Irish Pages Seamus Heaney Memorial
Chris Agee, editor of the journal for contemporary writing, introduces the current issue and shares an original poem by Kerry Hardie
Several things struck me, firstly, as I compiled this unique issue of Irish Pages dedicated to the memory of the late poet, Seamus Heaney – and then, subsequently, after it was published in early December 2014.
Whenever I spoke to anyone on this island at all familiar with Heaney, I noticed that this person could almost always recollect vividly the exact moment that he or she heard the news of the great poet’s death.
I found myself thinking that only once before had I experienced such a collective frisson of national loss: the death of JFK in the United States, where I grew up. Heaney, this seemed to suggest, was (and was felt to be) the greatest living Irish person at the time of his ill-fated death – a thought I frequently had, in fact, when he was alive.
So many people in Ireland and overseas read, admired and watched him. The extraordinary degree to which Heaney was a creative and ethical exemplar, shaper, mentor, influence and generous friend for his fellow poets and writers especially comes through powerfully in this issue, with its 54 contributors from Ireland, Britain, the United States and further afield (many of them among the most distinguished writing now).
When the issue was finally released to our subscribers and announced in our electronic newsletter, it came as no real surprise, then, that we immediately received an inundation of interest and orders through our office, online on our website, and from the book trade. But what was surprising was that this interest went way beyond the borders of the soi-disant 'literary world', with its usual associations rooted in urban, cultural, intellectual and institutional milieux.
Heaney had, in addition – as this interest dramatically demonstrated – a wholly unique reach into what the poet Eoghan O Tuairisc once affirmed as 'daoine cothroma na hÉireann' (the plain people of Ireland). No wonder orders were arriving not just from conurbations, literati and universities, but from parishes and remote townlands, in virtually every county on the island.
In reflecting on the why of all this, I am drawn yet again, almost against myself, to another idea about Heaney I have carried around for a good while: that in Seamus (whom I knew well) we come as close as we are likely to come in a modern context to the shaping and enlightening role, both contemporaneous and enduring, of the early 'Irish saints' vis-à-vis their surrounding communities.
These figures were not always clerics or anchorites, like Colmcille or St Kevin of Glendalough, and frequently not even 'saintly' in our usual sense; they were often communal leaders or others of social, ethical or imaginative 'power' whom the Church converted later to its own hagiographical purposes, to its succession of 'spiritual laureates'. They are remembered even now, all over Ireland, when their sociological origins have long vanished, for the informing closeness to their home place of their ethical example, personal charisma and/or (in certain cases) written testaments of succinct beauty.
Heaney. of course, belongs to the historiographical rather than the hagiographical, and indeed was a most modern Nobel Laureate who never stopped travelling outwards from the always-close omphalos of County Derry, the place of his birth; nonetheless, for all that bigger world – no less important to his poetry – I daresay that he will be remembered and read, with especial power, for centuries and centuries, by the people of this island.
'Threnody for Seamus', by Kerry Hardie
I’ve taken a sick dog to the vet and we’re waiting.
A man comes in, youngish, his face full of weather,
asking for syringes and milk powder—
brand names I don’t know, stuff for lambs.
I sit soothing the dog, watching Fiona
getting things off the shelves, filling brown paper bags,
then send him off, his arms full.
That man’s asleep on his feet, I say, and she laughs.
It’s the time of year—
February—thin and hard and sharpened with rain,
a few snowdrops up, sticking close to the ground,
the river run wild, drowning fences, pulling trees
down into itself, and for some reason I start thinking
about where my life’s gone—how it’s slipping through my fingers
like the little bright fish in the handful of water
I dip for in August when this same river
and pooled light
and banks blowsy with meadowsweet and agrimony,
all tumbled and trailed down into the water,
and the swallows make glitters of light taking flies,
and swimsuits hang on farm washing lines,
and the young girls stroll their stuff in pairs,
and the old women sit in the doorways, their stockings
rolled into soft latex doughnuts around their ankles,
and the land breathes and eases and stretches—
Not the usual time of year to go dying.
Life’s like the fish, just a wriggle of light
that slips through your fingers
and slides away off down the river,
in February or May or even August.
And it’s colder here without you.
And Dennis, already gone—
Irish Pages 'Heaney, Vol 8, No 2' is out now and available from the Irish Pages website.