Van Morrison, Seamus Heaney and I….

Was Van ‘the Man’ Morrison inspired by Seamus Heaney’s delightful poem ‘Death of A Naturalist’ when the famed R&B singer wrote his timeless ode to youth, ‘Coney Island’?

And what possible connection could there be between the old Belfast street song ‘My Aunt Jane’ and the famous Derry-born Nobel Laureate?

And for goodness sake, what has butter melting over delicious homemade Irish soda bread got to do with a man who was such a venerated poet and professor at such august institutions as Queens University, Harvard and Oxford?

Sean Hillen speaking at Seamus Heaney HomePlace, Olivia O'Leary, Marie-Louis Muir

(l to r) Myself, Olivia O’Leary, Malachi O’Doherty, Marie-Louise Muir, Elaine Monaghan and Winnifred Fallers Sullivan – panelists at a recent conference at the Seamus Heaney HomePlace.

I was delighted to air these quirky questions and more during a most enjoyable conference at the impressive Seamus Heaney HomePlace in Bellaghy last week. Eldest of nine children, Heaney won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995 and is buried near the museum and conference center that bears his name which hosts a wide range of cultural events.

Seated on a panel with Olivia O’Leary, a ‘Grand Dame’ of Irish journalism, as well as popular BBC arts presenter, Marie-Louise Muir, multiple book author, Malachi O’Rourke, and two professors from Indiana University Bloomington, Elaine Monaghan, an experienced foreign correspondent, and Winnifred Fallers Sullivan who specializes in religious studies, we analyzed the links between Heaney’s writings and journalism, particularly on ethics.

Photos & videos by Center for the Imagination

Conducting research on the northern Irish poet ahead of the event, I came across a radio recording from 1989 when Heaney was being interviewed for the popular BBC program ‘Desert Island Discs,’ in which various celebrities are asked what music they’d want if stranded offshore. Sandwiched between two ‘heavyweights’ – Beethoven’s Quartet Nr. 13 and the choir of Magdalen College Oxford – as his favorite pieces of music was ‘My Aunt Jane,’ a little ditty I grew up with on the working-class streets of west Belfast.

Seamus Heaney HomePlace events, Seamus Heaney museum

On an impulse, in the crowded conference hall, I sang a few lines, receiving gracious applause for my rather off-tune efforts, then asked how many people remembered the song.

Hands all across the hall shot up, including those of the panelists, giving strength to the point I wanted to make: that Heaney, at his core, was a common man of the people, someone who grew up in a rather modest rural household steeped in tradition which was reflected bountifully in his poetry.

discussions on Seamus Heaney poetry and journalism, Olivia O'Leary, Marie-Louis Muir, Malachi O'Rourke

As for my ‘Van the Man’ comment. Having read the lines from Heaney’s ‘Death Of A Naturalist,’ the title of his first published book of poetry (by Faber & Faber)…

‘Here, every spring

I would fill jampotfuls of the jellied

Specks to range on window sills at home,

On shelves at school, and wait and watch until

The fattening dots burst, into nimble

Swimming tadpoles.’

I was reminded of a similar jampot/jamjar image from Morrison’s ‘Coney Island’….

‘On and on, over the hill to Ardglass
In the jam jar, autumn sunshine, magnificent
And all shining through

Stop off at Ardglass for a couple of jars of
Mussels and some potted herrings in case
We get famished before dinner.’

While my comment was tongue in cheek, interestingly, both men – arguably the most iconic artistic figures Northern Ireland has ever produced – managed, one in poetry, the other in song, to pay magical tribute to their respective regions through their journeys of nostalgia to childhood pathways and pastimes. Heaney to his native county Derry and Morrison to county Down.

Whether they ever met, I’m not sure. Alas, to my knowledge, they didn’t perform together – now that would have been a most memorable duet.

As for the melted butter over scrumptious Irish soda bread, watching one of the videos above you’ll see what I mean about ‘Show, don’t tell,’ a key element of both journalism and creative writing.

Join me on Saturday, May 12 at Seamus Heaney HomePlace where I will be hosting a workshop on “IQ for Creative Writers” (IQ meaning ‘I Question’).

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