A Citizen of the Republic of Conscience: Seamus Heaney and Northern Ireland

A FEATURE, part of our series celebrating a lifetime’s achievement by Seamus Heaney,

By Rebecca Pelan

Seamus Heaney, Nobel Laureate

Seamus Heaney, Nobel Laureate

Seamus Heaney’s death on 30 August 2013 evoked a level of public reaction that had not been seen in Ireland for a long time. His funeral, which took place on Monday, 2 September 2013 at the Sacred Heart Church, Donnybrook in south Dublin, was attended by dozens of mourners, including prominent representatives from politics and the arts, and was broadcast live on television and radio via RTÉ, the nation’s public service broadcaster. The day before the funeral, in a rare connection between the worlds of sport and literature, some 80,000 Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) fans, at an All-Ireland semi-final match between Dublin and Kerry, followed the observation of one minute’s silence with three minutes of applause. Heaney’s death took up headlines and column inches for days, while tributes from everyday people through to political leaders, of all colours, continued for some time. The passing of Seamus Heaney was, to all intents and purposes, an event of national significance in the Republic of Ireland. Yet Heaney was from Northern Ireland and, like most people from that part of the world, always remained connected to it, despite having lived in the Republic since 1972: ‘I am always in it [the north], in a way. I was just dwelling elsewhere’ (McCartney 2007). Heaney’s substantial creative output, from his earliest poetry to his interpretations of classical texts, reveals a writer who remained engaged with Northern Ireland and its politics throughout his entire literary career, but whose perspective expanded, over time, to take account of what he called ‘the disorders of the world’ (O’Driscoll 409).

Throughout his career Heaney traversed a difficult path between the realities of his life – what he came to call his ‘co-ordinates of consciousness’ (Heaney, 2004: 415) – and his belief in the imaginative potential of poetry to provide alternative solutions to political problems. At the heart of these ‘co-ordinates’ is Heaney’s idyllic childhood in rural south Derry and his acute awareness of growing up as a member of the minority nationalist (Catholic) community within the unionist – (Protestant) dominated six-county British Province of Northern Ireland at a time when the iniquitous political situation, which culminated in the conflict known as ‘the Troubles’, was relatively uncontested, but fermenting:[i]

When I began to write in 1962, one of my first attempts was a poem about Loyalist emblems cut into the stone pier beside Carrickfergus Castle… but what’s interesting to  me now is that I’d gone delving straight away into the sectarian seam of Northern life. At that stage I was a graduate with a job, a self-respecting adult of sorts, but I was still subject to the usual old Northern Ireland reminders that I’d better mind my Fenian  manners…. the whole gerrymandered life of the place seemed set to continue. (O’Driscoll 65)

Given the entirely reductive and unavoidable polarisations that occurred as a result of ‘the Troubles’, it is perhaps not surprising that Heaney’s journey from an unremarkable rural childhood in one of Northern Ireland’s most contentious border counties to that of the greatest Irish poet since W B Yeats has generated strong and often opposing views of his work, often based less on literary achievement than on grounds of political motivation. For hard-line Republicans, Heaney has always been far too reluctant to take sides; for moderate nationalists, his efforts to locate the violence in the North within historically-based atrocities was seen as a compromise of his creative principles; whilst for many hard-line unionists, Heaney is, without qualification, a Catholic/nationalist and, thus, political writer, whose loyalties are already fixed to one side of the conflict. John Wilson Forster, for example, viewing Heaney in a political, rather than a poetic context, stated in 1991 that:

Heaney has largely ignored the Protestant making of the north-east Ulster into its once-distinctive industriousness. … Heaney admires those who ‘beat real iron out’ but in Ireland it was most commonly the Ulster Scot who beat real iron out and who took  fierce pride in workmanship. I sometimes fear that in future Heaney and Ulster will  become synonymous, the way that Yeats and Ireland became synonymous for American scholars who took their Irish history from the poet.’ (177)

