Foreword Autumn 2013
They asked me to write something about Seamus Heaney and I thought, 'Who am I to do that? Sure, he’d never heard of me and I never met him.’ Still, when he died I felt sorrow for the loss and referred to him as a great poet and fellow countryman and I recommended people read Beowulf. Then I thought, 'Maybe my reaction itself bears some scrutiny.’
Great poet, undoubtedly. Such men never really leave us. Fellow countryman? You take the Ahoghill Road from Ballymena through Portglenone to Bellaghy and it’s only about twelve miles. But twelve miles and fourteen years and Heaney’s Ulster was a bit different from mine. He was a Catholic from County Londonderry (which he would have called Derry). I was Ballymena Baptist with 'orange’ blood in my veins.
And why Beowulf?
Heaney was out and out, an Irish poet and I do not consider myself so. In Ulster parlance we dug with the opposite foot. So let us pick our way you and me, over this splintered field of broken green glass and find out what made us fellow countrymen.
I’d picked up Beowulf before and tried to read it, not in its original form of course. Much as I wanted to, I couldn’t get on with it at all. I’d studied French as Heaney did and it seems we’d both cut our teeth on Hopkins and Eliot at school. We had that in common. Heaney however had the benefit of learning Gaelic because his education as a Catholic was culturally Irish so he developed a broader linguistic palate. Yet for him the language of Ulster was riches enough.
When I picked up Heaney’s new translation and read: “Afterwards a boy-child was born to Shield, a cub in the yard, a comfort sent by God to that nation. He knew what they had tholed, the long times and troubles they'd come through I grinned. “tholed" is just the word I would have used but it apparently comes from an old English word that begins with a letter shaped like a thorn.
I read on.
“That was one good king"
I smiled again. Later on there was:
“hirpling with pain,-- and there was “blather," and “gumption," and “hoked," and I read on and on delighted by the little treasures of my past.
I read about the great hall:
“The hall towered,
its gables wide and high and awaiting
a barbarous burning. That doom abided,
but in time it would come:
the killer instinct unleashed among in-laws,
the blood-lust rampant."
and I knew that he was talking about all divided peoples everywhere.
It was only later that I read in the introduction where Heaney talked about his family, the Scullions and their voices and words that had woven their way into this poetic narrative. He wrote that:
“The place on the language map where the Usk and the uisce and the whiskey coincided was definitely a place where the spirit might find a loophole, an escape route from what John Montague has called, 'the partitioned intellect’
That struck a chord with me. I know the River Usk too having lived in Wales. But you see
I do not consider myself an Irish poet. I am not an English poet either. I could perhaps be termed a Scot in the original sense of that northern part of Ireland being where the Scots came from (the Picts being from Scotland). Maybe going back far enough, I could call myself Dalriadan, being from part of that ancient Northern Kingdom that encircled the Western Isles. There is this innate identity crisis in all subjugate peoples; divided loyalties, cultural chasms, religious rifts and it’s difficult to find where you stand in an entrenched landscape dug by history. As I have said before, “difference is very persistent in getting the upper hand'
Heaney promised he’d dig with his pen but for me he did more than that. There’s digging and digging. Some people dig nothing but dirt, others dig graves and there has been a lot of that in Ireland’s history. Seamus Heaney endeavoured, like so many of us, to be part of the solution not the problem. In digging deep within the roots of our language, he excavated for us a rare treasure; the key of a kingdom. He reinterpreted the map of, as he put it:
“that complex history of conquest and resistance, integrity and antagonism… ..that has clearly to be acknowledged by all concerned… if we are to move forward.
Well, I shifted my position a bit and I owe him that. For is it not true that no matter who we are, we have far more in common with each than the total sum of our differences? He did the spadework for me. I understood Beowulf and myself and my history a bit better and in the splintered landscape of broken green glass, I look up and there are the old signposts: Ahoghill, Portglenone, Bellaghy with such familiar sounds and maybe next time I'm home, I’ll visit.
Thank you my fellow countrymen at The Linnet’s Wings for the privilege of paying this little tribute.