ALMOST SIX months have passed since the death of the much-loved poet Seamus Heaney and Galway will commemorate his life and work in a gala event at NUI Galway’s Bailey Allen Hall on Wednesday February 26.
A stellar line-up of writers, actors, and musicians take part, including Stephen Rea, Tom Kilroy, Eva Bourke, Moya Cannon, Rita Ann Higgins, Mary O’Malley, John Behan, Brendan Flynn, Sean McGinley, Marie Mullen, Mairtin O’Connor, Mary McPartlan, Kathleen Loughnane, and Brendan O’Regan.
One of the main organisers of the tribute evening is retired dentist Des Kavanagh who was a longtime close friend of Heaney.
“I knew Seamus for about 62 years in all,” he tells me as he reflects on his friendship with the poet. “We first met in the school corridor in Derry outside the president’s office where we were queuing with our mothers on our first day as boarders at St Columb’s College.
“It was the first president either of us had ever met but in due course presidents would queue to meet Seamus. When the Heaneys had gone into the president’s room my mother turned to me, she had been talking to Mrs Heaney, and she said ‘that Mrs Heaney is a very nice, respectable woman and her wee boy could be a pal for you.’
“Such advice to a 12-year-old boy doesn’t usually gain much traction but when we went upstairs to the dormitory we were put in adjoining cubicles and later that day in the refectory we were put at the same table. And the following morning we were put in the same class so we kept colliding.”
The class that Kavanagh and Heaney shared proved to be a remarkable one. It included poet, critic, and novelist Seamus Deane; future Professor of Scholastic Philosophy at Queen’s University Belfast, Hugh Braiden; future Secretary General in the Department of Finance Paddy Mullarkey, and architect and sculptor Eamon O’Doherty, one of whose best-known public sculptures is the Galway Hooker in Eyre Square.
“Seamus in that class starred academically in all subjects, “ Kavanagh recalls. “He had a photographic memory and would have been a teacher’s delight. He was also a great actor and had lead parts in the school plays. Then they made him prefect which wasn’t a perfect recipe for popularity in a boys’ school but it did not prove to be any burden to Seamus. With his charm he was extremely popular with boys and teachers alike.”
Did Heaney display any glimpses of his future poetic gifts at that time?
“He was an outstanding student of English but wasn’t writing poetry then,” Kavanagh replies. “I do remember though that he was an avid reader of the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Thomas Hardy, and Shakespeare also. He started writing poetry in Queen’s University when he came under the influence of Philip Hobsbaum who put a writing group together with Seamus, Michael Longley, Derek Mahon, and various others.”
Heaney went on to become the most-read poet in the English language. As Carol Ann Duffy, the English Poet Laureate, said: “He was the poet by which other poets measured themselves.”
Heaney’s fame meant there were ceaseless demands on his time from people wanting him to read or lecture yet he coped with the stress admirably, as Kavanagh observes.
“It must have been a strain at times but he was remarkably adept at coping with it,” he says. “He didn’t like saying ‘No’ but as the pressure mounted he had to from time to time but he would inevitably do it tactfully, often with a letter in his own handwriting.
“After he got the Nobel Prize the pressure on him increased very considerably. He said he felt ‘as if the whole world was pressing its nose against his windowpane’. His post was no longer delivered in the letterbox from that time on, the postman came with a sack. So he had to be very organised to deal with that. If you wrote to Seamus on a Monday, you would get a reply back on the Wednesday; he was very meticulous in dealing with it and very good at dealing with it.”
Heaney was a frequent visitor to Galway and its environs and always delighted in his forays here.
“He loved coming here to the West,” Kavanagh affirms. “Himself and Marie spent part of their honeymoon in Barna and it was after that he wrote his lovely poem ‘Girls Bathing’ which is on the prom now. When we were all younger (and wilder!) he and Marie came down over a number of years to us during the Galway Oyster Festival, as far as I know that was the first time he had oysters, when he was out in Morans, which he marked in his poem ‘Oysters’.”
I ask Des if he has a personal favourite from Heaney’s poems.
“I’d be drawn in particular to a poem he wrote in memory of our youngest son Rory who sadly died at the age of 25 and Seamus has a lovely poem in memory of him in Electric Light,” he replies. “My own personal favourite, and I told him this, is ‘District and Circle’ about the London Underground.
“In my earlier years I lived in London and used the Underground a lot so I am very familiar with the imagery that he conjures in it, it’s a tremendous poem I think. I was telling him that it was my favourite poem and, typically, he was in London a few months after that and sent me a postcard on which he said ‘I was on the Underground today thinking of what you said’ – he was very thoughtful like that. He was a terrific correspondent, his favourite way of contacting you was by writing to you.”
The tribute to Seamus Heaney takes place in the Bailey Allen Hall in NUIG on Wednesday February 26 at 7.30pm. Tickets are €10 and are available from OMG Zhivago, online through www.cancercarewest.ie or by phone from 091 - 545006.
And Des Kavanagh’s final words? “As Seamus said to me about another event we were both involved in some years ago ‘I think we have the tyres pumped up to just the right pressure’.”