Nobel poet Seamus Heaney – spirituality and self-discovery

Irish Nobel prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney was a sublime wordsmith and a mystery.

And the veil still cloaking aspects of his life and views may be lifted Friday evening.

Seamus Heaney homeplace events, sean hillen author, seamus heaney bank of ireland

Enjoying a special exhibit on the Nobel winning poet at the Bank of Ireland Cultural and Heritage Centre in Dublin this week.

I’m delighted to be hosting a special event at the Seamus Heaney HomePlace at which three speakers with impressive credentials and diverse views on spirituality and religion will combine their thoughts to reveal more about the Derry man who made Ireland proud.

Committed Catholic Martin O’Brien long-time journalist with the Belfast Telegraph, former editor of The Irish News and award-winning producer with the BBC will be joined by poet Anne O’Reilly, performance poet and lecturer in religious studies and Noeleen Hartigan, Unitarian and human rights leader who has worked with Amnesty and the Simon Community.

anne o'reilly poet, martin o'brien, noeleen hartigan

Seamus Heaney and his devoted wife, Marie, organise his papers for the National Library of Ireland archives.

Their views, some similar, some in direct contrast with each other, should prove to be an exhilarating spectacle to behold.

Aside from his love of words, what can definitely be said of the Nobel laureate is that he was a peace-loving man.

While Heaney stayed away from blunt, outright side-taking on the situation in northern Ireland during ‘The Troubles,’ he was not averse to political commentating, Chris, his son, recalls a comment his father made, on television about Barack Obama: “He said something like, ‘I’m wary of too much uplift – though in Obama’s case I can pretty much get behind it.’ ”

sean hillen hosting events at seamus heaney homeplace

Accepting the Prize.

What we may hear Friday evening at the Seamus Heaney HomePlace is what else he may have become since his upbringing in a Catholic family in rural Derry.

To whet your whistle ahead of this event, here are some comments about Heaney –

Heaney, whose poems resonate with the rhythm of the lives of those he touched – casual reader, familiar student, his close-knit family.

Nobel laureate and beloved public figure; family man and generous friend. 

The event at the HomePlace is a perfect primer for anyone headed to Dublin to see, Seamus Heaney: Listen Now Again, the first exhibition at the new Cultural and Heritage Centre in Bank of Ireland’s former parliament building on College Green, Dublin. More than 100 people have worked on the show, wonderfully curated by Professor Geraldine Higgins, Director of the  Irish Studies Program at Emory University, Atlanta, for the National Library of Ireland, with the family included in the process. Exhibition Manager is the delightful Ann-Marie Smith.

seamus heaney homplace, sean hillen author,

The exhibition focuses on the poetry, its genesis and its process, with glimpses of the essayist, playwright, translator, professor, literary critic and family man. The aim is to create an intimate and immersive experience of the poet’s work, and the thought and care the National Library team have brought to the task shines through.

Friday’s event at HomePlace is also a primer for a lecture by Fintan O’Toole, an Irish Times columnist for nearly 30 years, on December 1st at the same venue. Faber announced O’Toole would write the official biography of Seamus Heaney.

Background Snippets on the Life of Seamus Heaney

Born rural Catholic at the family farmhouse called Mossbawn, one of ten children, he won a scholarship to St. Columb’s College in Derry, then attended Queen’s University , later becoming a lecturer at St. Joseph’s College in Belfast in the early 1960s.

In 1972, Heaney left a lectureship he had earned at Queens University Belfast, and moved with his lovely wife, Marie, to Wicklow. In the same year, he published Wintering Out.

He became Head of English at Carysfort College in Dublin in 1976, later moving to Sandymount.

sean hillen at seamus heaney bank of ireland

Proud to add my message to those of other Seamus Heaney admirers at the exhibition of his life at Bank of Ireland Cultural and Heritage Center, College Green, Dublin.

