Dublin-based Professor of Physics-turned poet Iggy McGovern is essentially a local boy, who, like Paula McIntyre, went to school ‘up the road’, in Coleraine.

This On Home Ground programme does offer some thoughtful and imaginative sessions, but the homage to Heaney is essentially local, at times even parochial – not a programme that either focusses on the universal appeal of Heaney’s writings or seeks to expand on the accepted wisdom regarding his popularity.

The underlying message seems to be that the strength of Heaney’s writing is to be found in its rootedness in the local landscape and local community. Nonetheless, Heaney might have enjoyed the home-bred nature of it all, in this, Mossbawn’s tribute to its most celebrated son.

On Home Ground runs at Laurel Villa, Magherafelt from September 11 – 14. View the full festival programme.