‘Seamus Heaney’s HomePlace’ by Joe McVeigh

Last week I visited the Seamus Heaney centre, HomePlace, in Bellaghy Co Derry. I came away from this wonderful exhibition thinking what a uniquely gifted man this man was – a man who grew up on a nearby farm, the oldest of nine children, whose father Patrick, a quiet man, was a cattle dealer and his Mother Margaret Kate was a home-maker with an outgoing personality. His father’s sister, Mary Heaney, lived with them when he was growing up and he wrote a poem about her baking bread. The memories of these people in his early life feature often in his poetry.

He wrote many poems about his home place, about the tragedies in his life -especially when his young brother Christopher, aged four years, was knocked down by a car and died while Seamus was a boarder in St Columb’s college in Derry.

Mid-Term Break 

I sat all morning in the college sick bay
Counting bells knelling classes to a close.
At two o’clock our neighbours drove me home.

In the porch I met my father crying–
He had always taken funerals in his stride–
And Big Jim Evans saying it was a hard blow.

The baby cooed and laughed and rocked the pram
When I came in, and I was embarrassed
By old men standing up to shake my hand

And tell me they were “sorry for my trouble,”
Whispers informed strangers I was the eldest,
Away at school, as my mother held my hand

In hers and coughed out angry tearless sighs.
At ten o’clock the ambulance arrived
With the corpse, stanched and bandaged by the nurses.

Next morning I went up into the room. Snowdrops
And candles soothed the bedside; I saw him
For the first time in six weeks. Paler now,

Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple,
He lay in the four foot box as in his cot.
No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.

A four foot box, a foot for every year.

Seamus wrote about his relatives and neighbours who influenced him as a boy growing up near Bellaghy.  Later he wrote poetically about his wife, Marie, and children and grandchildren. He wrote about Creation, the sorrows of the Troubles and the connection with our distant past and the lessons of the great writings of the past. There were many literary influences-Patrrick Kavanagh and the Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins to name only two.

There is much of interest in the exhibition and it would take longer than a day to take it all in. But I came away after this visit with a greater appreciation of the influence of his parents and home place on his imagination. In a long poem ‘Clearances’ he recalls his mother preparing the Sunday dinner:


When all the others were away at Mass
I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.
They broke the silence, let fall one by one
Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:
Cold comforts set between us, things to share
Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.
And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes
From each other’s work would bring us to our senses.

So while the parish priest at her bedside
Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying
And some were responding and some crying
I remembered her head bent towards my head,
Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives–
Never closer the whole rest of our lives.

 Seamus had the gift of putting into words and images what many of us experienced growing up in the north. He did not get too involved in the politics of the local situation and he has written to explain his reasons for that decision.

Seamus was, above all, a generous man, generous with his time, with his talents and generous in sharing his soul with the rest of us. I only ever met him once in New York after a poetry reading and it was a very pleasant experience. I went to hear him speak at the Yeats Summer School in Sligo and I came away enlightened and more fascinated by this rare down to earth human being who happened to be a poet. He was always a teacher in many respects-but he was also like a farmer. On a one to one, he was really humble, no airs or graces, nothing to indicate that his was a world renowned poet.

We should be proud of this gifted writer from county Derry who has received many awards and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995.

Seamus is recognised all over the world and his poems are translated into many different languages. I hope to return to Bellaghy to take in more of Seamus Heaney’s life and poetry.


22 Responses to ‘Seamus Heaney’s HomePlace’ by Joe McVeigh

  1. Scott Rutherford July 3, 2017 at 12:03 pm #

    I visited the Homeplace with my girlfriend in January and I was very impressed.

    Great place and very well done.

