First Look: Inside the stunning new Seamus Heaney HomePlace
Published 30/09/2016 | 01:00
A brilliant new building has opened in Bellaghy, Co. Derry, celebrating the life and work of Seamus Heaney.
Seamus Heaney HomePlace is at once a beautifully simple and breathtakingly ambitious undertaking for a small, off-radar Northern Irish town.
But of course, Bellaghy was never off-radar to the poet. In his formative years, this undulating Derry landscape was the centre of Heaney's universe.
"It's all very well seeing it on paper, but nothing prepares you for how you feel walking into the place," says Catherine Heaney, his daughter (see galleries below).
The £4.25 million (€4.9m) building, which opens to the public today, is a fitting and forward-thinking celebration of one of Ireland's greatest poets.
Entering a striking, white lobby, one's eyes are immediately drawn to two huge photographs of Heaney as an old man and in his youth (above).
Pass between them, and you enter the gallery: Man & Boy.
Inside, walls are crammed with photos of Heaney's family, his neighbours, the people who populate his poetry - from Barney Devlin and his tiny forge to Christopher Heaney, killed by a car in 1953 ("a four foot box, a foot for every year").
Artefacts like Heaney's original school desk (above) and bag root the room. Audio and video invite visitors to see what famous fans - including Bono, Mary Robinson and Stephen Fry - have to say about the man and his work.
But crucially, there are contributions from ordinary people too.
"Reading those childhood poems, you relive it... and marvel at how your childhood can be put in that nice language," as Hugh Heaney puts it.
Heaney's brother, Hugh still lives down the road - not far from Seamus's grave at St. Mary's Church (Heaney died after a short illness in 2013, aged 74).
Upstairs, the exhibitions grow more interactive - inviting visitors to dress up, to place a gold star before their favourite poem from 'Death of a Naturalist' (Mid-Term Break was miles ahead on my visit), and to leave notes on their experience.
Nearby, an interpretation of the poet's Dublin study includes film footage of reactions to his Nobel Prize win in 1995, and a fax machine reminds us that Heaney was in Greece at the time, unaware for two days of his achievement.
Make no mistake, however - HomePlace is no museum.
"A museum looks back," Brian McCormick, its manager, told me. "We wanted this centre to be much more forward-thinking."
HomePlace has a performance space - The Helicon. It boasts arts and education programmes, a library, and a year-long programme of shows based around the 12 volumes of poetry Heaney published in his lifetime.
Its official opening included performances by Paul Brady, readings by Stanley Townsend, and a specially-created piece of music, 'LifeCycle'.
"It's an opportunity for people to come and immerse themselves in the life and works in an accessible manner," McCormick says. "But also to get an insight into the man, what made him tick, and the people that were important to him."
Modestly, McCormick is aiming for 35,000 visitors in Year 1. Whatever happens, this tiny village seems set for a major profile boost.
HomePlace is a quality project with no obvious precedent in Ireland - museums and exhibitions devoted to Yeats in Dublin and Sligo, Kavanagh in Inniskeen, or Joyce and Shaw in the capital, do not enjoy purpose-built spaces.
"I hope visitors will have their curiosity sparked," Catherine Heaney says.
"I really do think it achieves what it set out to do. It illuminates the poetry and roots it in its landscape... I feel happy and proud."
In the months and years to come, the Mid Ulster District Council, which funded the bulk of the project, hopes to create trails of Heaney's 'HomeGround'.
Think of Lagan's Road, Moss Bawn, Devlin's Forge and Toner's Bog... places richly resonant in his poetry, and all within easy reach of Bellaghy.
Seamus Heaney Country is only getting started.
For more, see seamusheaneyhome.com.