Tag Archives: Seamus Heaney

Obama and Biden quote Irish poets

President Barack Obama cited W. B. Yeats in his surprise 12 January presentation of the Medal of Freedom to Vice President Joe Biden.

” ‘Think where man’s glory most begins and ends, and say my glory was I had such friends,’ ” Obama quoted from The Municipal Gallery Revisited.

In is acceptance, Biden used a line from Seamus Heaney’s From the Republic of Conscience:  “You carried your own burdens, and very soon, the creeping symptoms of privilege disappeared.”

Read the White House transcript, or watch the presentation:

Guest post: From 57th Yeats International Summer School

I’m always happy to publish a guest post from people visiting or just returned from Ireland. I met Michael Whelan at an Irish Network-DC event earlier this year. His writing on Ireland has appeared in Irish Central and éirways magazine. His latest poetry collection is After God, an Irish Catholic American memoir available on Amazon. He sent this correspondence from Sligo. MH.

***

“Come away oh human child
To the waters and the wild … “

So wrote W. B. Yeats in Stolen Child in the voice of the fairies luring a little one to swap him with their farie changeling. So came we under mythic Benbulbin mountain, close to Yeats’ grave, to the very waterfall of Glencar made iconic by his beloved poem. It is first stop of the first day at the Yeats International  Summer School, 2016.

I am among the 50 here from some dozen countries to delve deep into the world of Yeats. We range from newly graduated English majors to doctoral students and university-level teachers of literature to just plain souls who read Yeats for the fun or the challenge of it. Mostly everyone here is a poet, to some degree, as am I.

Mornings at the Hawks Well theater are spent listening to world experts lecture on Yeats from every conceivable angle. This year, much attention is focused on his Easter, 1916, given the 100th anniversary of the Dublin uprising and Yeats’ conflicts with the poem. Much is fascinating, too, in the talks and illustrations on Yeats’ surreal dimension in approach to theater.

Four charcoal renderings of Yeats. Photos of women below him are the wives of leaders executed after the 1916 Rising.

Four charcoal renderings of Yeats. Photos of women below him are the wives of leaders executed after the 1916 Rising.

Afternoons are for seminars, held at the Victorian-style Yeats Society building in the center of Sligo City. You choose a topic for a week. Mine is Yeats & Heaney, a compelling class led by Dr. Rand Brandes, of Lenoir-Rhyne University. He is rich with remarkable anecdotes from his 30 years working closely with Seamus Heaney. We uncover revealing parallels and telling differences between the two poets. I come away with a sharpened eye such that I won’t read Yeats or Heaney again without drawing from the class.

Another amazing experience in awaking the creative imagination comes in an intensive two-day poetry workshop by Vona Groarke, editor of the Poetry Ireland Review.

It’s not just what happens in class that makes the summer school experience.  It’s the everywhere-around spell of Yeats that still hypnotizes all of Sligo. Here everything is just around the corner from everything else — creating the feel you are walking the buzzing streets as in a stage set for the likes of Yeats theater, the wild river rushing under the bridge next to the Yeats Society building and the sky flipping theatrically, constantly–Irishly–between showers and sunny spots.

Summer School participants visit grave of Yeats in Drumcliff churchyard, at foot of Benbulbin mountain.

Summer School participants visit grave of Yeats in Drumcliff churchyard, at foot of Benbulbin mountain.

Whatever you say, say nothing

The title and best known line of a Seamus Heaney poem has found its way into The Irish Timespolitical coverage of the east Belfast murder of Kevin McGuigan. Here’s the headline:

Fine Gael adopts ‘whatever you say, say nothing’ approach to NI murder

Police authorities have said some of those involved in the 6 August shooting may have ties to the Provisional IRA, even if the organization didn’t order the murder. Either way could cause problems for affiliated Sinn Féin. But as the Times story notes:

The Fine Gael side of the Coalition has adopted an uncharacteristic “whatever you say, say nothing” approach to the potential political fallout for Sinn Féin …

It is something of a delicate situation for the Government. Facing into a bruising general election campaign with Sinn Féin doing well in opinion polls, the temptation to milk political capital out of the situation must be strong.

On the other hand, as Sinn Féin frequently reminds it, the Government is a co-guarantor of the Belfast Agreement. To allow itself to be portrayed as a player which jeopardised the continuance of the peace process would be damaging for Government TDs in the Border region and beyond.

Heaney, who died in 2013, wrote “Whatever You Say, Say Nothing,” in 1975, during the worst part of The Troubles. Here’s the relevant stanza:

Northern reticence, the tight gag of place
And times: yes, yes. Of the “wee six” I sing
Where to be saved you only must save face
And whatever you say, you say nothing.

My wife is fond of quoting the very next line: “Smoke-signals are loud-mouthed compared with us.”

Here’s the full poem.

Seamus Heaney, 1939-2013

Irish poet Seamus Heaney died 30 August 2013, at age 74. His funeral was 2 September 2013, in Dublin, followed by burial in his native County Derry in Northern Ireland. Heaney won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995.

Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney

My wife and I have this memory of Heaney from our May/June 2012 trip to Ireland: We had spent the afternoon visiting with family in Dublin, enjoying lunch at the Gresham Hotel on O’Connell Street. In the evening we took the Dublin Literary Pub Crawl with our friends Nancy and Michael, both retired school teachers. The late May evening was dry and warm. We had a grand time.

As we were driving back to Navan, about 30 miles (45 km) northwest of the capitol, Michael tuned in a rebroadcast of Marian Finucane’s RTE’s interview with Heaney on the occasion of the poet’s 70th birthday. The four of us settled into the silence of rapt attentiveness for the duration of the drive.

Use this link to hear Heaney reading 11 of his poems.  And to make it an even dozen, here is his poem “Digging,” from his 1966  book Death of a Naturalist.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.