  2. Brian Patterson July 3, 2017 at 3:25 pm #

    He was one of the English lecturers when I was at Queen’s 1965-69. A nice soft spoken, innoffensive man who wrote charming rural poetry which fascinated me, a “towney” with a love of nature. Later he became the patron saint of Irish poetry. His slim new volumes we’re at least as eagerly awaited in London as in Dublin.His place in the literary establishment was confirmed when he became a member of Soda, the in-house paid inner circle created by Charlie Haughey the last of the great Irish Chieftains. We owe him a lot for his translation s from Irish to English though I am unaware of any original compositions “as Gaeilge”. When he died his Canonisation was complete, his place in the literary Pantheon assured. But what did he stand for? The threat he posted to the Establishment can be calculated inversely as compared with the number of well-heeled visitors to the Heaney heritage centre. Including the Colonel-in-Chief of the Parachute Regiment. So what did Heaney stand for?. Common decency I suppose. You could say as much

  3. Brian Patterson July 3, 2017 at 3:27 pm #

    “”..you could say as much for Pam Ayres”.

    • Jude Collins July 3, 2017 at 3:40 pm #

      I think that last comment comparing him to Pam Ayres is a bridge too far for me, Brian. I do think that much of what you say is interesting with at least a grain of rarely-stated truth in it. Do poets/writers have to stand for something?

      • Argenta July 4, 2017 at 11:59 am #

        “Do poets /writers have to stand for something “?
        If you look at Pages 257/258 of Stepping Stones by Dennis O’Driscoll,your good friend Danny Morrison clearly believed that Seamus should write something for the Republican cause.Seamus,to his credit “simply rebelled at being commanded”!

        • Jude Collins July 4, 2017 at 12:47 pm #

          ‘Your good friend Danny Morrison’ – you must have been watching my movements, Argenta. Old habits die hard, eh? That story about DM is an old one – I know at least one other senior republican who claims it was HE who reproached SH. I can see it from both points of view (and I’m sure you can too, Argie, being a reasonable person…): the notion that someone prominent – or even not prominent – has no take on politics is, in my opinion, a pity. Of course ‘s/he took no interest in politics’ has been elevated here to a virtue. Certainly some great writers have been very political – Yeats to some extent, George Bernard Shaw, George Orwell, Gore Vidal – there’s a pretty impressive list. But then there are others who appear to have little interest in politics or taking a stand on anything – Keats, Wordsworth (for the most part), T S Eliot, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Joyce (although some would debate that), Flann O’Brien, Frank O’Connor (for the most part) and loads others I can’t think of now. Like Chaucer. Or (maybe) Shakespeare. As I say, it’s an absorbing topic. DM, by the way (or should I just say ‘My good friend’?) believes that the intrusion of political beliefs into writing fiction damages or can damage the quality of the work.

  4. Freddiemallins July 3, 2017 at 4:21 pm #

    I spent a morning recently in the Heaney centre and truly loved it. Many of the poems and stories were familiar but the reminiscence and poetic references to his blind neighbour, Bridie Keenan ( if I recall correctly) left me full of tears. Such a deft, beautiful touch he had to bring this warm, blind and much loved friend to life. The people of Belaghy must be very, very proud. As we all are of him and his legacy.

  5. fiosrach July 3, 2017 at 4:52 pm #

    The next time you visit, Joe, take a few minutes to visit the grave of Francis Hughes at the other side of the reilig.

  6. Brian Patterson July 3, 2017 at 7:01 pm #

    Jude, my earlier comments were not meant to infer that Pam Ayres is as good a poet as SH. She clearly is not. But my point is that SH is no more a force for change nor a prod to conscience than PA. You (rhetorically I hope!) asked sould poets stand for something? I think everyone should stand for something. Poets are widely regarded as passionate people. Wilfred Owen, Walt Whitman, Siegfried Sassoon, Hugo, Zola, Dylan, Kettle, Yeats. Where is the passion in Heaney? He lived near Claudy and near Derry. The atrocities in both towns evoked no passionate response from him. He writes with charm of a world that is rapidly disappearing. Ploughed fields, blacksmith,drowned kittens, peeling spuds in a country kitchen. Warmth, nostalgia.. Close to the soil. But far from concrete, polyurethene or silicone chips. None of the great issues of the decades he lived through are addressed by him other than obliquely. . London, Dublin Paris, New York, Teheran do not exist for him.Vietnam passed him by. Global warming merits no mention from him. Nor Chernobyl, racism, Central America, world hunger, colonialism, capialism communism, war, disease, pollution. He lives not so much in an Ivory tower as a booley hut. A delightful anachronism, akin to an craft fair or a classic car rally. So everyone is quite happy to be associated with him. Martin McGuinness and Charles Saxe-Coburg Gotha Mountbatten Windsor. He is no threat to either of them. Not often I agree with Eamonn Dunphy. But when he says Heaney is a good poet but not a great one, I say amen.