However, criticism of Heaney has by no means been limited to those from the ‘other’ community. Ciarán Carson, himself a Northern poet, nationalist and current Director of the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen’s University Belfast, accused Heaney in 1975 of having an ambivalent attitude towards the violence that was occurring in the North: Heaney, Carson said, ‘seems to have moved […] from being a writer with the gift of precision, to become the laureate of violence – a myth maker, an anthropologist of ritual killing, an apologist for the situation, in the last resort, a mystifier’ (Carson 183). Similarly, Northern Irish novelist, Robert McLiam Wilson, mercilessly satirised Heaney as a fence-sitting opportunist in his 1996 novel, Eureka Street:

Shague Ghintoss, the poet, had been awarded a knighthood and the Just Us party’s very first Hero of the Revolution Award. This unfortunate conjunction had caused him some unease until a fresh-faced young hack had asked him whether he was going  to accept both awards as some kind of pan-ecumenical gesture, an attempt to build bridges between the divided traditions. Ghintoss’s eyes had gleamed suddenly. ‘Yes’,  he had said. ‘Funny you should mention it.’ (190)

As evidenced in his work as well as in his theories on the role of poetry in society, Heaney stands a good distance from the kind of cynical engagement with the political world that McLiam Wilson suggests and is equally distant from any aesthetic notion of creativity inevitably being damaged by engagement with politics. Instead, poetry represented for Heaney a suitable mediator between the political and aesthetic realms. The challenge, he believed, was to maintain a balance between keeping the creative work from playing to any one political agenda while, at the same time, maintaining the poet’s responsibility to carry out the work that needs to be done according to her or his own conscience (Vellino 49).

In  (1995), Heaney outlines his belief that:

In the activity of poetry . . . there is a tendency to place a counter-reality in the scales – a reality which may be only imagined but which nonetheless has weight because it is imagined within the gravitational pull of the actual and can therefore balance out against the historical situation. This redressing effect of poetry comes from it being a glimpsed alternative, a revelation of potential that is denied or constantly threatened by circumstances. (Heaney, 1995: 192. My emphasis)


Seamus Heaney, Poet

So much of Heaney’s oeuvre can be seen as a search to strike just such a balance, and this alone reveals him to be a much more complex and politically astute writer than many of his early critics would have had us believe. When imbalance entered the picture, which it often did, Heaney took steps to correct it. His poem ‘Requiem for the Croppies’ (1966), for example, was written to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the 1916 Easter uprising and commemorated the Irish rebels of 1798. It was, in Heaney’s terms, never meant to say ‘up the IRA or anything like that’. Rather, for Heaney, it was ‘silence-breaking rather than rabble-rousing’ (Rahim). Yet, despite having read the poem to Protestant and Catholic audiences alike, following the out-break of violent conflict in the early 1970s, Heaney ceased public readings of the poem in case the words should be misinterpreted as showing sympathy for IRA activity of the day:

The pockets of our greatcoats full of barley…
No kitchens on the run, no striking camp…
We moved quick and sudden in our own country. (Heaney, 2006: 27)

Heaney’s relationship with Northern Ireland, in all its complexities, both personal and political, is evident throughout his extensive body of poetry (approximately 13 main collections), the earliest of which focus on childhood relationships and pastoral themes, though within the rural, northern context of his own childhood. It is not really until his collections Wintering Out in 1972 – the year of the highest death toll in ‘the Troubles’, and the same year that Heaney and his family left Northern Ireland permanently to live in the Republic following threats against him and his family – and North in 1975, that Heaney’s explicit efforts to find a way to talk about the conflict in Northern Ireland within a broader humanistic context becomes evident. In both of these collections, Heaney reveals a new found interest in myth as a means of bypassing the crisis confronting both northern communities, and of finding a way to reconnect in a world beyond the raging sectarianism that existed: his attempt was to ‘make a connection … between things that came to the surface in bogs, in particular in Danish bogs, and the violence that was coming to the surface in the north of Ireland’ (Broadbridge, 1977). The attempt¸ however, brought mixed responses with many contemporary critics interpreting Heaney’s reach into the past as a refusal to engage with the realities of the present.

