'When terrible things happen, we go to the poets.' Broadcaster Seamus McKee reads at On Home Ground
Those of us who lived through the height of the Troubles will remember the names – ‘with Seamus McKee and Wendy Austin’ – that began PM Ulster, the 5pm daily radio news programme on BBC Radio Ulster.
They are, for many, radio names as familiar as ‘Dogger, Rockall, Malin, Irish Sea’ as quoted by Seamus Heaney in his poem ‘The Shipping Forecast’.
At the On Home Ground festival in Magherafelt, the McKee half of the duo recalls and reads those Seamus Heaney poems that have particular meaning and resonance for him.
Rather than the early Death of a Naturalist poems such as ‘Digging’ and 'Mid-term Break’ that have become well-loved standards of the school curriculum, McKee chooses poems from Heaney's later writings, from Field Work (1971), through Seeing Things (1991) and The Spirit Level (1996), to Heaney’s final collection, The Human Chain (2010).
Originally McKee was to have spoken about his own contacts with Heaney as a radio journalist during some of the worst years of the Troubles. It was the Omagh bombing, McKee says, that brought home to him that 'when terrible things happen, we go to the poets'.
In his talk, however, personal anecdotes take up little space. Yet McKee does recall once waiting to interview Heaney at Belfast’s Linen Hall Library, where the poet was giving a talk, and how, just when it seemed to him that their interview had been forgotten, Heaney made his excuses to the audience with the joking words, 'Mr McKee is summoning me'.
In general, though, McKee keeps his own journalistic dealings with Heaney in the background. He quotes admiringly from Jenny McCartney’s 2013 Spectator article ‘Heaney’s Poems are for Protestants too’, and intersperses his readings of Heaney’s poetry with excerpts from Dennis O’Driscoll’s Stepping Stones, of the latter’s conversations with Heaney about his life and works.
McKee’s choice of poems reflects the private Heaney rather than the scholar and public man. He chooses ‘The Strand at Lough Beg’, for example, about the murder by loyalists of the poet's cousin Colum McCartney.
There is Heaney’s affectionate portrait of his aunt baking scones in ‘Sunlight’, the unexpectedly erotic vision of his wife Marie hunting for her night-dress in a bottom drawer ‘head-down tail-up’ in ‘The Skunk’, and the poems dedicated to his friends John Montague and David Hammond.
McKee largely relies upon Heaney’s words to do the talking, but his readings of the poems are eloquent and warm, assisted by a relaxed and humorous commentary, often with a laugh, a smile or a shrug.
For all his occasional, apparently random, fiddling about in the pile of papers and books around his feet, McKee’s tribute to Heaney comes across as well-prepared and thoughtful, an affectionate and respectful, but not over-reverential, portrait of the man. One of his stories is of Paul Muldoon phoning the Heaney household and being asked by Heaney’s son if he wanted to speak to ‘head-the-ball’.
Throughout, McKee evokes echoes of the Troubles, when he came to the fore as a radio journalist, and Heaney was living in Dublin, making only occasional comment in his writings on the worst excesses of the violence. September 16, 1974 – exactly 40 years ago – figures in McKee’s commentary: he mentions the murders of magistrate Martin McBirney and Judge Rory Conaghan, Heaney’s fellow alumnus at St Columb’s College.
Finally, McKee admits to feeling honoured to be invited to speak at On Home Ground, given that his own encounters with Heaney lay in the realm of brief, snatched interviews where he sought the ‘Heaney soundbite’, which might encapsulate the essence of the man and his poetry.
On the evening of Heaney’s death, McKee sought out the company of Heaney’s close friend and fellow poet, Michael Longley. Longley recalled the incongruity of Heaney and himself in one of their last meetings struggling to remember the Greek word for ‘ship’.
Geraldine Kielt, owner of the Laurel Villa Guesthouse which hosts the On Home Ground festival for a second year, says that she was initially reluctant to run the event again. Those of us who attend Seamus McKee’s ‘My Heaney’ reading are glad that she did.
Read Claire Savage's review of musician Ciara O'Neill and children's author DD Everest at On Home Ground 2014.