On Hearing of the Death of Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney_hiresAn anecdote, about an accidental meeting with Heaney, by BERNARD NEWSOME. This is another contribution to Tinteán‘s multi-strand tribute to the late Seamus Heaney.

Ed.: Is Newsome documenting an early episode in the life of  Field Day, the collective that transformed Northern Irish writing for the stage and page?

Did you know that my one and only meeting  with Heaney was so intense that it is still vivid?

Do you agree that when poetry and music meet and match, the magic of the senses release the greatest of satisfactions?

Did you think the greatest of these is when the musician performs the music of a poem written especially for him to set the music?

The context for the occasion: complexities abound

In 1970-72 I was the director of a project funded by the Schools’ Council (a funding body in Great Britain which supported research into the practices of schools in the teaching of and learning of the curriculum) on English in the Middle Years of Schooling 8-13. The project was thought to be important because some of the Local Authorities in the country were changing the pattern of schooling to separate a primary/secondary organisation into a tripartite primary/middle/secondary one.

The project was to be carried out in England and Northern Ireland, and the funding provided for two staff, myself and a primary school specialist (Margaret Mallett), a secretary, and a limited amount for travel to schools. 42 schools were in the project, equally split between primary, middle and secondary schools.

One of those was Orangefield Boys School, Belfast, Northern Ireland. It had come to the notice of many English teachers that this school had something very special going for it. During the ’60s and’70s, a national newspaper, the Daily Mirror, sponsored a national Children’s Literary Competition, ‘Children as Writers’. The school’s entries stood out for the number of pieces chosen to be prize winners, and for the quality of those entries. What was the secret? That was the reason the school was chosen.

You could bet that it had something to do with the teachers. Two of them were David Hammond and Sam McCready, whose post-English teaching careers are outstanding in the maintenance and the development of Irish Culture. Hammond became an outstanding broadcaster of programmes for schools for the BBC in Northern Ireland, and McCready succeeded as a director in the theatre and as a playwright.

So, to the point.

I and the chairman of the steering Committee, Professor James Britton, were invited to run an in-service programme over a weekend in Belfast, to share with the English teaching community insights which were being thrown up in our enquiry. The Saturday was a lively affair, because the teachers present were from both Protestant and Catholic schools. Those into the politics of the time will know that in most respects, Belfast was a divided city where there were strictly ‘no go’ areas for members of both faiths. In that respect, one could only applaud Jim Holland, our contact member, for managing to get a mix of religions in the same room. One might even suppose that the responsibilities which schools and teachers have for educating the children might be a platform to bring about reconciliation. That, however, was not our brief.

We duly ran the programme based on written examples and accounts of classroom practices, and I do remember a moment in a Sam McCready classroom when the pupils were about to write, saying something like this. ‘Now remember, that spelling and punctuation, you know, the grammar, is important, but that’s not the most important. What you have to try for is to get the feeling into the work, to make your reader know the impact on you of what you are writing about.’ Perhaps, this is a simple way of encouraging the formulating and the presentation of the self in written communication between writer and reader.

At the end of the day, Jimmy and I were taken to a Protestant pub to meet a few other people in the education industry. We were introduced, but I can only be certain that Holland was there as our host, and the headmaster of Orangefield school, John Malone. There were eight there altogether. The first thing that was said, was “Will you take a Bush?” This mystery was resolved when the asker went to the bar and returned with shots of Bushmills Irish Whisky for the eight at the table. The question was repeated seven more times, which resulted in eight shots of whisky in front of all participants. Well oiled, I’d say, for most, but I had never been a whisky drinker before.

I can remember hardly a thing about that gathering, except that John Malone, that very afternoon, had hosted a meeting at his school for six-formers from his own school, and others around, including Catholic schools, in order to discuss ‘The Troubles’, no doubt believing that some of the conflict might be resolved by putting it into an education context. It turned out to be an unhappy event because the Catholic pupils left the meeting at half time.

We subsequently found ourselves in someone’s house, at about nine o’clock, when I know that Jamie Hammond and Seamus Heaney were present, and the conversation had turned towards discussing the importance of what we then called the ‘Spectator Role’, that is, the writing and reading of literature, which was a specialty of the English department of that school.

And then the magic moment. Hammond got out his guitar, Heaney cleared his throat, and recited his poem, ‘Victorian Guitar’, which he had written for Hammond, who owned the instrument which he held in his hands. As Heaney recited the poem, Hammond gave the guitar ‘the time of its life’.

I know that the pub we were staying in was partly destroyed the next week by an IRA bomb.

BERNARD NEWSOME is an educator.

 PostScript

Sam Macready responded to Bernard’s memory of this event in these terms:

Thank you so much for sharing your story with me.  How special it was that you had the opportunity to meet Seamus that evening and in the company of another extraordinary man, John Malone.  No, I was not there that evening but I remember so well the conversation we had at the school and your warm response to my lesson.  I can’t remember what I might have said but your quote, I think, captures the essence of what I/we were about at Orangefield.  We encouraged the students to express who and what they were, to share what was unique in their own lives and experiences, and not to regurgitate thoughts and feelings gleaned from others.  And interesting one of the students whose work impressed you was Brian Keenan, later a hostage in Beirut, who has written a wonderful book on his experiences, An Evil Cradling, in addition to other fine books, among them a memoir in which he speaks warmly about John Malone and myself.  Another student in the class you saw was Gerald Dawe, now Professor of English at Trinity College, Dublin, and a major Irish poet.

I have written about the time I spent with you in my own memoir, Baptism by Fire, published by Lagan Press.