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.”

Crooks, citizens or celebrities?

Ethics, or lack thereof, has been the raging catchphrase in Donegal recently with county councilor John O’Donnell  caught on RTE camera allegedly offering lobbying services for cash and Bunbeg-based, EU-funded former school principal, Finbarr Boyle, stealing more than 200,000 euro from a village school, including money earmarked for childrens’ food.

But what’s all the commotion about? Hasn’t there been such unsavory goings-on right here in Donegal for years? Why the shock? Or is there any, really?

In last weekend’s edition of ‘The Irish Times,’ columnist Fintan O’Toole, painted a scary scenario, a malaise spreading nationwide.

…other cultures criminalise the things they find unacceptable; we find unacceptable only the things that have been criminalized. If you can get away with it, we reckon, it can’t be all that bad.” He then quoted Central Bank Governor, Patrick Honohan on white-collar crime, saying, “It is remarkable, first of all, how long it takes, how heavy the procedures are and how light the consequences.

Back in Donegal.

Ardara-born Finbarr Boyle’s story is well-publicized “School principal pleads guilty to 7 counts of theft and forgery.”

As a journalist and editor for over thirty years, I thought sharpened instincts had made me a good judge of character – boy, was I ever wrong.

Sitting at a lunch prepared by my wife in my home with Mr. Boyle as guest some time ago, I would never have guessed the man across from me would stoop to such lows as using a village school’s money where he was principal to treat himself royally to holidays in England, Spain and other fine places, car and house payments and expensive golf equipment.

Finbarr Boyle Donegal, CeangalG,

(l to r): Concubhar Ó LIatháin, CeangalG Marketing Manager, Claire Nic Neacail, Alasdair Morrison CeangalG Director, Dinny McGinley Fine Gael TD and Fionbar Ó Baoill – CeangalG Training Manager.

Mr. Boyle was given space inside the headquarters of Údarás na Gaeltachta in the Gweedore Industrial Estate, Bunbeg as a training manager – surprising, as that particular organisation has refused to gave any free space to small, local entrepreneurs in that same estate, a situation local Sinn Fein TD Pearse Doherty, has consistently taken issue with.

I must admit, Mr. Boyle impressed me then, a fast talker, assertive and supremely confident. Yes, I know what you’re probably thinking – ‘Sounds like a conman to me.’ As things turned out, you are absolutely right. But I was left sad and disillusioned after learning of his multiple theft. He struck me then as the kind of person who could be a positive force for change, especially as we discussed the importance of ethics and the need for the Donegal Gaeltacht to rid itself of its historic cronyism and nepotism which have warped normal economic development of the region.

Yet this is the same person found guilty of seven counts of theft over a number of years (he admitted to many more as part of his plea bargain), for whom Judge John Aymler may not impose a custodial sentence because, in part, 25,000 euro of the money taken may be paid back within a year. That’s around a tenth of what was stolen.

Who says crime doesn’t pay?

A key question, however, still remains unanswered: Mr. Boyle was caught red-handed several years ago (the investigation has been ongoing for at least seven (7) years), so how did he obtain a well-paying position as training manager of a lucrative, multi-million euro, tax-payer supported EU funded project – ironically, one aimed at helping economically disadvantaged people? Was this , in itself, a classic case of nepotism and cronyism? Regardless of the multiple thefts, people have asked, “Does a school principal have the business credentials to train entrepreneurs?”

When contacted by me this week on the issue, Dr D. Munro, chair of the CeangalG Steering Group, Sabhal Mor Ostaig in Scotland, e-mailed back, saying, “Mr. Boyle’s actual contract of employment, for the post of Training Officer, with the wider CeangalG Project, was formally and directly managed through our Project Partners, Údarás na Gaeltachta.” He added that Mr. Boyle was “employed by the project between 9th Sept 2013 and 31st March 2015.” The Gardai investigation began as late as 2008 and Mr. Boyle, according to media reports, admitted his thefts almost two years ago (January last year).

Mr. Munro added, “At no stage in either the recruitment process or during his subsequent period of employment, was CeangalG ever made aware of there being any on-going police investigation.” Mr. Munro cc his email to the law company of Wright, Johnston & Mackenzie and to the University of the Highlands. Have I touched a red button?

