Tuesday 15 October 2019

Maurice Hayes: Heaney's insightful gift that just keeps on giving

Seamus Heaney
shows Taoiseach
Enda Kenny some
of the papers he has
gifted to the
National Library of
Ireland
Seamus Heaney shows Taoiseach Enda Kenny some of the papers he has gifted to the National Library of Ireland

The Gift of the Mage: the singular form loses perhaps some of the magic of the original, diminished further by a 15-minute journey from Sandymount to Merrion Square instead of a camel-trek across Persia from the outer reaches of the known world.

There can have been few Christmas gifts more precious, more generous and indeed more essentially patriotic than Seamus Heaney's decision to present his papers to the National Library of Ireland. It was characteristic too that he should deliver the trove himself, packed in cardboard boxes, in the back of the family car, "No porters. No interpreter. No taxi".

Unlike the Magi in Eliot's luminous poem, he did not have trouble with camels, galled, sore-footed, refractory, or with fractious drivers fighting about liquor and women on the short journey through inner-city Dublin.

There must be something in the Derry air which has enabled two past pupils, and near contemporaries, from the same school, to win a Nobel Prize, and something even more special which programmes them to public spirit and to giving it away again. Much is made of Yeats' "How much?" response to the news of his award: John Hume donated his prize to charity through the Salvation Army and St Vincent de Paul.

Heaney, no less generously, has given a treasure of inestimable value (although competing American universities could soon put a substantial price tag on it) to the Irish nation -- an act of practical patriotism if ever there was one.

Seamus Heaney's greatest gift has been, while elevated to the stratosphere of critical acclaim and international fame, to have remained firmly earthed in the soil of Ireland, and particularly of his native south Derry.

His great contribution has been to make poetry ordinary by writing extraordinary poems, to have taken poetry out of the ivory tower and back to the farm, the street and the market-place, so that it becomes a proper interest and profession for young people and not the preserve of the precious and the pedantic.

Heaney, and he is not alone in this, has been an almost vatic voice in asserting the role of the poet and the artist in a society that has lost its way.

Like the water-diviner in his poem, the artist can catch the vibrations of the subterranean currents that presage the tide of events, and can, by holding hands, help the less perceptive masses to do so too. At a time when there is a gaping void in leadership in this country and across Europe, for want of courage and conviction, passion and imagination, it may well fall to the poet and the artist to fill it.

The high peaks in society are all filled with men who are not quite up to the job (sadly they are mostly men) lacking courage and conviction, passion and imagination, and the pillars of society in politics, religion and banking have crumbled.

People have lost faith in traditional leaders and institutions and, lacking direction, society could easily spin out of kilter.

IN this crisis, the insights of the poet and the philosopher may be of more value as a moral compass in finding a route back to a stable society than the BlackBerry and the opinion poll of the economist and the politician. There is a level of reality which can be accessed through the antennae of the poetic imagination which may well be fundamental to finding ourselves again as a nation facing the future and dealing with the past.

In Ireland, as the exchanges in the presidential election showed, there is a burgeoning, if unacknowledged, debate on the very nature of Irishness, on the linkage between State and nation, on the foundation narrative of the State itself, the location of an identity with which most can be comfortable and which can accommodate a history that is at once shared and contested. This is a more important debate than a constitutional convention which will concentrate on forms and institutions, on parcelling out the fruits of office and concreting in situ the sort of politics that got us into trouble in the first place.

It is a fortunate accident of fate that the Aras is now occupied by a President who is himself a poet, which places him in a unique position to marshal the army of the imagination and the arts in the search for social solidarity, a sense of purpose and political renewal.

These would not be recruited as pseudo-legislators or administrators, but as pathfinders of the spirit, like the haw lantern in Heaney's poem "keeping the wick of self-respect from burning out".

It would certainly be a better role for the President than opening bazaars in village halls or reviewing armed guards of honour. The poets might be better companions than the politicians in the search for a new form of politics, a new ordering of the relations between citizen and State which would carry the confidence and trust of most as being fair and equitable, open and transparent, based on merit and free from cronyism, and which would replace the crumbling certainties of church and commerce.

They might, in the end, lead a disillusioned people towards a new Republic of Conscience, where, Heaney averred, public leaders, at their inauguration must weep to atone for the presumption to hold office.

There are many in Ireland, and in Europe, who should be weeping even now -- who took office on promises not yet fulfilled where they have not already been broken, and who crucially have failed to make the difference which the people were led to expect when they empowered them.

Not even a Mage could manage that.

Irish Independent

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