Thursday, December 17, 2020

Hinnae a Heaney

What a shame that Seamus Heaney has been drawn into Northern Ireland's latest politicised controversy. In my normal day job, I had the immense privilege of working on the branding for what became Seamus Heaney HomePlace a few years ago. Of course his wonderful A Birl for Burns is oft-cited; I am thankful to David for directing me some time ago to Heaney's absolutely superb 1996 Burns's Art Speech. It is a diamond mine, of which this gleaming gem is merely one – 

"... I wrote a poem called 'Broagh' which could just as well have been entitled 'Och'. Its immediate subject was my recollection of an outlying part of our farm in the townland of Broagh on the banks of the River Moyola in Co. Derry, its poetic quest was to bring the three languages I've just mentioned – Irish, Elizabethan English and Ulster Scots – into some kind of creative intercourse and alignment, and thereby to intimate the possibility of some new intercourse and alignment among the cultural and political heritages which these three languages represent in Northern Ireland ..."

It is in many ways remarkable, another evidence for pre-GFA recognition of Ulster-Scots as a meaningful literary and vernacular tradition. Heaney's recollections of the renowned Scotsman Professor John Braidwood of Queens University (who I mentioned in this recent post about the 1986 Ballyrashane Primary School booklet Some Handlin') are insightful –

"A Scotsman with a Scots accent ... he not only came equipped with a perfect ear for the Ulster accents that he laboured among, but he also possessed an equally instinctive sense of the cultural, political and religious nuances that were often latent within those accents and idioms..."
The design team (of which I was not a part) who created the brilliant visitor interpretation at HomePlace installed a kinetic mobile of individual words over the central staircase, all gleaned from Heaney's work. I would say that around half of those are obviously Scots and Ulster-Scots in origin. 

In the rush to divide into 'mine' and 'yours', leading voices in society need to also seek the 'ours'. Ulster-Scots belonged to Seamus Heaney as much as it does to anyone else, his work and worldview belongs to us all.

• One of my marker sketches from the project is above, never used publicly, but part of the creative process that became HomePlace, his Conway Stewart pen, and signature.

• I'd recommend readers to have a look at the 1998 Nils Eskestad essay Negotiating the Canon; Regionality and the Impact of Education in Seamus Heaney's Poetry:

"... Heaney also finds that Braidwood occasionally offered 'a glimpse of the possibilities of escape from the entrapments of binary thinking. The Irish/English antithesis, the Celtic/Saxon duality, this was momentarily collapsed ..."

Scotsman Braidwood literally embodied that 'escape', because when properly articulated, Ulster-Scots is a challenge to the binary. This partly explains the hostility with which those of loud voices and limited understandings greet Ulster-Scots - it doesn't fit easily into the 'two tribes' model.

How dispiriting it is to see everything being gradually pulled down into the quicksands of our post-GFA now-institutionalised binary mindsets.

• The Biblical story of King Solomon springs to mind. Whoever is happy for the baby to be cut in half never loved it anyway. The policy buzzword might be 'shared future' but the political behaviour looks a lot like 'severed' or 'segregated'.