Personal Archive: Catherine Heaney on Father Seamus

CATHERINE HEANEY recounts the process of SELECTING POEMS and memorabilia for a NEW EXHIBITION in Dublin dedicated to her father Seamus …

Seamus Heaney with daughter Catherine Ann, contributing editor, THE GLOSS, at home in Sandymount.

For the past 18 months or more, the National Library of Ireland has been working with my family on “Seamus Heaney: Listen Now Again”, a major exhibition of my father’s literary archive. It launched yesterday at the new Cultural and Heritage Centre in the Bank of Ireland’s historic College Green building, and by the time you read this, the team there will be getting ready to open the doors to the public today, Friday July 6. The experience of getting to this point has been a momentous one: rewarding, illuminating, daunting, exciting, at times emotional, at times a little surreal (seeing well-loved objects from your family home displayed in a museum vitrine being a case in point). Above all, it has been a privilege to watch the exhibition take shape through the dedication and hard work of so many people.

The exhibition includes original manuscripts, letters, diary entries, notebooks and objects such as a pen belonging to Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney.

Dad donated his archive to the National Library in 2010 – loading up the car and driving into Kildare Street himself to deliver the boxes – with the intention that his literary papers be available to anyone who wanted to consult them. So there is something poignant in seeing that wish become a reality, and I like to think he would have been proud to see his work displayed in the colonnaded rotunda of this magnificent building. Central to the exhibition are his notebooks and manuscripts, which show the creative process evolve before the viewer’s eyes, as poems are teased out and refined, draft by draft, with revisions, notes, deletions and changes written all over the page in my father’s distinctive hand. Or, as curator Geraldine Higgins more eloquently put it, “Ultimately, what we find when we turn to Heaney’s notebooks and drafts, letters and printed books is not just the invaluable poetic legacy but the human traces of a writing life unfolding in real time”. Among those “human traces” are moving personal entries and notes – little glimpses of our family life – such as this one, on the first page of a copybook dated Christmas 1973:

“The boys gave me this – one from Michael and one from Christopher so I am writing in them immediately. It’s half nine, Chris is still in his pyjamas, Christmas Miscellany is on the radio, Marie is making breakfast and Catherine Ann, 8 months old today, is sitting eating her finger with her two bottom teeth saying Ba Ba.”

As well as the notebooks, there are imaginative visual elements which – I hope – will delight visitors, such as a specially commissioned work by the artist Maser (who famously painted a wall in Dublin’s South Richmond Street with the words “Don’t Be Afraid”, recalling Dad’s final text to my mother), and other unexpected flourishes and contributions.

Catherine with her mother Marie and brothers Michael and Christopher.

I can take no credit for the incredible, visionary work that has gone into creating “Listen Now Again” – that must all go to Geraldine and the team at the NLI – but my own efforts and those of my mother and two brothers have gone into a new selection of my father’s work, that we have chosen and published to coincide with the exhibition’s launch. Entitled simply 100 Poems, the book covers the whole span of his career – from first collection to last – and includes his best-loved poems, such as “Mid-Term Break” and “Postscript”, and others that have special resonance for us as a family. While 100 might sound like a lot of poems, it was surprisingly difficult to whittle down our selection from Dad’s twelve original volumes. And as we met for a bout of Eurovision-style voting on what would make the cut, all four of us clutching our list of contenders, there was a fair bit of negotiating, bargaining and persuasion before we reached our final decisions.

Inevitably, one of my favourites is “A Hazel Stick for Catherine Ann” in which Dad describes a walk I remember well, on a family holiday in France in 1981. Out walking in fields at twilight, me carrying the hazel stick Dad had trimmed for me that day, I saw my first glow-worm. I couldn’t believe that this bright, neon-seeming light in the grass – “a tiny brightening den” as Dad describes it in the poem – was a natural, living thing. And it’s that same sense of wonder I hope children and adults will feel themselves when they read these poems afresh and visit the exhibition – that they’ll experience a moment of illumination and joy.

“Seamus Heaney: Listen Now Again” opens at Bank of Ireland, College Green, Dublin 2, today Friday July 6; admission free; www.nli.ie. 100 Poems by Seamus Heaney is published by Faber & Faber (£10.99stg).

Catherine Heaney

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