Seamus Heaney: Poet of the Irish Diaspora.



I suppose I feel about Seamus Heaney the same way my parents felt about President Kennedy. Here was one of our own, an Irishman whose passport was most emphatically green, at all the top tables and high tables – Harvard, Oxford, the Nobel Prize for Literature ceremony – yet still a recognisably decent stick whose warmth and charm seemed as intrinsically Irish as rain. A farmer’s boy done good.

I’m sure there was something of the same pride my mother and father took in seeing Kennedy elected President that I took when I heard Heaney had won the Nobel. And hadn’t his heroic stance on The Troubles been vindicated? Yes, Heaney was what any Irish poet worth their laurels should aspire to.

When I lost touch with my family in Ireland it was those collections of Heaney’s from the mid-70s to the mid-80s that kept me informed about what was going on. I read them with all the affection – and not a little trepidation – of letters from home, from the small village of Ballinode in rural Co. Monaghan where my mother and I had gone every summer to stay with my aunt and uncle and my six cousins.

In Heaney’s tones and cadences I recognised a fellow Ulsterman. I was only an Ulsterman by association, but those collections of his starting with North in 1975, followed by Field Work in 1979, then Sweeney Astray in 1983, ending with Station Island in 1984, came like vivid reports from the frontline in a voice I recognised as surely as I recognised my cousin Matt’s.

Monaghan 1974, a car bomb outside Greacan’s pub on North Road in the centre of town. This brought home to me that the idyllic holidays I’d known as a child were now far behind me. I was contending with what seemed to be a war zone as the UK felt the depredations of Thatcherism. The inner city riots of the early Eighties; the Falklands; her intransigence towards the Hunger Strikers; her turning the full force of the State on the miners during the Miners’ Strike; Wapping; and finally the Poll Tax riots, which undid her administration – all of these ‘events’, to say nothing of the IRA’s ‘mainland’ bombing campaign, meant that I came of age in a very changed political landscape.

It was poetry kept me going. And it was Heaney’s poetry in particular I looked out for. But it’s not the Heaney of The Troubles, the Irish Heaney if you like, I wish to recognise here. Many far better critics and writers than me, from Blake Morrison to Helen Vendler, have been there way before I was even ‘attempting the pen’. No. It’s the Heaney who represents the Diaspora I wish to focus on.


If I seem to be making a special case here, bear with me. For one of my favourite poems of Heaney’s has nothing to do with turf cutting, or frog spawn, or blackberrying, or armed patrols, or penitential islands. No. It has to do with Harvard Yard, yet is still a typical Heaney poem in that Heaney ‘sanctifies’ (the word is Blake Morrison’s) a stretch of ground that is actually a workplace, albeit a very privileged one. I’ll come back to Heaney and Harvard, indeed Heaney and America, in a moment, but first a look at ‘Canopy’. The poem is in quatrains, in lines of various lengths, and starts very plainly:

It was the month of May.
Trees in Harvard Yard
Were turning a young green.
There was whispering everywhere.

But then a strange turn: ‘David Ward had installed/Voice-boxes in the branches…’. Next comes lines that sound like the Heaney we’ve grown accustomed to. The ‘voice-boxes’ amplify the whispering until there’s : ‘… sibilant ebb and flow,/Speech gutterings, desultory//Hush and backwash and echo.’ And then these lines, which read more like Dylan Thomas: ‘It was like a recording/Of antiphonal responses/In the congregation of leaves.’ Later on in the poem we get a typical Heaney reference: ‘…Dante’s whispering wood –/The wood of the suicides –/Had been magicked to lover’s lane.’ Heaney ends the poem on a further note of magical transformation:

If a twig had been broken off there
It would have curled itself like a finger
Around the fingers that broke it
And then refused to let go

As if it were mistletoe
Taking tightening hold.
Or so I thought as the fairy
Lights in the boughs came on. 

Here Heaney turns Harvard Yard into an enchanted grove, that reference to ‘mistletoe’ reminding us of the ancient Druidic associations of poetry in Ireland. And notice what he does with all those long O sounds:

If a twig had been broken off there
It would have curled itself like a finger
Around the fingers that broke it
And then refused to let go

As if it were mistletoe
Taking tightening hold.
Or so I thought as the fairy
Lights in the boughs came on. 

Those echoing O’s ring through the lines like the whisperings coming through the trees, and also evoke the poet’s O that indicates the mouth opening to speak inspired words. And that note at the end: ‘Or so I thought as the fairy/Lights in the boughs came on’ brings us into the realm of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, those ‘boughs’ acting like a pun as Heaney takes his leave of us – makes his bow amongst the trees’ boughs. Notice the line break between fairy and Lights and that buried rhyme of tightening and Lights. It’s as if suddenly, by placing Lights at the start of the line and rhyming it with tightening, the Lights are turned on, the surprise of them accentuated by placement and sound, for this poem all about sound gives way in the end to light, a common movement in Heaney’s poems.

