A RECOLLECTION by Danny Cusack
Reproduced with permission from The Journal, the Australian Irish Heritage Association (WA) quarterly.
In the summer of 1985, soon after my first move to Ireland, I attended the International Association for the Study of Anglo-Irish Literature (IASAIL) conference in Belfast. On the closing day a small man in his mid-60s came over to me and introduced himself on the strength of his having heard that we shared the same surname. The man was Tom Cusack, a native of Castlewellan Co. Down who was living in Belfast. He had recently retired as a lecturer in Anglo-Irish Literature at the University of Ulster, Jordanstown campus.
He invited me to visit himself and his wife in their home at 16 Ashley Avenue, just off the Lisburn road, not far from Queens University. He informed me that Séamus Heaney and his wife Marie had once lived in that house. Before leaving town, I did get to visit Tom and Gladys Cusack. And again on a couple of further occasions on subsequent visits to Belfast. Then one day in 1989 I rang the house to be informed by Gladys that Tom (in his late 60s) had died. ‘He just give couldn’t give up the fags’, she said.
My visits to the ramshackle and somewhat unkempt two storey house had been interesting and pleasant experiences nonetheless. On one occasion I met their actor son Niall who nowadays can often be seen in Irish film productions (including the occasional Irish language one). At the time I met Niall Cusack he was active in the Campaign for Labour Representation in Northern Ireland and subsequently ran unsuccessfully as an Independent Labour candidate for the Northern Ireland Assembly after the 1998 Good Friday agreement.
This leads to a story I tell against myself. On my visits to Tom and Gladys conversation inevitably got around the Troubles. The nearby pub at the corner of Ashley Avenue and Lisburn Avenue had been burnt out in the 1970s. Tom informed me that on another occasion a bullet had appeared in the wall of the upstairs bedroom.
When we got on to more overtly political matters I picked up a surprising tone in his remarks: not only were they anti-republican and anti-Sinn Féin but apparently anti-nationalist and anti-SDLP. I had already gathered that Tom’s politics were generally left-wing; so I interpreted his comments as reflecting a Workers Party stance, or such-like. When I defended SDLP leader John Hume as ‘the meat in the sandwich’ (between militant republicans and militant loyalists) Tom promptly shot back with customary Northern wit: ‘Aye, and he thinks he’s the mustard too!’
Eventually the penny dropped. Because almost all the Cusacks and I had ever met (including my own relations) were Catholic I had automatically presumed that Tom was of the same persuasion. This assumption had been unconsciously reinforced by the fact that he had been a lecturer in literature. I had internalised the stereotyped image which associated Catholics with literature and the humanities, Protestants with science and technology.
The Cusacks of Castlewellan were obviously Protestant. The fact that Tom’s wife was named Gladys should have alerted to me to the truth of the situation from the outset. But you live and learn. Thereafter my sectarian-religious antennae were more finely attuned.
Much of the mystique of 16 Ashley Avenue for me centred on the fact that it had once been the home of Séamus and Marie Heaney. The young couple lived here between 1968 and 1972, whereupon they took the historic decision to move south – to Glanmore in County Wicklow. They then let the house to students before eventually selling it four years later, in 1976. It was purchased by Tom and Gladys Cusack. Tom, who of course shared his predecessors’ predilection for poetry and literature, was able to tell me a little about the Heaneys’ time here. Their second son Christopher had been born not long after they moved in.
For my part, I was thrilled to be able to stand in the return room on the landing which had been Séamus’s study and to imagine him writing some of his early collections of poetry there. His second collection Door into the Dark (1969) and third collection Wintering Out (1972) were published during that time.
It wasn’t until some twenty-five years later when I read Stepping Stones, Dennis O’Driscoll’s monumental collection of interviews with Heaney, that I was set right on one point. In a brief discussion of their time at Ashley Avenue Heaney revealed that whereas the return room was his ‘study of sorts’ he had in fact ended up doing most of his writing downstairs in the front sitting-room on a makeshift desk: ‘two tea chests supporting a big flush door that David Hammond [the singer and musician] had got at one stage when Burtons – the tailors – were renovating their premises on Royal Avenue’.(Dennis O’Driscoll, author of Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney, Faber and Faber, London, 2008, p.116). O’Driscoll, who died prematurely on Christmas Eve 2012, aged 58, was a very fine poet in his own right. A voluminous reader, he was widely regarded as the person who knew more than anyone else in Ireland about poetry. A native of Thurles Co. Tipperary, he had lived in Dublin for many years and worked as a civil servant. He was oftimes referred to by those in the trade as the only Irish poet with a ‘real job’.
Heaney also revealed that while they had older residents as neighbours, there were also ‘artist and bohemian sorts’ mixed in with them. And although 1968-72 was the height of the Troubles, Seamus seemed to have fond memories of ‘very good times’ at Ashley Avenue: ‘Late nights with a lot of singing. Painters and poets to-ing and fro-ing’. Visitors included the aforementioned Davy Hammond, and poets John Hewitt and Ted Hughes, to mention but a few.
In the summer of 2010, exactly twenty five years after my original meeting with Tom Cusack, I was in Belfast again; this time for the Australian-Irish Studies conference at Queens University. And once again I was staying in the college residence, Elm Hall, not far from campus. One evening I decided to take a walk down to Ashley Avenue to see whether I could find the house that I had visited several times those many years ago. I couldn’t. The streetscape had altered. Building work had taken place in the vicinity of where No. 16 should have been and I had difficulty identifying the exact location. I was disappointed.
Only after Heaney died in August 2013 did an article published in a northern newspaper reveal the truth of the situation. Some years earlier developers had apparently taken on to demolish No. 16 and neighbouring houses as part of a redevelopment project. Séamus and others had fought a rearguard action to preserve No. 16 but lost.
Sadly, 16 Ashley Avenue Belfast BT9 survives only as a memory for the Heaneys and Cusacks – and many others.
West-Australian born Danny Cusack completed a Ph.D at Murdoch University in 2002 on Meath-born West Australian senator Paddy Lynch. He has lived and worked in Ireland as a freelance historian for several decades. He is available to undertake research projects, including family history, and does much research for Australian-based historians, academics and writers. He also has a keen interest in Irish literature, especially poetry. Whilst living in Melbourne in the early 1980s he began one of the earliest discussion groups in Australia on Heaney’s poetry. He now lives in Kells, Co. Meath can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org.