A feature by Micheal Boyle
In May 1993 Seamus Heaney gave the annual Pratt lecture at Memorial University of Newfoundland in St John’s. Later that evening in the cozy atmosphere of The Ship Inn in downtown St John’s I had a chat with my former teacher.
I had attended St Joseph’s College of Education in Belfast from 1963 -1966 and my English teacher was of course the young Seamus Heaney who like me came from a small farm in South Derry. The College known locally as the ‘The Ranch’ was perched at the top of the Falls Road. It was a teacher training college for Catholic male students in Northern Ireland and it seemed like a cross between a medium security prison and a Trappist monastery.
The lanky Heaney wore a black gown several sizes too small for him. His enthusiasm and love of language entranced me for three academic years and every Easter he staged and directed ‘Everyman’ . Even though we only had attended College for six weeks we were all assigned teaching practice. Imagine my surprise in the first week when my gangling English teacher, dressed in grey suit and carrying his brown leather brief case, strode into the back of the classroom.
Without any introduction I jumped right into my lesson so quickly that I put all my attention to the half a dozen students in the first row. Meanwhile there was total bedlam with the thirty five other students in the rest of the classroom. I knew I had made a real mess of it and afterwards Seamus sat down with me, though it looked to me he had made no notes during his evaluation. He paused for a while. ‘Mickey’ he said in a low slow voice and he paused again. ‘Let me tell you one important thing,’ I was sweating and waiting to hear the worst but Heaney continued. ‘Mickey. Make the silence speak before you ever open your mouth. In other words never speak to a class or make presentation until you have their complete and undivided attention. Always be listening and looking around the classroom.’ At eighteen years of age I was overwhelmed by my pathetic performance and I think Seamus sensed that even though he was hardly any more than twenty three years of age himself. ‘Now for God’s sake, don’t worry, for I know when you leave College you can get a position anywhere.’ He continued. ‘Oh before I forget. Did you play for Lavey against Bellaghy in the Derry Championship last Sunday or was that your brother Brian?’
At ‘The Ship’ hotel we chatted about ‘the Ranch’ and Seamus wondered how long I had been living in Newfoundland. Even though I have left Ireland for a good number of years, our family contacts were strengthened greatly by my late brother Pearse who was a great friend of Dan, Anne and all the Heaney family
Once I had asked my brother Pearse to get Seamus to sign his most recent book of poetry for me, but Heaney was out of the country and I got the book in the mail with the inscription.’Seamus is not available. Best wishes Anne Heaney.’ My mother tells the story that one summer she met Seamus’ mother at the bus station in Magherafelt and she told her that Seamus was going to Queen’s University and that he had already he had read all his books for the upcoming term.
Seamus’ father Paddy Heaney was a well known cattle dealer who attended all the local markets and sometimes in the summer his sons would come along. Paddy Heaney was a man of few words but he had a sharp wit. My brothers and I played Gaelic football against our neighbouring rivals, Bellaghy Wolfe Tones which included the Heaneys. In College Heaney often prophetically quoted Yeats, ‘Irish poets learn your trade’. Other times he gave my friends and me a direct challenge. ‘Some of you boys from South Derry are nothing but a bunch of philistines if you can’t appreciate or get a feeling for poetry!’ In fact once I submitted a feeble poetic attempt called ‘Erica’ dealing with bog cotton. Oh I really loved how he could read poetry with such conviction and he had a really infectious belly laugh and big grin.
He has by his readings made poetry accessible to a wider audience. He gave a voice to County Derry at a time well before ‘The Troubles’ when Dublin, London and America seemed so far away.
In South Derry we lived on a small farm on the foothills of the Sperrin mountains and we walked and herded our cattle to the nearest fair in Bellaghy. When we reached the fair it was like a circus playground of activity and excitement for my older brother and myself . During the course of the fair after the animals were sold, my father ,Paddy Joe Boyle, and Paddy Heaney and others could be found having a bottle of stout or two in Breslin’s Bar on Main Street. All the younger folk would now roam around the stalls and quickly spend what little money we had on lemonade and sweets. My brother Sean and I dodged and weaved through the cattle yard playing hide and seek. Then we saw the Heaney boys and Seamus for the first time – in Scullin’s cattle yard in Bellaghy.
As a fellow South Derry person the loss of Seamus Heaney is a personal one and it is the loss of the soul and spirit of Ireland. As well his passing is felt in the global community. So, it is difficult to express or grasp this all, but in the Irish language there is an apt expression to describe Seamus Heaney the man and his poetry. ‘Ní bheidh a leithéidí aris ann.’ – We shall never see his like again.
Micheal Boyle writes from St John’s Newfoundland.
He has taught history and geography in a number of out port schools before coming to St John’s. Michael has a BA and M ED degrees from Memorial University Newfoundland. He has had an honorable mention in the 2001 Newfoundland Arts and Letters (Andy’s Prayer Book) and he is working towards his first collection of poems (The Changeling). In 1998 he retired from teaching and he operates a unique and famous historical walking tour in the old seaport city of St John’s.