In the early 1980s I visited rural Ireland for the first time. Sitting around the oilcloth-covered table in my friends’ farmhouse kitchen, I had not the faintest idea what anyone was talking about. It took me a few days to ‘get my ear in’ to the local lingo, the rapid-fire chat of agricultural Ireland.
And so it was when I sat down at the Royal Scots Club to listen to Larry McCluskey’s Awhile with Seamus Heaney, a tribute to the Nobel Prize winner whom Robert Lowell called ‘the most important Irish poet since Yeats.’ McCluskey delivers Heaney’s story at such speed and with such energy that for a while I just let his wonderful voice wash over me. Within a few minutes, he has you in the zone; you are there in Mossbawn, the family home, ‘a one story, lowish, longish, whitewashed house’, where the railway has ‘a big presence’, and from where Heaney took images that lasted his whole life.
McCluskey has a real gift for drawing pictures with his words. This is no lecture, it is an almost filmic panorama of Heaney’s life, of the everyday things that inspired his writing, from the slopes of Slieve Gallion to the ticking of two clocks in the parlour, the demobbed uncle arriving home after the Second World War, the local forge – whose blacksmith once directed Heaney in a play -, the primary school at Anahorish. It’s all there, and McCluskey himself has a fine poetic turn of phrase in describing it :
‘It was the age of ghosts, of handheld flashlights…a place of wakes and funerals…of pumps and water, game cocks and the magic of radio.’
McCluskey intersperses the stories with Heaney’s poems – Mossbawn: Sunlight, describing the domesticity of home, A Constable Calls, his father evading questions about his crop returns (‘arithmetic and fear’). We glide smoothly from one life event to the next – Heaney leaving the safety of parents and primary school to board in Derry, a wrenching moment beautifully encapsulated in The Conway Stewart (‘in a more affluent household it would’ve been a Parker’) – then brings us up short with the sudden death of Heaney’s baby brother Christopher and the child’s wake evoked in Mid-Term Break, with few, all-telling, words.
From Derry we move swiftly on to Queen’s University, Belfast, teaching , lecturing, marriage, and more and more poems. Heaney moves away from his rural roots (Digging) and McCluskey talks a little of the incertus, uncertainty, that never left him, and which he came to see as a necessity in the artist’s life. He even published his first poems under this pseudonym, and later described himself as ‘a shy soul fretting and all that’.
Heaney went to Station Island on Lough Derg several times as a student, though as a poet rather than a pilgrim. His 1984 collection of the same name includes imagined meetings with people from his past, with poets – notably Joyce, who tells him to stop worrying and get on with his writing – and with victims of the Troubles.
3,720 people died in those Troubles, but although Heaney’s family was Catholic and nationalist, as an artist he was careful not to back either side, a stance for which he was often derided, and sometimes seems to have derided himself.
McCluskey gave a wonderful reading of part of Heaney’s Whatever You Say, Say Nothing, which itself is a powerful commentary on the situation in the Six Counties in the ’70s, describing the lengths to which people will go to find out which side you are on (‘you know them by their eyes’); the journalists wanting a story, a fresh bomb crater beside a motorway.
As Heaney became a best-selling poet, he was able to give up teaching and write full time, holding academic positions in Dublin, the USA and Oxford. He was generous with his time, so much so that, after he had won the Nobel Prize in 1995 with what the judges described as :
‘works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past’
his wife Marie had to manage his book signings to stop them turning into marathons.
In 1999 Heaney produced an acclaimed new translation of Beowulf and in 2002 a hypnotically beautiful one of Sorley Maclean’s haunting Gaelic poem Hallaig (‘Time, the deer, is in Hallaig Wood.’)
McCluskey rushes us through Heaney’s last years, the death of his parents, his own stroke, one of his last poems The Blackbird of Glanmore, with its thoughts of death and departure.
And then, when we are once again sailing along on this whirlwind of a life so fully lived, we are again brought up short. Heaney died, suddenly and unexpectedly, six years ago this August month. His last text to Marie : ‘Noli Timere’ – ‘do not be afraid.’
McCluskey vividly conveys the grief, which was both worldwide and, as with all things to do with this complex man, uniquely local. He tells us that, as the funeral cortege passed through on its way to Bellaghy, old neighbours, and that same blacksmith stood outside and watched. We are back there in Mossbawn. Our journey is complete.
Johannes Brahms’ Lullaby was performed at Heaney’s funeral, the congregation humming the tune. McCluskey invites us to do the same now, as he plays the harmonica, and the lights slowly fade away.
This was an unusual and engaging show, although I felt that at times it could have benefited from a slightly slower delivery. The overall effect was perhaps as Heaney (whose chosen currency was, after all, the image), would have wished – fleeting, elusive pictures of a man who is often described as ‘earthy’ but had ‘no spade to follow men like them./Between my finger and my thumb/The squat pen rests./I’ll dig with it.’
Awhile with Seamus Heaney, written and performed by Larry McCluskey was staged at The Royal Scots Club, 29-31 Abercromby Place (Venue 241)