I taught for nearly one year just down the road from Seamus Heaney's home of Bellaghy.
  His sister taught in the same school and her features were unmistakably of the same big-boned family.
He was not on the syllabus then, yet we lived constantly in the presence of that snagging northern Irish dialect he used so frequently in his earlier work. Words like 'a pockle' (meaning a nuisance) and phrases like 'the skrake of dawn' (very early in the morning).
  I had the great pleasure of going to see him read at a pub in Bellaghy and, though he signed a book, I never spoke to him, as he seemed surrounded by friends and family and I felt out of place.
   It was wonderful to hear him read those poems about farming and his upbringing and to think that so many of the audience felt intrinsically part of them. Even the most simple of things such as 'Blackberrying' he could render special and resonant with meaning.
   Here were the people of his townlands.
   'Townland' wasn't a word I had ever encountered before : small settlements and farms around one equally small village, like Rasharkin.
   Everywhere my wife and I went (she taught at the same school), we moved in his presence ; from the boat across Lough Neagh to the many farming families we taught.
  In late autumn potato harvesting time the classrooms emptied. Pupils took to the fields to help their parents and the Head turned a blind eye (he too was a potato-farmer!) . Their education inevitably suffered, yet they had very low expectations in that Secondary Modern.
   When the media proclaim about the benefits of N. Ireland's Grammar School system, they conveniently forget about the 60% odd who have to attend Sec. Mod's like the rest of us in the 60s. Most are stamped as failures from the age of 11!
   Heaney himself was a fortunate one and attended St. Columb's College in Derry after attaining a scholarship there. His much-studied poem 'Mid-term Break' relates to this time and the tragic death of a brother in a road accident .
   He was a brave writer in more ways than his remarkable poetry, criticism and translations. He once refused inclusion in an anthology of British verse, citing his Irish identity and lack of allegiance to Mrs. Windsor.
   At times during the upheavals of The Troubles, I felt he did pander to British propaganda. His narrow political vision always seemed to blame his own people for the violence of their struggle, whereas historically the republican population turned to the Provos out of necessity not choice.
   I believe this arose from his rural background more than anything else.
   In the area of Co. Derry where he grew up, Catholics and Protestants would mix more freely than the cities of Belfast and Derry and also coastal towns of the east like Ballycastle (essentially Catholic) and Portrush  (Protestant).
   The common communication and currency was undoubtedly farming and they had much in common. Though discrimination existed, it wasn't at the intense level of urban areas.
   Furthermore, the Catholic Church was far more conservative in places like Bellaghy (as a leftist, I was derided) and extremely suspicious of the increasingly Marxist Provisional IRA.
   When Heaney worked and studied in Belfast he moved among the middle-classes, who again mixed freely, Catholic and Protestant. He had little experience of working-class districts like The Falls and Shankill.
   Having said that, he still wrote a number of powerful poems highly critical of the British occupation if his country.
   One is 'The Toome Road', which describes the intrusion of military presence and its link , in his mind, to 'erectors of headstones' -
   'How long were they approaching down my roads
   As if they owned them?'
   The use of 'my' and 'they' are telling.
   His poetry had more effect on me than any other writer from the mid-70s onwards and I looked forward to his new books with the kind of excitement  I did later for the albums of Tom Waits.
   Each was so different in approach and content, yet grew organically from his body of work : from the bog people of 'North' to those moving elegies of 'Field Work'.
   It was always so rewarding teaching his work at GCSE and 'A' Level, as I felt I could give an extra insight to their inspirations.
  He brought together his wide learning from Celtic mythology, Irish history and the Classical tradition so naturally, it never felt like he was being deliberately difficult.
   So many events, sights and even sounds bring back his poems and when, in Japan, I heard the curious mating-calls of frogs I couldn't help thinking of 'Death of a Naturalist' and Heaney's description of his boyhood experience.
   I seriously wonder if any other poet will have the kind of profound effect on my life and work which Seamus Heaney has had.
   I do wish I'd spoken to him that time in Bellaghy, just to say thanks and tell him - 'I write poetry too.'

                                     THE  WORD-CUT

Of slow, slow country accent
hanging mist-like
over the lough

of the dialect words
like amethyst dragonflies
hovering over the ponds

of flags of bog-cotton :
small white fists
defiant in the marshlands

of the road-block, word-block,
night-stopping light and gun
pointed at the head

of blackberry ink staining
and thorns splintering deep :
the flow of juice and blood

of rotting flax turned
to linen-white sheet and map
of a body breached

of the word-cut ;
of feet, both left and right,
leading talk to potato yield.

   * To reply to 'Student' (no email). I went to one of these Grammar schools and it was generally dreadful. It was a myth about their excellence. In n. Ireland the majority of pupils are condemned to failure. Of course, this also happens in our so-called Comprehensive system, but at least the sense of failure isn't built into the entire education system, as it is with the selection process.
   In n.Ireland I know (from my wife's intimate knowledge of it) that it favours the middle-classes (of both sects) and exacerbates class divisions.
I would like to see a genuinely Comprehensive system, with no private schools ( similar to Finland), the very opposite of what is happening in England.
   My wife went to a Grammar school in the six counties and holds the same views as me.


09/07/2013 01:06

Some conveniently forget that grammar schools allowed the brightest to prosper. You must be pleased that the brightest now languish in a swill of mediocrity, unchallenged and uneducated.


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