The Seamus Heaney Archives Exhibition in Dublin

We were in Dublin last week for 4 days. The main impetus for our going was to see the Seamus Heaney – my favourite poet – archives exhibition in the Bank of Ireland Cultural Centre on the city’s famous College Green. We had heard the excellent preview of the exhibition on a Front Row podcast which is well worth listening to. As you enter the building, you see the poster for the exhibition which shows Heaney looking contemplative.

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Seamus Heaney Exhibition in Dublin (Click on all photos to enlarge)

The first section deals with Heaney’s childhood and features 2 famous poems by him relating to his mother and father. The first is the 3rd sonnet from Clearances and here is Heaney reading it. Listen out for ” Like solder weeping off the soldering iron” and “Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives”. It is a very moving poem.

At my own mother’s funeral, I wrote a eulogy for her and included another Heaney poem in which he refers to “the cool clothes off the line” and folding sheets with his mother. They held the sheet and either end and “flapped and shook the fabric like sail in a cross wind”. The sheet then made “a dried-out, undulating thwack”. I am sure many people remember such happenings.

The poem in memory of his father – Digging – is even more famous. Below is a compilation of BBC clips of Heaney reading this poem. The poem begins “Between my finger and my thumb/ The squat pen rests; snug as a gun”. You can imagine a “squat” fountain pen in the poet’s hands. He then looks out of the window to see his father digging and he remembers his father digging potatoes 20 years before. The children picked the potatoes “Loving their cool hardness in our hands”. Heaney then reflects on his grandfather, who ” cut more turf in a day/ Than any other man on Toner’s bog”. This is a very physical poem but the poet also reflects on his own trade, stating that “But I’ve no spade to follow men like them./ Between my finger and my thumb/ The squat pen rests./ I’ll dig with it”. The repetition of the first lines are made more effective by the statement that Heaney will “dig” with his pen and be creative in another, less physical way.

The exhibition also covers Heaney’s poetical reflections on The Troubles in Northern Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s. In his poem Punishment, Heaney describes – graphically but also lovingly – the skeleton of a woman found in an Irish bog. At the end of the poem, he makes a subtle comment on the tarring and feathering of women in Ireland during The Troubles. Listening to Heaney reading the poem at the exhibition was a very moving experience. Here it is.

The final poem that sticks out in my memory from the exhibition is The Rain Stick which is a hollowed out cactus branch into which small stones have been put. These were used by tribes in South America to bring rain. Heaney’s take on the stick is that it sounds like rain when shaken. This poem shows the musicality in much of Heaney’s poetry and when you hear the poems read, as in the clips above, you can hear the melodies in Heaney’s language. The poem begins

Upend the rain stick and what happens next
Is a music that you never would have known
To listen for. In a cactus stalk

Downpour, sluice-rush, spillage and backwash
Come flowing through. You stand there like a pipe
Being played by water, you shake it again lightly

And diminuendo runs through all its scales
Like a gutter stopping trickling. And now here comes
A sprinkle of drops out of the freshened leaves,

Then subtle little wets off grass and daisies;
Then glitter-drizzle, almost breaths of air.

I urge you to read this poem out loud to yourself or get someone to read it to you. Then you will hear the rain in the “Downpour, sluice-rush, spillage” and “glitter-drizzle”. We came away from this exhibition uplifted by Heaney’s words and voice and also regretful that this Nobel Prize winning poet only lived until he was 74. If you can get to see it, then you must do so. If not, this introduction will give you a flavour of this entrancing exhibition.

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