Out To Lunch: Seamus Heaney

Leading light of the Belfast Group returns to the place of his poetic birth

William Crawley holds up his childhood copy of Seamus Heaney’s Selected Poems 1965 to 1975.

‘Every single poem is annotated very carefully,’ Crawley proclaims. ‘And on the back I’ve written: "When the soul of a man is born in this land, nets are flung at it to make it a fan of Seamus Heaney. I shall try to fly by those nets"... I am a self-confessed Heaneybopper.’

It is the third time that Crawley has interviewed Heaney, the first in front of an audience. But there are no nerves on show - Christmas has come early for Northern Ireland's busiest broadcaster.

The second in this year’s Out To Lunch interview series at Queen’s University is held in the Whitla Hall, rather than the Great Hall. Heaney’s audience, all 350 of them, would never have fitted inside.

‘I’m at home here,’ says Heaney, as the two men get down to their hour long interview. The lunch over and done with, the audience - an intriguing range of people from blue badge taxi tour guides to University alumni, members of the Ulster Historical Society and other notables - have cleared their plates. I called in to Queen’s Bookshop before coming to the Hall - there were no Heaney books left.

‘There were other universities in Ireland,’ recalls Heaney. ‘Trinity College, UCD, Cork and so on. But there was no sense of that, from my perspective, in County Derry. Dublin was more or less the place where the All-Ireland final was held rather than where Trinity College was associated. Queen’s was the university we knew about, it was the natural progression ... A happy choice.’

Cutting the cakeHeaney recalls writing his first poems for university magazines Gorgon and Q (now collector's items), and publishing his first pamphlet with the University Press - during the early days of what is now the Belfast Festival - under the pseudonym Incertus, meaning 'uncertain' in the Latin.

'I was shy, as many, many people properly are in the face of poetry ... The first time you think you've done it yourself, it's a magical moment. But up until then you're wondering, you're a neophyte, a probationer. You're not even a probationer, you're just walking around the goal mouth not really getting a shot at the net at all.'

This artistic insecurity would continue to affect Heaney, even after he resigned from his teaching post at Queen's in 1972 with three acclaimed books - Death of a Naturalist, Door into the Dark and Wintering Out - under his belt. ' I had a very good reception for my first three books, and of course I was ratified, gratified and helped. But some part of me thought, "Have you really earned that yet?"'

So, what of his being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature much later, in 1995 - had Heaney accepted his own ability, his own place within the Irish, not to mention the international, pantheon by then? 'I'm just wondering,' asks Crawley, 'if you wake up days or weeks after that and realise that you're shaving the face of a Nobel Laureate. Does it affect your sense of self?'

'I was in denial about it for 12 years or more,' admits Heaney. 'I mean I knew it had happened, of course. There was a lot of evidence. People's perception of you change ... I'm aware of the effect of it, but I didn't talk about it for a long time. I thought it was off limits.'

'Have you accepted it yet?' asks Crawley.

Listening to the audio recording of the talk (which you can access by clicking Play Audio above) the smile that spreads across Heaney's face is almost audible. 'Yep,' he responds, simply, playfully. He's even more mischevious in person than his contemporary, Michael Longley, who played in and around the box during his own Out To Lunch appearance, but failed to hit the net as spectacularly as his friend.

'Thank you for coming to our biggest Out To Lunch event yet,' says organiser Lynn Corken after Heaney has been presented with a 70th birthday cake by Queen's Vice-Chancellor, professor Peter Gregson. Next up is Brian Keenan, followed by Ian Paisley. I wonder if their books will have sold out too...