President Michael D. Higgins, in his speech to open Seamus Heaney: Listen Now Again at the new Bank of Ireland Cultural and Heritage Centre on College Green commented on the many facets of Heaney, ‘the farmer’s son, the Bellaghy native, the emerging poet, the well loved teacher, the Nobel Laureate, the good friend, the husband and father.’ All of these aspects of the poet’s life are on display in Listen Now Again as we get escorted through Heaney’s life and work in four stages. ‘Excavations’ looks at his early life, with childhood photographs of Heaney in his hometown of Mossbawn, which inspired so much of his early writing and particular attention is paid to his fascination with the bog, another strong symbol of his early work. ‘Creativity’ deals with his writing process and includes his writing desk and a lamp which belonged to WB Yeats. ‘Conscience’ presents Heaney’s relationship with ‘the Troubles’ and his exploration of social justice in violent times. ‘Marvels’ looks at his later work and feels like the lighter of the four areas, like his later poetry there is a celebratory nature to this area, celebrating new life and youth in time.
The opening of this exhibition by President Higgins coincides with both last month’s opening of the Seamus Heaney Centre at his home in Bellaghy, County Derry and the recent publication of 100 poems, a collection of 100 of Heaney’s poems as selected by his sons; Michael and Christopher and daughter, Catherine. The poems within the collection span Heaney’s writing life. It opens with ‘Digging’, also the first poem in his first major published volume, Death of a Naturalist in 1966 and ends with ‘In Time’, the last poem he wrote.
Throughout the exhibition, we see both the life of the poet and the life of the poem as it evolves. Poems are presented with notes and scribbles on drafts as they make the journey from idea to masterpiece. This is evidence of the care and craft that went into every word, not just the choice of word but the place, the adding of words and the removal of others can be clearly observed and will be of special interest to those who will see how their favourite poems took shape.
The project began in 2014 and Professor Geraldine Higgins, curator of the exhibition says that it was the distillation process which took the most time, choosing manuscripts and artifacts from a selection that was originally three times the exhibition’s size ‘that spoke both to people who want to see a mixture of the familiar and things they have never seen before.’
The exhibition ends with the words ‘Don’t Be Afraid’ in large white print on a black wall. These were Heaney’s last words, communicated in Latin via a text message to his wife, Marie. Visitors are invited to write on the black wall that surrounds the words with chalk as they leave the exhibition. It seems fitting that the first people to write on the wall are Heaney’s grandchildren, who some of his later poems are dedicated to. There is a chalk drawing of a kite with ‘I am Aibhín’ proudly written beside it. ‘A Kite for Aibhín’ is one of Heaney’s final poems.
When Seamus Heaney died five years ago, it was commented that he was the type of man who could hold a conversation with royalty in a palace or a farmer leaning on a hedge with equal tact. He was a poet for everyone and this exhibition reflects that, it contains his modest desk from his Dublin home, which, though worn with age and use, projects an air of focus and intellect that was also found in the eyes of the writer that look out from a range of photographs taken throughout his life, from his youth in Bellaghy to the Nobel stage in Stockholm through to his later home and workspace in Dublin.
The location of this exhibition is paramount to its inevitable success. The central location of the College Green Complex of The Bank of Ireland will allow visitors ‘to step off the street into an oasis of poetry,’ as stated by Geraldine Higgins. Marie Heaney spoke of the importance of her husband’s work staying in Ireland and of how the poet himself delivered boxes of his literary archive – with the help of his son Michael – to the National Library, ensuring their safe preservation in Ireland. It will provide a focal point for poetry enthusiasts who live in or visit the capital, as Marie Heaney said, to ‘watch poetry flourish here in the heart of the city of Dublin.’
President Higgins noted in his speech to open the exhibition that ‘a poem is never finished, for it lives again in every reading’. This exhibition proves the immortality of not only the poem, but also the poet. As generations pass through this space, they are given the opportunity to not just read the poetry, but reincarnate the poet through his voice, his image, his life and most importantly, his words.
‘Seamus Heaney: Listen Now Again’ opens on Friday, 6th July, and members of the public will be able to visit Monday to Saturday, from 10am to 4pm. In addition, the exhibition will open on a number of Sundays and other key dates, such as Culture Night. ‘Listen Now Again’ will run in the Bank of Ireland Cultural and Heritage Centre until December 2021.