MY friend Mike Dwyer recalls meeting the late Séamus Heaney and the playwright Brian Friel at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts.
It must have been in 1990 or ’91, as all were present for the launch of the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing. The college houses an impressive Shovel Museum, to which the three Irishmen were irresistibly drawn. Heaney took down the shovel that most resembled those he had handled as a youth at Mossbawn — the family farm in Co Derry — and struck it on the floor, exclaiming, “Hear it sing!”
Heaney’s passing in August was an immeasurable loss to our culture. His verse was loved the world over, from Oxford, where he served as Professor of Poetry, to Harvard, where he was Poet in Residence, to Stockholm, where, in 1995, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for his “works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past”.
Heaney’s love of language can surely be attributed to the vernacular of County Derry as much as to his voracious reading. From his very first volume of poetry, Death of a Naturalist, to his last, Human Chain, he mined his childhood for inspiration, and his efforts paid rich dividends.
Perhaps it is these lines from an early poem, ‘Personal Helicon’, that best describe why artists create in the first place: “I rhyme / To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.”
Our best hope for the arts sector in Ireland in 2014 is that it will aspire to the same high standards as Heaney set in his life and work. The music in the poetry he forged rang out as keenly as the peal of that shovel-blade on stone all those years ago in Easton, Massachusetts. Heaney’s enduring achievement is that he set the darkness echoing for so many years to come.
— Marc O’Sullivan, Arts Editor