A 1980 meeting on a train from Belfast to Dublin between Heaney and Danny Morrison, then Sinn Féin’s publicity director, led Heaney to believe that he was the subject of renewed pressure from Sinn Féin to take sides in the Northern conflict.[ii] The meeting became the source of his poem The Flight Path:

For fuck’s sake, are you
Going to write something for us?
If I do write something,
Whatever it is, I’ll be
Writing for myself. (Heaney, 1996: 26)

Always cautious about being mistaken as a spokesman for republicanism and its associated violence, Heaney’s commitment to Irish nationalism never wavered, but neither did his belief in the importance of allowing poetry to do what he believed it did best, even in the face of severe criticism:

In one sense the efficacy of poetry is nil – no lyric ever stopped a tank. In another sense, it is unlimited. It is like the writing in the sand in the face of which accusers and accused are left speechless and renewed. (Heaney, 1998: 107)

In 1990, Heaney created a verse adaptation of Sophocles’ Philoctetes, which he titled The Cure at Troy, commissioned as a touring production by the Field Day Theatre Company in Derry, and which leaves no doubt about its connection to the politics and violence that had been occurring in the north for some twenty years at that stage.[iii] The Cure at Troy allowed Heaney to speak, not only about the politics of the north at a time when questions were being raised about the efficacy of any peace talks that did not include all political players, but also allowed him to widen his perspective to reference the politics of South Africa at a time when the apartheid regime was coming to an end, marked by the release of Nelson Mandela and his inclusion as a political protagonist rather than an antagonist. Sophocles’ original drama, Philoctetes, is set towards the end of the Greek-Trojan war and is centrally concerned with moral conflict. In adopting Sophocles’ theme of moral righteousness, Heaney suggests that political deception can never be justified, and that common ground outside of politics simply must be found if conflicts are to be resolved, themes that were very relevant to both the conflict in the north and to the situation in South Africa, where experience had shown that progress could not be made without all parties being given the opportunity to participate in a democratic solution to the sociopolitical problems that were haunting both places.

In the choral prologue of The Cure at Troy, Heaney stresses the role of poetry as being ‘the voice of reality and justice’ in expressing ‘terrible events’ (Heaney 1991:2). However, it was the addition of an entirely new choral ode to his version of the drama – or, rather, one verse of the ode, which was recited rather than sung – that has had the greatest long-term impact:

History says, don’t hope
On this side of the grave.

But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.

Though not the final lines of the lengthy choral verse, the words ‘where hope and history rhyme’ have achieved a fame all of their own. The premier of The Cure at Troy at the Guildhall in Derry in 1990 coincided with the election of Mary Robinson who quoted this section of the verse in her inaugural speech as the first woman President of Ireland; the core of the phrase also formed the title of Sinn Féin president, Gerry Adams’ memoir, Hope and History, in 1995, the year after the first IRA ceasefire since the start of ‘the Troubles’; American President Bill Clinton quoted the verse during a visit to Ireland during the peace initiative which led to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998; it became the title of anti-Apartheid campaigner and author, Nadine Gordimer’s essay collection, Living in Hope and History in 2000; and, most recently, it was quoted by Joe Biden, Vice President of the United States, during a memorial service for a policeman killed during the Boston marathon bombing of 2013. A copy of the ode, signed by Heaney, was also Martin McGuinness’ personal gift to Ian Paisley on the latter’s retirement as First Minister in the Power-sharing Assembly of Northern Ireland. Heaney’s response to the extensive use of the ode was characteristically modest: ‘I was grateful to see the lines enter the language of the peace process, but very aware that they belonged in the realm of pious aspiration’ (O’Driscoll 421).

Some fourteen years after The Cure at Troy, and with a substantial amount of poetry written in-between, Heaney wrote The Burial at Thebes (2004), his version of the classical tragedy Antigone, also by Sophocles, and commissioned by the Abbey Theatre, Dublin to mark its centenary celebrations. While both plays stay true to the originals in terms of themes and structure, the most significant difference in the way Heaney approached this play is in his representation of the politics of Northern Ireland and the wider world between 1990 and 2004 when the two plays were performed, respectively. This shift, I would suggest, is a useful gauge of Heaney’s own political perspectives over different periods. Heaney openly acknowledged that he should have done things differently in The Cure at Troy:

Once the performances started I came to realize that the topical references were a mistake. Spelling things out like that is almost like patronizing the audience…. So, when I came to do the Antigone [The Burial at Thebes] I kept much more strictly to the original (O’Driscoll 421).