His insouciance in those last two lines, though, is I think what delights me most about the poem. Harvard Yard becomes the complete antithesis of Station Island, a place of enchantment as opposed to self-accusation, a place Heaney’s poetry and career as Man of Letters has taken him to. But this is not just the privileged place of an Ivy League university; it’s an arcadia the poet has constructed through his resistance first of all to oppression from the State in Northern Ireland, and second his resistance to partisanship during the Troubles. Heaney carves out a new space, and Harvard Yard is a kind of paradise after the purgatory of Lough Derg and Station Island.

But it was not Harvard Heaney came to first in his long relationship with America. No – Heaney’s first encounter with the States was at Berkeley way back in 1970.


Heaney gives quite a lengthy account of his time in California in his memoir, Stepping Stones, written as a series of long interviews with the poet Dennis O’Driscoll. He recalls coming to Berkeley as a Visiting Lecturer in 1970 at the invitation of Tom Parkinson, whom he met at a reading at the University of York. Heaney tells O’Driscoll Berkeley was: ‘Exactly what I was ready for, so no hesitation whatsoever about accepting. I had a curiosity about the whole Beat scene, and at that that time the Bay Area was as hot politically as it was poetically.’

Heaney goes on to say, ‘I was taller and freer in myself at the end of the year than at the beginning’, and gives credit not only to the distinction of the people he met on campus, but to the West Coast lifestyle himself and his family readily took to: ‘I occasionally drove out with Marie and the kids to Marin County for breakfast… California champagne and hamburgers, for God’s sake, at eight o’clock in the morning, and Dad back on campus for work at nine.’

But it was the creative influence of encountering America for the first time that perhaps left the deepest mark on Heaney:

‘I bought and read – almost as if I were taking a course – books such as A William Carlos Williams Reader and A Charles Olson Reader. I devoted myself to Olson’s essay on ‘projective verse’ and to some of his Maximus Poems; I had a determined go at the Orphic Duncan; I dabbled in Brautigan… but in the end I held back… I came to happy enough terms with Carlos Williams… but I couldn’t spread out and let go projectively. At the same time… I did learn how to hear and respect Gary Snyder, simply by listening to him read his own work.’

Later on, Heaney diffidently acknowledges another important American influence: ‘Lowell didn’t make his presence felt in the way I wrote until a few years later, after the blank verse sonnets started to avalanche down upon us out of History and The Dolphin and… Lizzie and Harriet.’

There is perhaps one further American influence Heaney doesn’t acknowledge. This is the workshop, which he first encountered in 1963 after Philip Hobsbaum had come to Belfast to teach at Queen’s. The meetings convened in Hobsbaum’s flat in Fitzwilliam Street – a short walk from QUB – owed something in their practice and procedures to the famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which first began in 1936 under the direction of Wilbur Schramm.  Heaney recalls how the Group meetings in Belfast were run:

‘It began at eight o’clock on a Monday evening… Once the meeting started… Philip [Hobsbaum] concentrated on the poem sheet and hunched forward like a man on a Harley Davidson coming down the road at ninety. For an hour to an hour and a half there’d be a reading of poems by the author, a statement about each by Philip, and a general discussion by all present, wound up again by Philip.’

This sounds remarkably like Iowa and it’s perhaps no coincidence that Heaney mentions Hobsbaum ‘coming down the road at ninety’ on a Harley Davidson, an unconscious acknowledgement of the workshop’s beginnings in America, and Heaney’s subsequent running of workshops at Harvard. These days poets’ workshops are everywhere, but in the early Sixties Hobsbaum’s innovation, his marriage of the Iowa workshop with Cambridge’s emphasis on practical criticism, was a fillip to Heaney: ‘… like all young poets, I was in a hurry. Maybe overly so, thanks to the boosting I was getting from Philip at The Group.’

Heaney’s later career at Harvard required Heaney to run workhops himself, and it’s interesting to see how he adapted Hobsaum’s Group format to his own purposes. In a programme first broadcast on RTE radio, Heaney reflects on being ‘Professor Heaney’:

‘It’s hard to know what a poetry writing workshop should be. Basically it’s a matter of the students coming in with poems. Once they submit I choose maybe two poems by four of them. We’ve maybe eight poems in front of us and we talk about them there. I mean the quality of the writing varies and the personality and the commitment of the student varies. There’s a lot of people here who are very highly motivated in an academic way and very bright and very well tuned and who write [in] the literary way. And there are others who seem to have [a] more personal burden of experience and more interesting offbeat experiences.’

