Seamus Heaney and the Unionists

What more can be said about the wonderful human being and literary genius that was Seamus Heaney, the greatest Irish poet since W.B.Yeats and one of the finest people ever to come out of Northern Ireland?

One thing I have not seen commented on in the avalanche of words since Heaney’s death has been his generosity and sensitivity to the Unionist community. I was first struck by this a few years ago when reading Stepping Stones, his book of interviews with fellow poet Dennis O’Driscoll. Commenting on Thomas Kinsella’s angry poem ‘Butcher’s Dozen’, a response to Bloody Sunday, he criticised Kinsella’s “furious characterizations of the Unionist, Protestant collective in the North that seemed too stereotypical, a tilt towards the kind of bigotry the poem was scarifying.”

Elsewhere in that book he talked about his experience of growing up in South Derry with “Protestant neighbours in and out of the house” and his “day-to-day experience of come and go between the two communities”. I have heard him speak warmly of those Mossbawn and Bellaghy neighbours on several public occasions.

He refused to become a republican propagandist. He famously recalled meeting Sinn Fein’s Danny Morrison on the Belfast-Dublin train and refusing his demand to write for the republican cause. “When, for fuck’s sake, are you going to write/Something for us?/If I do write something,/Whatever it is, I’ll be writing for myself”.

Equally famously, of course, he responded to being included in The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry by declaring: ‘”Be advised my passport’s green./No glass of ours was ever raised/to toast the queen.” The author of ‘Requiem for the Croppies’, a Catholic farmer’s son from south Derry, was never going to write from any vantage point that was not greatly influenced by his Catholic nationalist background. The point is that his nationalism was generous and outward-looking; his strongest emphasis was always on “self-understanding, mutual understanding, imaginative enhancement, cultural diversity and a tolerant political atmosphere” as the essential ingredients of a ‘good society.’

He remained a rare voice of fair-mindedness during the deep mutual hostility and total absence of mutual understanding that marked the 1981 hunger strike period: “At that stage, the IRA’s self-image as liberators didn’t work much magic with me. But neither did the too-brutal simplicity of Margaret Thatcher’s ‘A crime is a crime is a crime. It is not political.”

He  spoke eloquently and sensitively for the victims and bereaved on both sides. Thus, from The Cure at Troy: “A hunger striker’s father/Stands in the graveyard dumb./The police widow in veils/Faints at the funeral home.”

As a poet he insisted on “a disinterested gaze at how you are situated, whereas your people will require passionate solidarity, and opposition to the Other.” He quoted Derek Mahon in holding to the belief that poets in Northern Ireland were subject to a larger call: to “hold in a single thought reality and justice.”

But don’t let anybody tell you that he was entirely disengaged from the most vital imperative of Northern Irish politics: to work to overcome the sectarian divide. In a tribute in the Irish Times, Michael Longley recalled a post-IRA ceasefire essay in which Heaney wrote about how in 1968, a few months before the outbreak of the latest round of ‘troubles’, the two poets, along with folk singer Davy Hammond (Longley and Hammond being from Protestant backgrounds), had travelled around the North with a performance called Room to Rhyme. It was a moment of anti-sectarian historical hope, soon to be dashed.

“At that time, there was energy and confidence on the nationalist side and a developing liberalism – as well as the usual obstinacy and reaction – on the unionist side. There was a general upswing in intellectual and social activity, the border was more pervious than it had been, the sectarian alignments less determining. I remember in particular feeling empowered by a week on the road with David Hammond and Michael Longley in May 1968 when we brought a programme of songs and poems to schools and hotels and libraries in unionist and nationalist areas all over Northern Ireland.”

He went on to say that the title Room to Rhyme, taken from the opening verse of a mummers’ play, “expressed perfectly the eagerness and impatience that was in the air at the time.”

In 2013 did the unionist political, religious and intellectual establishment embrace the most eminent and open minded Ulsterman of the past half century? I’m afraid not in any real spirit of generosity and inclusiveness. There were perfunctory statements from Peter Robinson and Mike Nesbitt. No Unionist political leader – to my knowledge – attended his funeral in Dublin or his burial in Bellaghy. The News Letter highlighted a letter from a reader claiming he was not such a great poet as he was reckoned to be.

Like so many things about the Protestant community in the North these days, all this made me sad. Seamus Heaney’s writings, like John Hume’s speeches, inspired me to do my tiny bit to try to build a non-threatening, mutually respectful ‘Republic of Conscience’ between Irish Ireland and its British Northern province (although I know only too well that even that title of a Heaney poem will sound threatening to many Unionists).

I don’t expect generosity from the voices of unionism: it’s not in the DNA of such a fearful ideology. There are some notable exceptions: for example see the eloquent article, ‘Seamus Heaney’s poems are for Protestants too’,  by the London-based columnist Jenny McCartney, daughter of former North Down MP and QC Robert McCartney, in the Spectator (

If only Unionists could open their minds to see it, in Seamus Heaney they had a kindly and inclusive figure (albeit a Nationalist) who embodied the best in the Ulster character – honest, humorous, extraordinarily industrious in seeking the truth between the lines  -and who was a poetic genius into the bargain. We will not see his like again.

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2 Responses to Seamus Heaney and the Unionists

  1. Robin Wilson says:

    Well, said, Andy. Heaney wrote a particularly brilliant essay for the (London) Independent at the time of the hunger strike, explaining with great sensitivity the different attitudes it evoked across the divide (Protestants focusing on its individually willed nature, as against the victims of the IRA campaign and the continuing toll of prison officers; Catholics drawing on a communal history of oppression and a theology of martyrdom), in that polarised atmosphere.

  2. Well said, Andy. I too appreciated Jenny McCartney’s article and shared it on twitter (as I’ve done with this excellent piece.)

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