This past summer I attended Susquehanna’s annual trip to Northern Ireland. One of my first memories of this trip was admitting on my application that I knew nothing about the culture of Northern Ireland. I had noticed some undertones of that culture in the works by James Joyce that I had read for my fiction classes, and I learned that U2’s Sunday Bloody Sunday connected to the Troubles, which was the period between the late 1960’s and 1996 where Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland fought over its political status. Even during the time I was there, I still had yet to hear of a writer from Northern Ireland who covered the troubles.
This changed when my class started with a discussion about Seamus Heaney, who died just a few weeks ago. It wasn’t until his name was brought up in the reflection class for my trip a day later that I finally realized Heaney’s background as a poet from Northern Ireland and began to research his life.
Heaney was born in Castledawson which is part of County Londonderry, where the incidents of Bloody Sunday would play out many years later. Due to his proximity to these locations, the Troubles would become a large part of Heaney’s poetry:
“But my tentative art,
Has turned back watches too:
He was blown to bits
Out drinking in a curfew
Others obeyed, three nights
After they shot dead
The thirteen men in Derry
PARAS THIRTEEN, the walls said,
BOGSIDE NIL. That Wednesday
His breath and trembled.”
Seamus Heaney, “Casualty,” 1981
In this poem, and in many others, Heaney was able to capture the ongoing struggles within Northern Ireland even as he spent time away from Ireland as a professor at Harvard and Oxford. The people of Northern Ireland seemed to embrace him. By the end of his life, Heaney had won the Nobel Prize for Literature, the Golden Wreath of Poetry, the T. S. Eliot Prize, and the Lifetime Recognition Award from the Griffin Trust for Excellence in Poetry.
Heaney’s poetry helps to connect me with the images I saw when I visited Northern Ireland. Throughout his life, Heaney was able to capture what was going on in Northern Ireland and, given that he started writing a few years before the Troubles began, he was in the perfect position to do so. But Heaney went beyond writing about the events of Northern Ireland; he wrote plays based on Greek tragedies and did translations, including Beowulf. Even though his death surprised me, he left behind a large body of work from which I can learn about the world in which he lived.