The boy who learned ‘slabs of poetry’

Seamus Heaney was not quite sure whether, as an adult, he ‘invented backwards’ some of his earliest fascination with words, but he didn’t think so. Because he could still picture the small boy absorbed by the old wireless in his farmhouse home, between Castledawson and Toomebridge, in Northern Ireland.* He would touch and pronounce some of the names on its dial, such as Hilversum, Stuttgart and Leipzig.

Even as a boy he loved the Shipping Forecast. Four times a day the BBC reads out the weather around the British Islands, where the sea is divided into 33 areas with names such as Cromarty, Forth, Dogger, and Trafalgar.

There were the Christmas rhymers, the tail-end of the Mummer tradition, with such rhymes as

Here comes Ivor Johnny

The man to collect the money

All silver and no brass’

A bad ha’pence won’t pass...

And the nonsense rhymes of children:

I fell in love with an Irish girl

She sang an Irish dance

She lived in Tipperary

Just a few miles from France.

But a significant influence was his national school teacher Master Murphy, who was an elderly man when Heaney entered the Castledawson school at Anahorish. Murphy was a Dickensian figure with winged collars, and always a waistcoat. There was ‘no mucking about’ when it came to poetry. He made the children learn ‘vast slabs of Byron and Keats’. In 1951, at the age of 12 years, Heaney won a scholarship to St Columb’s College, in Derry. On his first day a teacher was sent into his class just to keep them occupied while the school was settling down. He went around all the boys asking them to recite any poem that they knew. Each boy recited wholesome poems such as The Highwayman, or Lord Ullin’s Daughter. However, when he came to young Heaney he was astounded when the boy stood up, and in a clear voice rattled off The Eve of Waterloo:

There was a sound of revelry by night,

And Belgium’s capital had gathered then

Her beauty and her chivalry, and bright

The lamps shone o’er fair women and brave men.

A thousand hearts beat happily; and when

Music arose with its voluptuous swell,

Soft eyes looked love to eyes which spake again,

And all went merry as a marriage bell;

But Hush! hark! a deep sound strikes like a rising knell!

Halfway through Keat’s Ode to Autumn, the teacher stopped the boy. “ Where did you learn all that?” he asked.

“ From Master Murphy, Sir. At Castledawson primary school.”

Happy to talk

I got some insight into the early influences on Seamus Heaney listening to a series of interviews carried out by John Quinn, the renowned Clarinbridge broadcaster and writer. John is rarely without his microphone in the back of his car. A photographer would whip out his or her camera if an interesting opportunity presented itself; John, just as quickly, produces a microphone. And Heaney, as everyone testifies, was a very generous man with his time. Despite enormous pressure on him to appear, lecture, write, address, from all over the world, if he possibly could, he would make time for you. He clearly enjoyed John’s gentle humour and unobtrusive presence which invites openness. Heaney was happy to talk whenever they met up through the years. After one interview, on his education and early influences, Heaney contacted John later to follow up on a childhood theme.**

‘Leaving parents’

His first teacher, Catherine Walls, “ Was the surrogate mother for sure. The thing I remember from her class was fairytales. I remember doing transcription from the board, and also the Vere Foster headlines you had to write. I can still see the coloured lines in those copybooks with the pink and the very light duck-egg blue lines. I came across one the other day, and it went to my heart.”

Learning’s easy carried! The bag is light

Scuffed and supple and unemptiable

As an itinerant school conjuror’s hat

So take it, for a word-hoard and a handsel,

As you step out trig and look back all at once

Like a child on his first morning leaving parents.

(From The Schoolbag )

‘Leaving parents’ was a big deal in the Heaney house as it is for every household. Years later when his own children were going to school, his wife Marie, could bear to take them on their first day. Seamus took each of their three children. “ You have a very strong sense as a parent that you are taking the little creature out of the nest life, out of the den life, and handing him or her over to the world of culture or the world of society.

“ A couple of days after she went to school, our daughter Catherine said to Marie, ‘ A lot of girls cried and said they wanted their Mammy. I didn’t, but my heart thinked it.’”

NOTES:* Heaney was born on April 13 1939, the first of nine children. In 1953 the family moved a few miles away to Bellaghy, which is now the family home. “It was not a book-house,” remarked Heaney, “ but a farm-house going about its farming business, which was an education of a kind too.”

**John Quinn has produced a two CD Memories of Seamus Heaney, consisting of all his interviews and chats with the great poet, who sadly died last August. Memories was distributed privately this Christmas, and is not on general sale. It’s a joy to hear Heaney’s voice again. If you can find a copy of My Education, interviews by John Quinn on famous people’s early years, Seamus Heaney talks at some length. Produced in 1997, the book is regretfully out of print; but you may be lucky in Charlie Byrne’s.

Next Week:

A Christmas Miscellany - including Jeff O’Connell looking at The Dead. - James Joyces wonderful story with its important Galway connections; More about the enigmatic Mayor of Boston James Michael Curley. A mysterious American spice for the Christmas pudding at Killimor, maybe another Churchill story, poems, and lots more...

This will appear on Friday December 27,

Happy Christmas.


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