The Irish Poet of Europe

Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney opens a major conference at the University of Vienna’s Institute for English and American Studies

Nobel Laureate Heaney, who visited Vienna early this month | Photo courtesy of Mr. Heaney

Irish poet and Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney visited the Austrian Capital to deliver the Keynote Address for the seventh biannual conference of the European Federation of Associations and Centres of Irish Studies (EFACIS), held in Vienna this year for the first time. At the opening session on Sept. 3 in the Großer Festsaal of the University, Heaney spoke about “Mossbawn via Mantua: A Reading with Commentary” and discussed his poetic influences.

Vienna Review: Like many poets, you have often been inspired by your personal, social and historical roots. In the case of Ireland, these roots are considered (in an almost cliché fashion) to be especially strong: Is there more than a grain of truth to the idea of the island and its language being especially strongly bonded? And how is this expressed in your writing?

Heaney: The Gaelic poets regarded the mythological Amergin as the ur-poet of Ireland.  He had arrived from what is now northern Spain with the Milesian invaders and it was thanks to his magic spells that these ancestral Milesians took possession of the country. The first poem he spoke on the shore was a blessing on the land.

So from that mythological moment, right down through Irish history and literature, in the days of the Irish language and later in English, a national, bardic role has always been available to Irish poets, and at times of crisis they have been expected to fulfil it. The young W. B. Yeats, for example, accounted himself ‘true brother of a company/That sang to sweeten Ireland’s wrong.’  Even Joyce, in the voice of his alter ego, Stephan Dedalus, spoke of ‘forging in the smithy of his soul the uncreated conscience of the race.’

So there is that tradition, but it is one that modern writers have responded to always cautiously, often ironically, sometimes with downright mockery. In my own case, the pressure to fulfil the role of poetical representative for the catholic nationalist minority in the north was always present, but no poet can afford to surrender himself to be the voice of the party line. Your inner freedom has to be protected.

Vienna Review: The Ireland as we generally knew it from abroad has given way to a new image of the Gaelic tiger, the fast modernizing EU member, the site of many high-tech companies, etc. Is the country changing fundamentally? How do you react to today’s Ireland emotionally?

Heaney: The country has changed dramatically, even drastically, since the middle of the last century.  You could almost say it went from pre-modernity to post-modernity, without experiencing the intermediate stage.

Sudden prosperity, a relatively sudden lapse from religious faith, decline of clerical authority, loss of respect for that authority, and now, just as suddenly, loss of prosperity – all these things have disoriented the individual and communal consciousness.  I suppose I react to it obstinately, in that my landscape and imagery are generally fixed in a remembered world, and I’d say the function of poetry is to record the adventures of the spirit rather than politics and sociology of the moment.

Vienna Review: The general title of this year’s EFACIS conference is “Ireland in/and Europe: Cross-Currents and Exchanges”: To what extent is the “in” justified, or should the two entities just be viewed side by side (“and”)?

Heaney: This is a big question and I’m uneasy about giving an answer that is too neat or too simple. It is a case of ‘both/and’ rather than ‘either/or’.  Geographically and linguistically, we are on the edge of Europe; but because of one and a half millennia of Judaeo-Christian culture we are well and truly ‘in’.  And if the EU equals ‘Europe’, we are hopefully ‘in’ there, too.

Vienna Review: Your keynote address was called “Mossbawm via Mantua”. The former is your birthplace and the title of “two poems in dedication” published long ago. The latter is a town in Italy. Is there a poetic connection between them?

Heaney: Mantua was the birthplace of the Latin poet Virgil and I recently wrote a short sequence of autobiographical poems which drew parallels between certain remembered moments and corresponding episodes in Virgil’s Aeneid.

The title is also an allusion to a remark made by Stephen Dedalus in Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and a variation upon it.  Stephen said, ‘The shortest way to Tara is via Holyhead’, meaning that departure from Ireland into Europe gave a new perspective on Irish experience. So that title was intended to suggest that I would be talking about the way certain European poets and places and traditions gave me a plane of regard from which to view my Irish and more particuarly my Nothern Irish experience.

Vienna Review: In late August, Ted Kennedy was buried, the “lion of the Senate” (Obama) and the last of what was probably the most powerful Irish family in U.S. politics. From the perspective of Ireland: How did this event resonate in you? How much pride, sorrow, but perhaps also skepticism or distance did you experience?

Heaney:  I met Ted Kennedy on several occasions, first in his Senate office in the 1980s, then later at a family dinner after a poetry reading in the Kennedy Center, and once when he visited Derry in the company of John Hume. I also knew Jean Kennedy Smith when she was ambassador to Ireland under Clinton.

They were of immense importance in bringing Northern Ireland to the center of attention in Downing Street and the White House, and as such they played a crucial role in the ameliorization of the political situation and the eventual success of the peace process.

So the Irish have every good reason to salute the Kennedy contribution, and I was very sorry that I could not accept an invitation to Harvard last December to be his official escort when he was awarded an honorary degree. On the same day I was committed to a public event in my own alma mater in Belfast, otherwise I’d have crossed the ocean to celebrate him.

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