The legacy of Heaney

 
 

A year on from the death of the Irish poet Seamus Heaney, Patrick Kelleher reflects on the life and works of one of Ireland’s greatest writers.

On the 30th of August 2013, the news spread in ripples across the world and gradually everybody knew that something had changed. Everyone knew that the world had lost a part of its beauty, Seamus Heaney had passed away. Few poets so completely understood the human condition and the desires that are shared by an entire collection of people: to be connected to something greater than themselves and to experience true passion.

Heaney was a rarity, and this is why his death last year shook the world in the way it did. He became the focus of media frenzy, where journalists were not merely eager to break the story, but were compelled to take part in the collective grieving that can only happen at the death of a genius. From a Presidential address by Michael D. Higgins to a New York Times feature, Heaney’s death sent the literary world into mourning. While the grieving has eased, the desire to remember, to return and to reminisce has not.

Born in April 1939 in Northern Ireland, he was the eldest of nine children in a Roman Catholic family. His early life was peppered by the experiences that would come to define much of his poetry.

While away at boarding school, his brother was killed at four years of age in a road accident. The loss of Christopher impacted Heaney a great deal throughout much of his life, and he would continue to return to the Northern Irish childhood that had been marred by such devastation in his poetry. ‘Mid-Term Break’ tells of his very personal trauma of being sent home from boarding school to attend the funeral, and the impossible grief that he observed in his parents.

However his childhood is not remembered as a difficult time, and much of his poetry focuses on the brightness and innocence of youth. ‘Sunlight’ details the love and protection that only a child can feel when they are completely secure. He describes love as being ‘like a tinsmith’s scoop/sunk past its gleam/in the meal bin’. It is in the ordinary things that are not always appreciated that Heaney’s message was at its most incisive.

While his childhood remained a constant presence in his poetry, it is eclipsed only by his idea of Irishness, and the relationship of a person with the earth and the land. Much of Heaney’s poetry focussed on the bog and the deep relationship between a person and his craft, the greatest example perhaps being ‘Digging’.

Unique in every way, ‘Digging’ examines the life of a writer, the relationship of Irish men to the land and the constant progression of generations. His poem captures the intense admiration of the child for the grown men they observe, and the childish obsession with growing up, only to discover that it happens all too quickly. In direct contrast is ‘Follower’, which charts the shift between a parent and their child as one drifts into adulthood and the other walks into old age. The passage of time and the fragility of each moment run constantly through the veins of Heaney’s poetry.

His poetry does not dwell solely on childhood and rural Ireland, but exceeds these boundaries easily and often. ‘The Skunk’ is an amusing and poignant portrayal of the love that he and his wife shared. In what is undoubtedly one of his most erotic and sensual poems, he compares his wife to a glamorous skunk he sees in the garden while he is away from her. She rekindles his memory of that skunk by her ‘head-down, tail-up hunt in a bottom drawer/For the black plunge-line nightdress’. His wife and family are a vital presence throughout his poetry, informing the central themes of love, devotion and loss as they escalate throughout his works.

In April of this year, the concert ‘Ceiliuradh’ was filmed for RTE in celebration of Michael D. Higgins’ state visit to the UK. Just before the finale, Fiona Shaw recited ‘Postscript’ as a tribute to Heaney. It captures the beauty of the Irish landscape, but also the extremes of passion that occur too rarely in daily life. The final line in ‘Postscript’ truly catches ‘the heart off guard’ in its ability to awaken extremes of passion, nostalgia and love within his readers through the rough and beautiful Irish landscape. ‘Postscript’ is amongst his finest poems, and succeeds in being both beautiful and lyrical while being widely read.

Upon his death Heaney’s publisher, Faber & Faber, noted that ‘his impact on literary culture is immeasurable’, and this is certainly true. Heaney has joined W.B. Yeats and Thomas Moore as a founding poet of a new age of being Irish, in a post-independence world where Irish identity is constantly questioned.

A year on, Heaney’s poetry will continue to be remembered. He created a new cycle in Irish poetry that examines Irishness through several wider themes. Combined with his literary ability, Heaney’s work was constantly ingenious and always filled with a lyrical depth and beauty that few poets have succeeded in rivalling. Heaney has been the most successful poet of our time, and he will always be remembered as the man behind some of the most defining Irish poetry of the modern day, that not only helped to create modern Ireland, but to define it.

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