His next volume, Field Work, was published in 1979. Selected Poems 1965-1975 and Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968–1978 were published in 1980. When Aosdána, the national Irish Arts Council, was established in 1981, Heaney was among those elected into its first group. (He was subsequently elected a Saoi, one of its five elders and its highest honour, in 1997).

In 1981, Heaney traveled to the United States as a visiting professor at Harvard, a relationship he maintained for many years, where he was affiliated with Adams House and delighted in teaching poetry in the hallowed halls there. He was awarded two honorary doctorates, from Queen’s University and from Fordham University in New York City (1982).

In 1989, Heaney was elected Professor of Poetry at the University of Oxford, a post he held for a five-year term to 1994.

Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995 for what the Nobel committee described as “works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.”

Lion-tamers, nude concert-goers, the Rolling Stones, one-clawed lobsters and terrific Irish music

How can small boxes of air that fit neatly between one’s hands create the haunting rhythm of a heartbeat, the roar of an angry sea and the chanting of cloistered monks at prayer?

Ask the talented, five-member ‘Irish Concertina Ensemble’ who captivated a packed audience earlier this week at Teach Hiudái Beag, a popular traditional music venue on the main street of Bunbeg in the Donegal Gaeltacht (a region that features prominently in new suspense novel ‘Pretty Ugly’ (Easons, Gallaghers/Matt Bonners Bunbeg, Amazon) and where the Irish Writing Retreat takes place every year).

Such wondrous music left me bemused about how such a rich diversity of melodies can emerge from such a tiny bellows-buttons-reed instrument. The ensemble, with members from different Irish counties, was one of many performances at this week’s ongoing annual ‘Scoil Gheimhridh’ (Winter School) in Gaoth Dobhair (the festival continues right through Sunday, so buy your show tickets now).

Composed of Tim Collins, Padraig Rynne, Micheal O’Raghallaigh, Caitlin Nic Gabhann and Edel Fox – the musicians brought this popular, cozy pub to a hushed and appreciative silence. So exhilarated were affable pub manger and owner, also himself a fine musician, Hugh Gallagher, my wife, Columbia, myself and others, we gave them a hearty and well-deserved standing ovation.

Irish Concertina Ensemble, Scoil Gheimhridh

Boxes of air that produce mellifluous music.

Drawing on a wealth of melodies, some old, some new, some composed for other instruments such as the fiddle, flute and uilleann pipe, the group displayed the surprising and immense versatility of the concertina.

Not only were there versions of tunes by such iconic instrumentalists as Turlough O’Carolan, (1670–1738), a blind Irish harper and composer, but also their own compositions. Highlights among the latter were a series of mellifluous waltzes in honor of Kathy, a friend and admired social activist who died from cancer, and also a dreamy melody inspired by watching the sunrise with Oisin, the young child of one of the group members.

The opening night of the festival was a veritable cabaret of myriad talents at Ionad Cois Locha in memory of well-respected community and media leader, Seamus Mac Géidigh, broadcaster and manager of RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta‘s northwest service in Donegal, who recently passed away.

Such is the interest in preserving local Irish heritage, fiddle player and teacher Róisín McGrory who is also co-founder of the Inishowen Traditional Music Project established in 1999 to preserve the music of the region, also performed at the festival.

Another highlight of this week’s festival and music school so far has been the double-bill of Carlow-based brothers Diarmuid and Brian Mac Gloinn who perform as ‘Ye Vagabonds’ and star fiddle-player and ‘Hobbit-lookalike’ Frankie Gavin, who played alongside bouzouki-mandolin player, Brendan O’Regan. The former, resembling young, bearded troubadours, moved effortlessly from ballad to toe-tapping melodies, from the ‘Lowlands of Holland,’ a soft air about a man lost at sea, which they learned from Donegal-native Paddy Tunney, the same county their mother hails from – Arranmore Island – to a lively finale that included ‘The Lark In The Morning.’ They sang songs in both English and Irish.

