Ireland has a rep: the land of saints and scholars. It’s something I get asked a lot when in America. ‘Would you have known a lot of Irish writers as a child?’ I always said that no, I didn’t know that many prose writers. Maeve Binchy went to one of my schools (I went through a lot of schools!) but I never met her and that was about it.
I knew a lot of poets. Creative artists get tax breaks in Ireland, and poets tend to make even less money than most writers. Poets get supported and celebrated in Ireland, where we tend to like poetry, and music, and… well, okay, yes, the drink. We even adopted other poets into the nation: Seamus Heaney did a verse translation of Beowulf, Frank Guinness and other poets (including me, in a rare poetic moment) translated Catullus into Irish and English. ‘Ah, love, what a waste,’ several people said to me when I talked about wanting to write filthy prose.
Seamus Heaney, whose funeral was today (and who, you know, had died beforehand) was one of the great lights of Irish poetry: was in many ways The Irish Poet. I learned his poems in school.
I didn’t really know Seamus Heaney, but I met him several times, at parties when everyone had drink taken. He was at my uncle’s sixtieth: we all went to hear him read from Beowulf. He was always lovely, and I was always shy around him, as it’s natural to be about genius, I think: you’re worried you might be stupid in front of genius, the way you might worry about breathing on a golden artefact. The thing I remember best about him in person, other than the constant sense of ‘Oh my gosh Seamus Heaney!’ was that he was always notably and touchingly devoted to his wife Marie Devlin: bringing her up in conversations when she was not there, turning to hear what she said whenever she spoke, always acting like she was the most important and interesting person in the room.
My clearest memory of him is of the Guinness Book of World Records day when the writers of Ireland were rounded up to do a lot of live readings, one after the other, until we were in possession of the record for longest continuous live reading. I was shattered, as I’d been at a wedding the day before and it was moving day at mine, but I stumbled through my reading, and then I stayed, because Seamus Heaney was reading soon and I wanted to hear him read. He did read, and it was wonderful, and then Marie Devlin did, and she was wonderful too. I remember how he said hers was the best reading of the morning.
Later at that same event…
SARAH: Great poetry.
SHORT GUY: Thank you.
SARAH: Are you a full-time poet?
SHORT GUY: Ah… no.
SARAH (blithely): Oh, what else do you do?
SHORT GUY: I am president.
SARAH: Cool, of what?
SHORT GUY: Of… this country?
SARAH: … OH MY GOD.
Seamus Heaney, a kind soul who I did not after all have to be so shy of, heard this entire exchange and valiantly did not laugh.
I always liked this poem of his so much.
Lady with the frilled blouse
And simple tartan skirt,
Since you have left the house
Its emptiness has hurt
All thought. In your presence
Time rode easy, anchored
On a smile; but absence
Rocked love’s balance, unmoored
The days. They buck and bound
Across the calendar
Pitched from the quiet sound
Of your flower-tender
Voice. Need breaks on my strand;
You’ve gone, I am at sea.
Until you resume command
Self is in mutiny.
‘Noli timere’ – in Latin, don’t be afraid. They were his last words. He said it to his wife.
I’m sorry he is gone. But it seems to me one of the best ways to go: to change the world with words, and end with love and courage.