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Seamus Heaney’s HomePlace

Seamus Heaney’s HomePlace

To write about Seamus Heaney feels somewhat of an empty feat, he of so many words and I of so few but sure, here I am trying. In our family Seamus is spoken of like another family remember, his quips and musings repeated at gatherings like a shared memory that we never tire of hearing. ‘Digging’ is a firm favourite of ours as it is amongst most families in Ireland who identify with the audible descriptions of our ancestors who toiled the land before us while we, the fortunate ones, escaped the fields,

“By God, the old man could handle a spade”

While I struggle to resurrect the words to describe the impact Heaney’s work has had on me, I’ll settle for telling you all about the wonderful museum, HomePlace, that is dedicated to his life’s work and his legacy. My Granny and Aunties had been to HomePlace earlier in the year and had raved about it for months afterward. The extensiveness of it is what impressed them most, so much so they didn’t even have time to visit the upper floor as they had scheduled tickets for a talk given by Jennifer Johnston not long after arriving.

After hearing so much about the museum from my family I knew I had to darken its doors eventually and when Ireland’s Blue Book invited me to go the morning after our stay at Ardtara, well of course I leapt at the chance. To be amongst his work on the very bit of land that spawned him and the words that inspired him felt important so off we went to drive the 15 minutes up the road to Bellaghy.

When walking through the doors of HomePlace you are greeted by a portrait of Seamus himself in his later years with another old photo from his youth placed just behind close to the words:

“I rhyme to see myself/to set the darkness echoing”

To read Heaney’s words is one thing but to hear his own poetry spoken from his own mouth, forming the words he himself had written, is another thing entirely. And yet, before even knowing what his voice sounded like it was as if I was already reading his poems with that same deep gruff voice that hadn’t lost it’s Derry drawl; it was warm and familiar. As we walked around HomePlace we were prompted to listen to many of his poems read by Seamus at various parts of the exhibition like Midterm Break when we revisited his childhood, Route 101 which he wrote for his daughter and In The Attic, one of his final poems.

There was so much of his work that I hadn’t read before and what struck me most as I listened and watched the videos of fans who have been influenced by him (ranging from famous figures to schoolchildren) was just how accessible Heaney’s work is. It has no airs or graces but rather it’s its very earthiness that enables any reader from across the board to feel the weight of the words. The ordinary is celebrated and the truth pours out in torrents making it impossible not to see yourself or others you know in them.

 “Walk on air against your better judgement”

What perhaps isn’t as well known is how harsh a critic he was of his own work. On the upper floor of the museum you can stand in a room that mirrors the attic where Seamus spent his time writing at home, skylight and all. In the replicate you can see copies of work Seamus corrected and re-corrected even after it was published. He never stopped editing and even criticised previous work in later poems.

“But when the slates came off, extravagant Sky entered and held surprise wide open”

Seamus’ use of language has the capacity to transport so many of us back to memories we maybe thought were lost forever and HomePlace provides the most beautiful journey to take us there. However I wasn’t just left lamenting for my own youth after pouring myself over his poems; what I also felt was a real surge of gratitude to this man who provided us with so much. From watching old footage of him filmed in the days after he won the Nobel Prize in 1995 to reading the last words he texted to his wife right before he unexpectedly passed (Noli timere, Latin for “Don’t be afraid”), I was so moved by the gift he has given so many and also the man who was behind the iconic words.

You might not know a lot of Heaney’s work save for a line or two but that shouldn’t stop you from visiting HomePlace. For any of us that were reared in Ireland it should be a national necessity to walk the grounds that inspired poems that have dominated Irish literature and the most important poet and wordsmith of our own lifetime.

As I left HomePlace I was thinking of my Granny who has encouraged my love for poetry and reading throughout my adulthood and who has been struggling with illness the last few months. One poem stuck out the most that reminded me of her and how lucky I am to have had all those small moments with her by the stove in her kitchen, especially those moments shared in silence as I watched her finish the Irish Times crossword by the window and the light falling around her,

When all the others were away at Mass
I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.
They broke the silence, let fall one by one
Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:
Cold comforts set between us, things to share
Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.
And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes
From each other’s work would bring us to our senses.

So while the parish priest at her bedside
Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying
And some were responding and some crying
I remembered her head bent towards my head,
Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives–
Never closer the whole rest of our lives.

