Poets from as far afield as Australia and New York joined a host of local writers to pay tribute and celebrate the life and work of Seamus Heaney on Friday evening.
The Poetry Tent at Laurel Villa in Magherafelt was meant to have seen the late and great Heaney officially open the weekend of literary events at the On Home Ground Poetry Festival. It was instead, however, a poignant yet ultimately, fitting homage to Bellaghy’s son.
Seamus’ words filled the air as poet after poet read aloud their favourite Heaney poem, difficult as it was to choose any one in particular. The crowd, which filled the tent to capacity, revelled in its music.
“He was proud of his roots and a sincere tribute is being made to the man and the poet,” said chairperson of Magherafelt Arts Society, Maura Johnston. “We are here to pay tribute and also to celebrate.”
Fellow Bellaghy man – musician Brendan Hendry – opened the evening along with Jonny Toman with a spot of traditional music – the haunting voice of the violin and guitar setting the mood for the event.
Derry-born poet, Colette Bryce, then took to the stage to read her favourite Heaney poem – Slack – followed by Ruth Carr’s reading of The Blackbird of Glanmore. Moyra Donaldson chose Anything Can Happen, whilst for Leontia Flynn, Sunlight took centre stage.
Ray Giverns then shared the first of the Glanmore Sonnets. Also paying tribute to Heaney was US writer, Eileen Battersby, who said that few people had given more than he had. “It’s always easy to forget what a great teacher Seamus was,” she said, recalling her own experience as a student.
Meanwhile, Cookstown-born and now New York-based writer and poet, Nick Laird, chose to read The Sounds of Rain and said that Seamus, for him, “means poetry” and that he had had the knack for “capturing a thing exactly” in his writing.
A Coleraine poet… Mr McGuckan, who read the Haw Lantern, told the crowd that having called with Seamus’ wife Marie earlier in the evening, she had given her best wishes to the Festival. He was followed on stage by Medbh McGuckian, who subsequently read Elgy.
Australian poet, Bob Morrow, was next to pay tribute, followed by Kate and Joan Newman, who read Album No 3 from Human Chain and A Sofa in the 40s respectively.
“That was Seamus’ great strength – he was himself,” said Joan. She added that although he had believed in the after-life, “he strongly believed in the one we have now.”
“It informed everything he did – that energy,” she said.
Heaney’s talent for writing elegies was subsequently honoured as many poets chose to read some of the personal tributes he had penned for others over the years. Heaney had, as poet Frank Ormsby said, set the bar incredibly high for anyone to write an elegy for him.
Michael Scott who followed, said he and Heaney had been “born in the same county, in the same week, in the same year” and had of course been friends throughout their lives.
With the words of Ireland’s great poet flavouring the air, Heaney’s inherent charm was subsequently remembered best in his own words.
Indeed, Damian Smyth, head of literature and drama at the Arts Council in Northern Ireland, said to him, Heaney was like a magician he remembered from his childhood – The Great Bamboozalum – he could pull out words and create anything with them.
He added: “From hereonin it (my job) will be a much more difficult job to perform without Seamus.”
Closing the tribute evening with more of the earlier traditional music and with a few final poems read by Maura Johnston, all that was left for her to say was that Heaney was “a great support as well as an inspiration.”
A charcoal portrait of Heaney’s solemn yet kindly face was propped up against the lectern throughout the evening as the poets read his work. His eyes seemed to smile comfortingly down at us all….
I think this is enough for one post, but I will be updating soon with posts and pics on the ‘In Conversation’ event with broadcaster William Crawley and writer Bernard MacLaverty (with a brief review of this to be in the Belfast Telegraph on Monday as far as I know), along with an account of Pat Loughrey’s talk on poet, Patrick Kavanagh and the poetry reading by Michael Longley. It was a fantastic weekend and let’s hope it wasn’t the last literary festival at Magherafelt’s Laurel Villa!