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.”

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’).