The Burial at Thebes (2004) avoids any of the direct references to the situation in Northern Ireland that were so evident in The Cure at Troy, which is not to say that Heaney felt it was no longer relevant. Rather:

 Inner division of some kind is what delivers a lot of it. It didn’t have to be sought in Northern Ireland. You were handed that situation. To go back to Creon and Antigone,  nationalists – the minority within the state – were handling that question: to what extent your family or household gods were not recognised by the polis (the Greek body of artisans) and yet you were in the polis, getting your scholarships from them and reading   their literature. I don’t think I would claim any great hurt from that: it was a common situation. (McCartney)

Heaney did, however, weave into the play quite direct references to the Gulf wars and the invasion of Iraq by the United States, which had taken place in 2003, and included a sufficiently strong connection between Creon’s treatment of Polyneices in Sophocles’ original and that meted out in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay to avoid any misunderstanding that this was, in part, a commentary on current political crises. His response, when questioned about this, gives a very clear indication of the poet’s own shift in perspective that had occurred after living in America for a number of years:

Northern Ireland did have its coherent miseries, but what we have to deal with now are the disorders of the world… we are all citizens of the Republic of Conscience…. During fourteen years in Harvard, I learned about being in America, how different it felt and they felt; and two occurrences particularly registered as a result: firstly, the attack on the Twin Towers and, secondly, the Afghanistan and Iraq crackdowns. You cannot distinguish between your condition as a creature of the times and your action as a scribbler. (O’Driscoll 409)

Seamus Heaney will probably always be something of an enigma to those who want to pigeonhole him as simply one thing or another. He truly loved the English language and its literature, and retained the utmost respect for the Queen and the royal family, but he openly confessed that his refusal of the Poet Laureateship in 1999, following the death of Ted Hughes, was largely a political decision, and he left no doubts about his objection to being included in The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry in 1982:

Don’t be surprised if I demur, for,
Be advised
My passport’s green,
No glass of ours was ever raised
To toast the Queen.

(“An Open Letter”. Heaney, 1985: 25)[iv]

And what some might see as his contradictory behaviour continued to the end. In late 2012, the nationalist-dominated Belfast City Council introduced its new flag policy, allowing the Union flag to be flown only on designated days, such as royal birthdays, rather than as a permanent feature of buildings such as the Belfast City Hall. The decision was met with months of serious protest by unionists and loyalists. Heaney, who was always very clear about which side he came from in the north’s political divide – ‘it would be untrue to say that I was without a Catholic self-awareness’ (O’Driscoll 66) – entered the flag debate in January 2013, by stating that: ‘they [loyalists] have an entitlement factor …the flag is part of it. There’s never going to be a united Ireland, so why don’t you let them fly the flag’ (McAleese).

Heaney was a writer with very clear nationalist sentiments, an abhorrence of violence of any kind, and a tolerance for his Protestant compatriots in Northern Ireland. Above all else, however, he was a firm believer in the potential of the poetic imagination to heal wounds and offer alternative solutions to intransigent political problems.


[i] Throughout this essay, I am using the terms ‘Catholic’/‘Protestant’ and ‘unionist’/’nationalist’ loosely, to represent origins in relation to the two communities of Northern Ireland, rather than to suggest any strictly religious or political affiliation.

[ii] Heaney’s interpretation of this meeting is quite different from that of Morrison’s. See, Henry McDonald, ‘Strangers on a Train: Heaney and Sinn Féin’. The Guardian/Observer 15 Feb. 2009. www.theguardian.com. Accessed 2 Feb. 2014.

[iii] For a full and detailed analysis of Heaney’s versions of Sophocles’ plays, see Brenda Carr Vellino, ‘Seamus Heaney’s Poetic Redress for Post-Conflict Societies’. Peace Review: A Journal of Social Justice 20. 1 (2008): 49-57. 

[iv] Though, in fact, Heaney’s first passport was not green: “Applying to Dublin wasn’t even thought about… it was a sufficiently testing bureaucratic achievement for us to get the forms to Belfast. Convenience and unease were there in equal measure with the lion and the crown.” (O’Driscoll 86)


Dr Rebecca Pelan

Rebecca taught Literary Studies and Feminist Studies at the Universities of Queensland, Coleraine, University College Galway and University College Dublin. She is Northern Irish born and bred within the Protestant community.