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Rhyme & Reason

Seamus Heaney


IRELAND is the only country in the world to have produced three Nobel Prize winners for literature who come from the same city – Yeats, Shaw and Beckett.

The late Seamus Heaney wasn't going to let the Dubs away with this when he proceeded to win a Nobel Prize himself, which proved a fine draw for Derry when the European City of Culture took place there last year.

It was in Dublin in the Arts Club that I first met Seamus Heaney in September, 1970. He was with his wife Marie and I invited them back home for a drink afterwards. Seamus was pleasantly amused that though I didn't drink myself I had wine, whiskey, gin et al for the guests.

I asked him about the teaching career he had embarked on. Was it likely to harm his poetry?

"When I teach creative writing I give away only my soft side. I keep the dangerous side for writing," he said.

He talked of the Enlightenment at the end of the 18th century. After 1789 it was beginning to take root in Ireland. But Seamus believed it died with the Act of Union in 1800, which demolished the Irish parliament and transferred it to Westminster.

He ended the evening by giving a vivid imitation of Leo Rowsome, the famous Uilleann piper pummelling his instrument to draw from it the precise sound he wanted.

A favourite Heaney poem is The Diviner, in which he deals with the almost magic power that few have, to discover with a hazel stick, water beneath the earth.

Take the last three words of the poem "the hazel stirred". On their own nothing out of the ordinary, but harnessed by Heaney through his rhythmic verbal score, they come over with an orchestral crack, almost making us feel the current received by the diviner, running through our arms.