Entitled CeangalG (ConenctG), this project is funded by the EU’s INTERREG IVA, Bòrd na Gàidhlig, MG ALBA, the Scottish Government, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig and Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich and focuses on the Gaeltachts of Donegal, Scotland and Belfast. On it’s website, it states:

CeangalG Donegal, INTERREG IVAAs for independent councilor John O’Donnell, the ball is largely in his court. He can do the dignified thing and bow out. If he stays, he places the entire council under a shadow. Independent councillor Frank McBrearty says he should be removed from all committees. But it seems resigning is the last thing O’Donnell will do. Another Independent councillor, Micheál Cholm Mac Giolla Easbuic, is right in asking fellow councilors to walk out of the chamber at the next meeting in protest. Someone has to stand up, otherwise – due to blatant impunity – it will get much worse. Let’s see if that happens. If not, then Fintan O’Toole’s words ring frighteningly true.

John O Donnell Donegal, independent councilor Donegal

Independent councilor John O Donnell: will he do the right thing?

But questionable dealings are nothing new in Donegal, as many local people have told me.

Under the auspices of the former Fianna Fáil government, Liam Cunningham (Liam Ó Cuinneagáin), was paid substantial sums for his services as member and long-time chairperson of Údarás na Gaeltachta – more than a quarter of a million euro. Between 2002 to 2012, his travel expenses alone amounted to 131,730 euro. His fees amounted to 206,962 euro.

More than that, documents requested by me under the Freedom of Information Act also now show that at least one company he established, Oideas Gael, received generous amounts of money – more than 350,000 euro in a series of payments – from the very same organization he chaired for so long. Mr. Cunningham said Oideas Gael was a hobby. With a financial return like that, that’s quite a hobby.

In stock market terms, is this not a case of insider trading, and therefore unethical? After all, no better-placed person to access money from a group than the person who’s on the inside track of that very same group, knowing intimately its budgets, its strategy and its key staff. When called by me about this situation in a phone interview, Liam said, “Sean, things were different then. I don’t see it as a conflict of interest.” Different then? How is it different? The question was never answered.

Oideas Gael, Liam Cunningham Donegal

Liam Cunningham: is it wrong to lobby for money from the very funding organisation that you chair?

Some readers might say, ‘Liam hosts Irish-language classes.’ That’s true, but so do many others and they don’t benefit from the rich financial backing Oideas Gael received so handily. Still others could do so – if they had that kind of money. Is such treatment fair and ethical? Is the playing ground a level one? How many times has Údarás said there’s not enough money for your project?

The particular situation of Mr. Cunningham also raises an inevitable question: was it linked to an ongoing quid pro quo agreement among local Údarás board members then? And has anything changed since? Interested to find out? You have the right to know, and here’s how. (See below).

Mr. Cunningham has since been named, ‘Donegal Person of the Year.’ Considering the dire economic development of the Gaeltacht, where I live, under his watch, the question must be asked, ‘Is this how we want the term ‘model citizen’ to be defined?”

Michael Heaney, formerly a director of services with Donegal County Council, has recently been appointed director of Enterprise & Investment with Údarás. Will his leadership change the way Údarás doles out money, how it selects projects to fund? Or will the same old cadre of elites be the recipients? Time will tell.

As Údarás is helping DLDC select projects for funding under the EU’s upcoming LEADER programme, it will be operating under much tighter European regulations than the rather loose Irish ones it has been working under thus far. It will be interesting to monitor the quality of their project selection process for LEADER.

As O’Toole writes in last Saturday’s column, “If corruption is very low on the list of priorities for criminal justice, it is little higher on the list of political priorities…. So long as impunity reigns, the rare eejit who gets caught will always evoke sympathy… What marks out (Ireland) is the breathtaking degree of impunity for all white-collar crimes.

Isn’t it long past time this situation changed? The upcoming election gives us the chance to affect such change. In  ofthis regard, it is worth noting the words  ‘Donegal News’ columnist Martin McGinley’s in Friday’s edition, “We get what we accept.”

You have the right to know:

You can find out additional information on the dealings of Údarás by e-mailing Judy Ní Dhubháin at judy(at)udaras.ie. Quoting the FOI Act 2014, you can ask for any information you like, financial or otherwise. The service is free.

Anyone wanting answers from CeangalG, can contact Dr D. Munro, chair of the CeangalG Steering Group at dm.smo(at)uhi.ac.uk or +44 (0) 1471 888352. Claire Nicolson is the organisation’s administrator claire(at)ceangalg.net Alasdair Morrison, a former minister in the Government of Scotland, is its director. Or through Údarás na Gaeltachta, Donegal. Tel: 074-9560100. Fax: 074-9560101. Email: dnag(at)udaras.ie

Be sure to tell me what you find out. I’d be curious to know.