The Lost Art of Writing Letters

The Lost Art of Writing Letters

Since I was little my Granny Una has written me and my sisters letters to congratulate us at different stages of our lives; birthdays, communions, graduations, new houses. I’ve kept most of these cards over the years because not only has she always something incredibly witty to say but because reading these handwritten words of encouragement from someone you love can be so much more enduring than hearing them.

Unfortunately Una has a knack for not realising the impact or severity of her words at times and some of us can become victims of the infamous ‘Una/Granny burn’. Her hints to change can be as subtle as a brick. Like the time she gently suggested that my cousin Pete might like to start going to the gym. Or telling my mother that she’s ‘quite a bundle’. Oh Una we love you.

Recently I was in hospital and she sent me a letter and although her writing is becoming more scrawled and less legible, those obscure pieces of advice are still there and she still has the ability to make me laugh. Reading her card made me think of how rare it is to receive anything in the mail other than what deals are on in Eurospar. Everything is communicated on Facebook – no one would dream of sending a birthday card when you can just type a quick message in 5 seconds. No letters to say well done on getting the new job, new house or new baby. How about we spend that extra few minutes actually writing down how happy we are for someone instead of our message becoming lost in a sea of others?

I have been trying to write more letters recently when I think it might brighten someone’s day and I thought I’d share a few ideas on how you can do this too. Nobody has time for anything these days which is why it feels even more special to receive a handwritten note, especially one with a stamp on it. I’m not saying we have to get an inkwell and write by candlelight but just letting someone you love know that you do – simples.

Here are a few times when you could write a little note…

When you know someone is looking for a job

We’ve all been there. Completing a million applications, hearing nothing back and thinking you will be forever searching for that job that will make you happy. This is an exhausting and wearisome time especially when we’re at the beginning of our careers and have no idea what direction we should be going in. If you know someone is trying to put themselves out there but getting little back, write a short note to them with a few words of encouragement and a few reasons why they should keep going. Maybe a quote is all they need or recalling a time they personally impressed you. Not only will it surely pick them up but it will also remind them of what they are capable of too.

When you know someone is grieving

Unfortunately, all of us will encounter moments of grief in our lives where we feel lost and alone. The days following the loss will be full of people and sandwiches but it’s the months after when you’re still learning to cope that can be the loneliest. In my last year of university in Edinburgh, I lost my sister Amy and it was the letters I received from family and friends that enabled me to dig deep and find the determination to finish my degree. Grief is complicated in that there are times when we are absolutely fine and then all of a sudden we are dragged under. Knowing that there is someone willing to bring you back up to surface, no matter how long it’s been since your loss, is a wonderful feeling.

When you want to share something beautiful

Sometimes the best time to write a note is when there is no real reason to except to share a little beauty. Maybe you’ve seen a pretty handmade card, read a moving article in a magazine or taken a photograph you’re dying to share with them via something other than Instagram. Posting a little memento in an envelope that you think might make someone smile is one of the best reasons to share something beautiful.

When you’re on holiday

Remember postcards? Usually sent by family friends and mostly talking about how many days it rained and who got the worst burns. Sometimes though they give a real insight in to an unknown country and allow us to imagine where the person was when they were writing it. My Granny, of course, loves them so I always try to send them to her. Even when I’m only away a week and I’ll probably see her before she gets it. When I write them now I describe where I’m sitting, the views I have in front of me and how I feel so the receiver can really picture the scene. I find these notes are a lot better at capturing moments than uploading a picture on Facebook intended for no one in particular. Maybe even write one to yourself so you can remember that time when you look back years later!

When you thought of a friend who lives overseas

I made some incredible friends while living in Australia but the likelihood of getting to see them again is quite small and so I made a decision to keep in touch through letters as much as I can. Pen pals were boring in school, it’s hard to develop a relationship with a French student when you can’t go beyond ‘My name is Alex’ and ‘I like to play tennis’ but nowadays we live in a global community where friendships can be made in the far corners of the world. It’s great to keep in touch online but letters are a great way to take a trip down memory lane and keep these memories forever.

When you are grateful for help you’ve been given

A thank you note is such a simple touch but it’s a great way to show appreciation to someone who has helped you in a time of need. Maybe your friend helped you prep for an interview, your dad gave you a hand moving house or your partner gave the house a clean when you were feeling low; these are all times we should be thankful. Communicate that to them personally to remind them how lucky you are to have them.

I’m going to practice what I preach now and write a few letters to those that might need a few thoughtful words and maybe I might get some back!

Happy Sunday folks!!