On a Wednesday morning early I took the road to Derry

Along Glenshane and Foreglen and the cold woods of Hillhead

Seamus Heaney: The Road to Derry

It’s almost always personal. My latest poetry blogpost for Sceptical Scot provides a selection of five poems for the General Election. I wanted to balance the persistent drumbeat of divisive politics with different voices.  I kept more intimate feelings to myself.

The voices of human kindness and reasoned compassion. They are there when we get the chance to listen.  I chose five poems and songs by Kathleen Jamie, Hamish Henderson, Simon Armitage and Jackie Kay; an unashamedly personal selection. I was seeking words by women and men, for a tone and mood set by Seamus Heaney; not bound by borders.

The words follow me home. They emerged again at the start of this peculiarly unnerving general election. 

Don’t Be Afraid

I kept to myself a more intimate reaction to the Listen Now Again Heaney exhibition we visited in Dublin. A deep, stomach-turning sensation I hadn’t been prepared for when we walked through the door of the Bank of Ireland heritage centre in June this year. Brexit departure quite recently delayed. An irrational hope in the air – sense might prevail.

And there was the case displaying newspaper cuttings from the harsh years leading up to the Good Friday Agreement. The alternating hope and despair.  I sat on a bench with a nun who told me how moved she was by Heaney and his words when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995 – almost three years before peace officially broke out over the Irish border – the award made for his “works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past”.

Newspaper story of the Good Friday Agreement and the Lost Years

The weight of two buckets

There was something smaller and more insistent inside me.  A curious sense of familiarity, as we walked through miracles of everyday life in Ulster.  Heaney was a County Derry man, a son of a farmer, a Catholic balanced between North and South, a poet of eloquently powerful plurality.  His words ripple with the well-honed muscular balance of a man who had learned from an early age that it was easier to bear the weight of two buckets. Balanced – he grew up in between.

I can’t for a moment pretend to have grown that same muscle memory though I’m County Derry-born too.  My early years were never deeply rooted, but my grandmother’s farm on a hillside – nearer Derry than Belfast – was the fixed point in the shifting world of my youth. Our family left a trail of fast changing addresses. As befits the brood of a clerk in holy orders – and sometime padre in the armed forces – we moved between Ireland, England, Germany and back again, eventually to settle in Scotland. (Whence came my Irish granny’s forebears, and my Scottish mum’s for that matter.)

A view from my grandmother's farm, across the fields to the Foyle which lies between 'Britain' and Ireland (ie Count Derry and County Donegal)
From fields to Foyle which lies between ‘Britain’ and Ireland, between County Derry and County Donegal

There are many differences.  While Heaney’s father tilled a modest living from the soil, my grandmother was Ulster landed-gentry (in truth that brought entitlement without affluence).  The address for her house was Co Londonderry – it was teenage rebellion that had some of us crossing out the London bit. (Indeed I might have been born in Donegal, if in earlier “troubles” the IRA had not burnt down the ancestral home.) And the church down the lane was unmistakably, stolidly, Church of Ireland protestant. 

The road to Derry

But we also grew up in between. Between Ireland and Britain. Between Irish ‘gentry’ dad and Scottish working class mum.  Between County Derry and County Donegal. Perhaps our paths would have crossed unknowingly with Heaney folk at Dungiven by the River Roe, or somewhere along the Foyle.  Names from The Road to Derry fairly vibrate with association. There are other emotive strings that Heaney plucks with poems like Digging (the lines that meet you at the start of the exhibition). So skilfully he wields that squat pen, ‘snug as a gun’. I hadn’t expected such a surge of memory: the clean rasping sound of a spade cleaving cold ground; the smell of turf smoke; the shine of neat potato drills; the swinging rhythm of a man at work.

By god the old man could handle a spade

Just like his old man.

Seamus Heaney: Digging

My dad was no slouch with a spade. But it’s one of his older sisters that I see as I read the poem, over and over again.  From early childhood we loved to follow Aunty Marcia into the fields or (on rare occasions when I got up early enough) into the byre for milking. Early risers had the treat of a tractor ride down to the road end, milk churns bumping in the trailer.  

Heaney carried milk to his grandfather in a bottle ‘sloppily corked’ with paper, the contents swiftly slurped before the old man fell to digging again.  I think of Aunty Marcia laughing and egging us on as she swung a fork, pitching hay with deceptive ease into neat stacks, a picnic basket waiting under hot sun. 

Carrying on

A cruel blow of fate removed that physical strength. In middle age Marcia was disabled with multiple sclerosis. Characteristically she battled on as long as she could, limping out to meet the men in the byre, then watching from a wheelchair at the door.  When she was no longer able to move independently beyond the house she wheeled her chair to the fire, reading and listening to the radio, following the Troubles with pragmatic non-sectarian support for the Alliance Party.  

When Marcia died in 1991, seven years before the Good Friday Agreement, her coffin was carried downhill to the church, Ulster-style, the weight born on the shoulders of men from friends and family. Balanced between Catholics, Protestants and non-believers.

What would they have made of the way we are now, facing our strange reversal of progress?  Marcia, born in 1916 during the first world war, worked with ‘Displaced Persons’ in Germany after the second world war. She lived through many changes to see a general moving forward. Heaney, born in 1939 died in 2013 when peace seemed assured.  What would he do now? For all my anxiety about our divided nations, I find comfort in a sure sense that Heaney would carry on digging. The squat pen held by finger and thumb.  Snug and firm in between.

Seamus Heaney portrait for Listen Now Again, the exhibition at the National Bank of Ireland

Further reading:

‘If I described myself as an Ulsterman I’d have thought I was selling a bit of my birthright’ Seamus Heaney’s own description of his identity, an interview published after his death in the Irish Times

Main image, a glimpse of the River Roe between lush green banks, not far from Dungiven.