This morning I heard the very sad news about the death of Irish poet Seamus Heaney and I was absolutely not prepared for the impact it had. I love Heaney’s words and have done since we were read some of his poems in primary school and then studied them again in secondary school. I believe in his representation of Ireland and have given books of his work as presents to people who don’t know Ireland especially well so that they can get an idea of where I come from.
As a child the simplicity of the language made his work accessible and captivated my imagination. I can still taste in my mouth my disgust at Dan Taggart in Heaney’s The Early Purges. My 11-year-old self wasn’t prepared for the graphic images of drowning kittens and I remember being horrified for days afterwards because I also knew that it was true. I had seen my own grandfather drowning kittens because as Heaney puts it ‘…on well-run farms pests have to be kept down.’
As an adult, he brought clarity to the things about myself and about Ireland than were lurking in the unclear background of my mind. He presented a raw and unromanticised Ireland; an Ireland that felt closer to me than anything I’ve read in newspapers or seen on tv in the last few years where “real” stories are presented daily. His poems on nature, home, death & family present the Ireland I know and speak to my own experience. Mid-term Break is one of the most authentic accounts of the strange universe that is a family funeral. We all know and felt the acute embarrassment of having adults defer to us as children as we stand on that platform of family member but few people acknowledge that experience.
For years now, news reports of national successes and brilliant inflation rates, bankers and bailouts, recession and national debt are so remote, I can’t access them. The significance of the reports wash over my head with no identifiable meaning and yet just leafing through a book of Heaney’s poetry brings me right home to Tipperary and Irish family life.
His death feels like something especially significant at this moment in Ireland’s story. Personally I’ve been struggling with the loss of Ireland for the last few years due to living away. On hearing about Heaney’s death I immediately felt that loss sharper than I have done in some time. It feels like the end of something significant for Ireland and I’m upset not only by the passing of a husband and father and brilliant poet, but by the passing of a recognisable voice, a clear beautiful voice showing me my country. Over the last number of years working in the sector, I know first hand the brilliant work in the arts and culture in Ireland. And yet, Heaney’s passing feels like a moment to stand and assess, as a culture, where we are, how we got here and where do we go from here.