When Seamus Heaney met the Queen: an appreciation of the Nobel prize-winning poet and his allegiance to people and places

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During coverage after Queen Elizabeth II’s death, the focus on her well-received visit to Ireland in 2011 contained one moment that caught me by surprise: film of her speech at Dublin Castle, once the centre of British power in Ireland, showed a figure sitting at the top table. Sandwiched between David Cameron, then prime minister, and the Duke of Edinburgh, was Seamus Heaney. The Nobel laureate of 1995 had obviously come on a political journey to dine with Her Majesty. Back in 1983, he had famously rebuked the editors of the Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry – in a friendly manner but in earnest – for including him among its authors. It was the label British that irked him:


     Don't be surprised

     If I demur, for, be advised,

     My passport's green.

     No glass of ours was ever raised

     To toast The Queen.


Those words were written in An Open Letter, for a Field Day pamphlet, a project started by Heaney’s good friend Brian Friel, the playwright and short-story writer, together with the actor Stephen Rea. Field Day started as a push to create a theatre for Northern Ireland away from Belfast but expanded into a wider cultural project. Heaney and three other poets joined the board to give it more heft. In 1991, Field Day produced its own anthology of Irish writers to counteract what it felt was British colonisation, not only of their land but also their literature: Jonathan Swift, Oliver Goldsmith, Richard Sheridan, Oscar Wilde and more recently Yeats and now Heaney himself were claimed as greats of English writing.

embedded image from entry 125407 But by 2011, Heaney, like everyone else in Dublin Castle that night, did raise a glass with or to the British monarch at what felt like a watershed moment in relations between the two countries.

It was not the first time that Heaney – often pressed to voice in poetry the nationalist position – had cause to rethink. In 1966, still only 27, he wrote ‘Requiem for the Croppies’, a powerful sonnet describing the 1798 rebellion, led mainly by Protestants, Wolfe Tone and Robert Emmet among others, that resulted in the savage rout of the rebels at Enniscorthy in Wexford. How many died in “the fatal conclave” on Vinegar Hill remains a matter of dispute, but Heaney wanted to register the nationalist cause in the Ulster battle lexicon, alongside the Boyne and the Somme. On a 1968 tour with Michael Longley and David Hammond, he read the poem regularly but by 1972, the deadliest year of the Troubles, the context had changed. “It was not written as a recruiting song for the IRA,” Heaney told Dennis O’Driscoll in Stepping Stones. And he put it aside.

This summer (2022) I visited Heaney’s HomePlace, the arts centre dedicated to his memory in Bellaghy, Co Derry, a trip I had been straining to complete since 2018. By luck we attended what turned out to be the inaugural Open Ground, a guided tour of his poetic landscape, complete with listening posts where relevant works from the Heaney archive can be heard. (There is a detailed account of it on Write Out Loud). 

It was a magical evening which illuminated his life in great detail. We walked along the Moyola river in Castledawson close to his first home, Mossbawn. The family moved to Bellaghy in 1954, the year after his brother Christopher’s death so movingly told in ‘Mid-Term Break’. We learnt that Patrick, Seamus’s father, whose parents died young, had been bought up by uncles, one of whom had bequeathed him a farm. The family moved to put the bad memory behind them.

We stopped in Magherafelt, where young Seamus caught the bus to St Colomb’s College in Derry City, saw the eelworks at Toomebridge close to Lough Neagh, where Heaney’s wife Marie grew up. But the high spot of the tour for me was our penultimate stop:


     The lowland clays and waters of Lough Beg,

     Church Island’s spire, its soft treeline of yew.


embedded image from entry 125410 You cannot help but focus on that church planted in the middle of a wetlands nature reserve. It tantalised us all because of its apparent inaccessibility. ‘The Strand at Lough Beg’, Heaney’s memorial to his cousin Colum McCartney killed in the Troubles in 1975, evokes the beauty of the place, which Seamus, Colum and Patrick visited regularly because they grazed cattle there.

One of the reasons Heaney’s work resonates with me is because I spent every summer of my childhood 350 miles south in west Cork where my father was reared. I lived with my aunt’s family in a house without electricity, the same as Seamus, collected drinking water from the well and delighted in the intricacies and intimacies of rural life. I also observed how agricultural rituals wove a tight, supportive community: they came together, Protestant and Catholic, to harvest the crops. Farmers’ daily trips to the creamery with milk were a useful forum for the exchange of news and good practice. London, where I lived, albeit in a strong urban Catholic parish, was already beginning to atomise. And Ireland’s culture of openness in dealing with illness and death provided a striking contrast with British attitudes.

Like Seamus, too, aunts and uncles and grandparents played a big part in my life, providing childcare for my parents but also teaching me that unmarried adults found roles for themselves within families. The first time I read ‘Mossbawn Sunlight’, about Seamus’s Aunt Mary, I was transported back to BallydebobLevis’s pub on a Saturday night in the 1950s getting ready for the shopping rush after mass on Sunday morning. That last verse – “And here is love like a tinsmith’s scoop sunk beyond its gleam in the mealbin” – triggers the sound of my aunts Julia and Nell scooping tea and sugar from giant chests into bags on the weighing scales. What a metaphor for abundance Heaney conjured from a shopkeeper’s everyday tool.

My favourite Heaney poems are about specific people  – his father, his mother, his friend Brian Friel, or his blind neighbour Rosie Keenan who sang sweetly throughout the day – because he describes them with great humanity, so measured and understanding, so often with a powerful last line that makes your sit up.

My only sadness about Seamus Heaney is whether he was a victim of his own success. Once he won the Nobel prize 1995, a phenomenal achievement, the pressure on him grew to write more, to perform, to lecture, to travel internationally, making it harder to control his own life. Many people have written that his affable nature made it difficult for him to refuse. Did that lead to his death in 2013 at the age of 74, after he had earlier suffered a stroke in 2006? What I am so grateful for is what he accomplished and that he put a small, rural area of Northern Ireland on the world map.


embedded image from entry 115102 Neil Levis is a retired journalist and secondary school teacher. Since leaving the Guardian in 2014, he has started a reading group among friends and developed his interest in poetry, particularly by Irish writers






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Neil Levis

Wed 28th Sep 2022 06:48

Thanks, Julian. I enjoyed doing it. I'm glad Greg nagged me to do it. Gently of course.

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M.C. Newberry

Tue 27th Sep 2022 17:04

Perhaps the reference to British/English writing about those
notable offspring of Ireland should be more accurately shown
as "British/English publishing", not least since they found their
full talent flowering within this country. G.B. Shaw was another example I recall.
The recent establishment of a Yeats memorial in London reminds us of the rich Anglo-Irish literary connection.

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Julian (Admin)

Mon 26th Sep 2022 13:06

Neil, thank you for this wonderfully woven piece of writing, reminding us of Heaney's humanity, erudition, literary genius and the complexities of his status; above all, of his exceptional poetry, whilst putting the whole within the context of Ireland's troubled history and dramatic landscape. This was a joy to read. I had never before considered that the pressure of the Nobel prize might have had such deleterious effects on his health. Tragic, if so. Thank you.

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