In Stepping Stones Dennis O’Driscoll brings up a rare moment of a complaint about all of this from Heaney: ‘You once remarked that, after a term in poetry workshops, a poet can end up exhausted and hating the activity.’ Heaney defends himself by offering a rather surreal explanation:  ‘… it was as if your head was getting attached to thirty [the number of students he would teach in a term?] different terminals all around Harvard. The image I had was of Gulliver with his big head roped down in Lilliput, pegged to the ground by strands of his own hair.’ It is perhaps significant that Heaney imagines himself to be Gulliver in Lilliput: here is a giant, a Nobel laureate, amongst Lilliputians. But the reader senses that this is no big-headedness on Heaney’s part; rather, here is a man who knows his worth, and how much he was valued by his hosts. The image is funny rather than arrogant, charming rather than discourteous.


It was towards the end of his time in Philip Hobsbaum’s Belfast Group that Heaney started sending his poems to Charles Monteith at Faber, and went on to a more public, less provincial career as a poet. I should mention here Heaney’s relationship to Britain at this stage. It was, ostensibly, a benevolent one if looked at from the British point of view. For Britain was where Heaney was born at Mossbawn, near Castledawson, Co. Derry; where he was able to avail of the 11+ and gain a scholarship to St Columb’s; where he entered University thanks to the Butler Education Act; where he was published.

He was as much a son of the Empire, in other words, as Ted Hughes, who had a fairly similar country upbringing and gilded Grammar School education. What complicated matters was Heaney’s Catholicism, his sense that – no matter how editors of anthologies might characterise him – he was Irish not British. To be sure, he was aware of being brought up not just ‘in a different physical location but in a different cultural location as well.’ In a BBC Northern Ireland broadcast of 1998 he delineates the boundaries of this location:

‘Castledawson was a far more official place altogether, more modern, more a part of the main drag. The very name of the place is from the orderly English world of the eighteenth century, whereas Bellaghy is from an older, more obscure origin in Irish. So, as I once said in a poem – a poem called ‘Terminus’ – I grew up in between.’

A word about the stanza Heaney uses for ‘Open Letter’. This is Standard Habbie, a form popularised by Robert Burns, and taken up again by John Fuller in his Epistles To Several Persons (Martin Secker & Warburg Ltd, 1973), a series of witty verse letters to correspondents such as James Fenton and Ian Hamilton, Fuller’s title echoing Alexander Pope’s volume of the same name published between 1731 to 1735. Here’s a sample stanza in Standard Habbie, Heaney signing off:

 Need I go on? I hate to bite
 Hands that led me to the limelight
 In the Penguin book, I regret
 The awkwardness.
 But British, no, the name's not right.
 Yours truly, Seamus. 

So Heaney is borrowing a form used by a polished metropolitan English poet – John Fuller – to to chide, seriously and with high literary playfulness, Motion and Morrison, a way perhaps of saying, ‘Anything you can do, I do just as well.’ The poem is addressed at once to Motion and Morrison as Editors, but also to Motion and Morrison as Men of Letters, poets and critics like Fuller himself, like Heaney also, who would recognise not just the Fuller volume of a decade previously, but the reclamation of a stanza from metropolitan condescension to Burns’s Caledonian hands, in an act of cultural re-appropriation or perhaps more accurately, cultural re-placing.


Heaney, of course, had written a much more sombre poem reckoning with his relationship with Britain some ten years or so before Open Letter. ‘Act of Union’, collected in North, first published in 1975, takes the form of two sonnets, the sonnet itself a form itself plundered by Tudor poets from the Italians, and uses the extended metaphor of rape to speak of the conquest of Ireland:

 And I am still imperially
 Male, leaving you with the pain,
 The rending process in the colony,
 The battering ram, the boom burst from within. 

The conqueror is here personified, those plosive p’s and b’s encoding the violence of domination. The ‘act of union’ leaves a product of this conquest: ‘His parasitical/And ignorant little fists already/Beat at your borders and I know they’re cocked/At me across the water.’ After the polysyllables of ‘parasitical/And ignorant’ we get again a pair of plosives ‘His… little fists/Beat at your borders’ which are ‘cocked/At me.’ The word ‘cocked’ works on a number of levels: like the conqueror the ‘child’ of this union is phallic and male, as if to say those conceived in violence are doomed to perpetrate and perpetuate violence themselves. There’s also the Freudian antagonism rather than filial piety to this child’s father. And finally, there’s a sense of the child being likened to a cock in a cockfight, a desperate foundling who can only resent its absent parent.


In a companion piece to the ‘Professor Heaney’ programme, Heaney reflects on his time at Oxford as Professor of Poetry and the demands of delivering fifteen lectures over five years:

‘The critical prose that I have written – I never enjoyed the idea of doing it. I was always anxious but in the end I enjoyed the clarification of having done it. The prose has over the years been instrumental in helping me think about poetry.’