    • Jude Collins July 3, 2017 at 7:06 pm #

      Now that’s what I’d call an eloquent not to say elegant response. I’m still not convinced, mind you – not totally. We expect writers to engage with the great public issues of the day; many writers in the past just engaged with being a human being. I don’t think Patrick Kavanagh, for example, was particularly into public themes; and there are writers who are less effective when they engage with public areas they feel strongly about. But hey – what about adding a bit to what you’ve said and putting it up as a blog here? Comments (sometimes mercifully) get lost, whereas blogs are more headline. You will you will you will…It’s a very absorbing topic – at least I think so. And I suspect you too.

  7. Jude Collins July 3, 2017 at 7:07 pm #

    PS Though what Eamon Dunphy would know about poetry could be written on a tomtit’s arse and still leave room for the Lord’s Prayer…

  8. Brian Patterson July 3, 2017 at 7:47 pm #

    I think that the comparison with Kavanagh was very good, Jude. (That rhymes!) In fact I wish I had said that! A good poet, but not a great one. As regards a blog, well this is actually my favourite blog because not only are there great contributors like Donal Kennedy. and Perkin Warbeck, but it is such a DEMOCRATIC forum. The only things we need agree on decency, mutual respect and avoiding slander or libel. (Nelson McCausland take note) I do not think I could add much more to what I have already said about SH. He was a really nice man and a national treasure. But he has friends and living relatives whom I would not wish to offend further. De mortuis nihil nisi bonum.And what. I know about poetry could probably be written on a humming bird’s nipple. So at some stage I will blog here but not on this subject.

  9. michael c July 3, 2017 at 8:31 pm #

    Brian,Heaney lived 30 miles from Claudy and 40 from Derry,Fiosrach,Fr Joe does’nt need directions to Bellaghy’s republican graves.I have seen him there.

    • fiosrach July 3, 2017 at 11:01 pm #

      I would know that, Michael c.

  10. Brian Patterson July 3, 2017 at 10:15 pm #

    Michael only in the north of Ireland could 30 miles and 40 miles (38.8 actually) be considered another time zone. Same county, man.

  11. michael c July 3, 2017 at 10:19 pm #

    Heaney lived nearer to Belfast.

  12. Brian Patterson July 3, 2017 at 10:32 pm #

    Nearer to Belfast? Wow! Big whoop shit!!! (He did not write about the Ballylmurphy massacre or the Abercorn either)

  13. Brian Patterson July 3, 2017 at 11:10 pm #

    Nearer to Belfast? Wow! Big whoopy shit!!! (He did not write about the Ballylmurphy massacre or the Abercorn either)

  14. Brian Patterson July 4, 2017 at 9:43 am #

    Ps. My unpredictable “predictive” text arbitrarily changed “Aosdána” to “Soda”. These two terms should not of course be confused. One is a somewhat amorphous bland phenomenon with limited culinary and digestive application. Largely inert uness stirred, heated or dissolved and mostly devoid of flavour or fibre. The other is used for baking traditional Irish bread.

  15. michael c July 4, 2017 at 4:29 pm #

    Brian,Heaney wrote “the road to Derry” and “casualty” both about Bloody Sunday”.

    • Tír gan teanga... July 4, 2017 at 6:45 pm #

      And in Station Island he deals with the murder of William Strathearn in Ahoghill.

  16. Tír gan teanga... July 4, 2017 at 6:41 pm #

    Damn you Patterson! I have been googling soda + Charlie Haughey to see what I had missed! I too visited the Heaney home place recently. It happened to be on my late mother’s birthday. Big mistake. Ended up an emotional wreck! Heaney’s ability to describe the ordinary yet make it resonate on a personal basis to the reader is what makes him exceptional. He stands for us all. I only regret that I never met the man who taught at my school. I was born too late!