While he strikes a remarkable resemblance to one of my heroes, the hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, the affable Gavin’s blinding bursts of speed reminded me more of ‘The Fiddler of Dooney,’ the character in the W.B. Yeats poem of the same name whose fiddle playing ‘made folks dance like a wave of the sea.’

Frankie Gavin, Brendan O’Regan, Donegal Irish music

(l to r) Frankie ‘Bilbo Baggins’ Gavin and Brendan ‘Speedy Fingers’ O’Regan display their ample talents at Teac Jack.

To say Gavin’s bow tripped lightly over the strings would be a severe understatement. Skipping, dancing, somersaulting even, would be much more appropriate descriptions – from hornpipes and reels to jigs and highlands; from Donegal composition, ‘Strike the Gay Harp’ to ‘The Old Grey Goose;’ from tunes by well-known Irish musical ambassadors such as fiddler Tommy Peoples and music collector and uilleann pipe player, Séamus Ennis; to others learned from fellow musician, Dermot Byrne; and still others he performed previously with French violinist Stéphane Grappelli in a ‘Jigs and Jazz’ show.

Gavin’s ludicrously fast fiddle-playing may have seemed eye-to brain-to-fingers neurologically impossible but when he picked up the flute he really put the emotional brakes on his packed audience at Teac Jack in Glassagh (which also features prominently in ‘Pretty Ugly‘), leaving them glassy-eyed with his version of the classic slow air, ‘Boolavogue,’ about Father John Murphy and the Wexford uprising during the Irish rebellion of 1798.

Not only, but the founder of the well-known group, DeDannan, is also a natural raconteur and effortlessly entertained his listeners with an assortment of jokes, ranging from lion-tamers to one-clawed lobsters. Alongside him, ‘Speedy Fingers’ O’Regan displayed his musical virtuosity with a simply brilliant solo of his own competition on mandolin.

The festival’s energetic and committed organizers deserve great praise.

They include Conor Byrne, accomplished flute player who was mentored by west Belfast musician Frankie Kennedy (who tragically died from cancer at a young age and for whom the festival was originally named after); Cathal Ó Gallchóir, who is also manager of local community center, An Crannog in nearby Derrybeg, where varied activities ranging from yoga to Irish language and music classes take place; their excellent, friendly support team; and special guests such as fiddle player, music teacher and journalist, Martin McGinley, who opened the festival this year and who conducted a most interesting, light-hearted and insightful  afternoon interview with Gavin at PobalScoil Gaoth Dobhair (more on that, including naked Danish concert-goers and sessions with Jagger and Co. of The Rolling Stones in an enlarged festival review on World Itineraries later this weekend).

Scoil Gheimridh, Irish music festivals, live Irish music

Cathal Ó Gallchóir introduces festival musical performers.

‘Scoil Gheimridh’ has now rightly become a prominent feature of national Irish cultural life. Students and teachers, men and women, schoolchildren and retirees, both national and international, lovers of instruments ranging from the bodhrán, an Irish hand drum, to fiddle, flute, uilleann pipes, accordion, concertina and even traditional sean-nós singing and dancing, gather every year in this beautiful north-western region known as the ‘Forgotten County’ to attend classes taught by leading musicians and to enjoy the many concerts and seisún.

Here, in this most northerly region of Ireland, interest and pride in the native Irish language, Gaeilge, and the rich cultural heritage of their forebearers remains impressively strong, especially in the face of the fickleness and superficiality of modern-day life.

The festival ends this weekend with a concert tonight (Friday, 8.30pm) by Dublin four-piece band, Lynched, at Teac Jack; an exhuberant New Year’s Eve celebration at Club CLG Gaoth Dobhair with Kerry-based Polca4 and local band, An Crann Óg; and two seisiún mór (big informal music/dance sessions) at Teach Hiúdaí Beag Saturday and Sunday, plus the classes.

Sponsors of the annual winter school include The Arts Council of Ireland.