Jon Stallworthy, a colleague of Heaney’s at Oxford, offered his view of Heaney’s achievement: ‘Fifteen lectures is more than almost all poets have in them, more than almost all professors have in them. They were real lectures right to the end.’

Heaney was elected – the post was awarded by polling Oxford graduates in what was a three-horse race between C.H. Sisson, Benjamin Zephaniah, and Heaney – in 1988 at a ‘sensitive time in Anglo-Irish relations’, as Heaney’s fellow poet and Oxford lecturer Bernard O’Donoghue recalled. The Good Friday Agreement was a decade away, and the Provisional I.R.A.’s bombing campaign over the five year tenure of Heaney’s Professorship included the mortar attack on Downing Street in February 1991 which came close to killing John Major and key cabinet members, and the Warrington bomb in March 1993 which killed two boys aged three and 12. There was also the culmination of the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six’s campaigns to free the men convicted back in the 70s of pub bombings, which resulted in their convictions being quashed on 19 October 1989 and 14 March 1991 respectively.

Heaney in his Oxford lectures speaks of the ‘redress of poetry’, which he begins by defining as ‘reparation’ or ‘compensation’ of a wrong. Redress can also mean to set right, to ‘restore’ or ‘re-establish’, he says. Heaney then cites an even more obsolete definition taken from hunting: ‘to bring back (the hounds or the deer) to the proper course.’

The restorative power of poetry is, for Heaney, its most important function. He is especially keen in ‘The Redress of Poetry’, the second essay in the volume that collects his lectures, to defend the delight in poetry against those who would make it a vehicle for political repression and so serve a specific social or political purpose. This essay is the closest Heaney comes to a manifesto, and these sentences in particular are a justification of his work as a poet contending with violence which sought legitimacy by being perpetrated is his community’s name:

‘…poetic fictions, the dream of alternative worlds, enable governments and revolutionaries as well. It’s just that governments and revolutionaries would compel society to take on the shape of their imagining, whereas poets are typically more concerned to conjure with their own and their readers’ sense of what is possible or desirable or, indeed, imaginable. The nobility of poetry, says Wallace Stevens, ‘is a violence from within that protects us from a violence without’. It is the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality.’


Heaney’s excursions abroad then, fulfilled two functions for his personal and creative development. Like so many of his countrymen he was going where the work was. But he was also travelling away from home to arrive at a perspective on what home meant to him. He was not ‘diluted’ by travelling abroad to work, but enriched, encountering poets in print and in person such as William Carlos Williams, Czeslaw Milosz, and Derek Walcott who inspired him and enhanced his work. If in the end home meant poetry as much it meant Mossbawn, or Glanmore, or Sandymount, that should not come as any great surprise. Heaney made over, ‘re-placed’, the various locations of his life until as Anthony Smith, President of Magdalen College Oxford, observed:

‘It was as if he was at the top of a well of Irish Literature and Irishness of all kinds but that well led down to the whole of world literature and he could as it were let bucket down into it and pull out through his Irish culture all the cultures of the world… It’s no accident that his great friend was Brodsky; he knew a lot of Polish and Russian poetry; he was at home in the world of poetry and could hear the echoes of all that poetry through his Irish identity.’

And so Seamus Heaney is not just a poet who belongs to Ireland, or to the world; Seamus Heaney ultimately transcends nationality, finding through poetry a depth of community internationally his predecessors such as Kavanagh had only begun to encounter. Heaney’s rootedness in Ireland did not confine him but nor did his voyages abroad etiolate his poetry. Like his fellow Nobel Laureates Brodsky and Walcott he embraced the opportunities of exile, at home, in the end, as much in Harvard Yard as he was in Mossbawn, Belfast, Glanmore, or Dublin. As such we should see him as yes, first and foremost an Irish poet, but secondly as a poet who looks beyond Ireland, casting his gaze backwards to the Classics, and on to horizons that are much wider than his reputation as an Irish poet allows. When I think back over his life and career, I am reminded of all those other places he invoked in his work: Berkeley, Aarhus, Harvard, Oxford, London, Stockholm. And so he is in the end, like so many of us, a citizen not just of the Republic, but of the Diaspora.

John O’Donoghue is the author of Brunch Poems (Waterloo Press, 2009); Fools & Mad (Waterloo Press, 2014); and Sectioned: A Life Interrupted (John Murray, 2009). Sectioned was awarded Mind Book of The Year 2010. His story The Irish Short Story That Never Ends won The Irish Post Creative Writing Competition in 2016. He was awarded a Brookleaze Grant by the Royal Society of Literature, also in 2016, to work on a novel about John Clare and Robert Lowell, both patients in the same asylum over 100 years apart. He is a founder member of The Wild Geese Press which published his short story collection The King from Over the Water (2019).