On Seamus Heaney's turf


Seamus Heaney, 13 April 1939–30 August 2013

Seamus Heaney seated at a desk

You are lucky in life if you can meet someone who is both great and good. Seamus Heaney, the great Irish poet, was such a man.

In 1978–79 I had study leave and decided to go back to Harvard Graduate School of Education (I had been there previously in 1963–64) to undertake what was described as a 'mid-career' course, a certificate of advanced studies. Fortunately my advisor suggested that I should avoid any course that involved 'schools'. So I undertook philosophy and allied courses, and an advanced poetry workshop. This later was to have Seamus as the instructor.

He was a man of extraordinary generosity, a critic who could make adverse findings seem like winning lottery tickets. I knew I wasn't a great poet, and he knew it too, but he also knew I liked curling up in the word. He gave me an 'A'! His generosity was no more apparent though than when he agreed to contact an Aboriginal student whom I believed would become a good writer. He sent him a signed poem.

He loved oysters and several times we ate them together at 'One Potato, Two Potato' in Harvard Square. For him a good oyster was like a good word — palpable (he loved that word), firm and sweet, fresh and briny-laden.

When he was here for the Melbourne Writers Festival in 1994 I had breakfast with him and an old school friend of his who lived in Melbourne, Paddy. It was all lilt and love. I sat entranced. He charmed Melbourne and found much that was good in Australia. When he was 56, I received a card from him. He concluded, 'bend an elbow for me in Melbourne' — I had helped him find a cigar.

In September 2003, ten years ago, my wife and I went to Dublin, having been in England to see our son who lives there, and I let Seamus know that we would be staying at the Schoolhouse Hotel, which turned out not to be too far from the Strand where he lived. Upon our arrival there were three notes waiting; the first suggested a meeting, the second drinks, the third 'Heigho, we'll have some scrags'. He picked us up in a Mercedes Benz. I said something about a poet and such a car, 'Never mind it's got a broken window'.

He had just returned from Dundee where he had given that wonderful lecture 'Room to Rhyme' to graduating students and their parents. (Years later, having given away all my copies, I begged one of him. He sent the last he had. Being printed upside down 'might make it more valuable' — I don't know about that, but I do recommend it to anyone wanting to enter the world of writing. It's a gem.) The Lord Provost at Dundee had given him a bottle of rare scotch — Auchentoshan and a laurel wreath and the shell from a cannon fired in his honour.

I wrote the following verse in gratitude. ('Winnings' refers to the Nobel Prize and a fellow Irishman's comment.)

Congratulations on the winnings
Thanks to Marie and Seamus Heaney

You said, 'Heigho, we’ll have some scrags.'
I had to make new purchase on scrags,
Find an inkling in smoked salmon and red wine.

After twenty five years
There was still the puckish beneficence,
And scrags were sheer gleanings,

As was the Lord provost’s Auchentoshan,
Distilled to sate the petitioners’ tongues:
The palatable, in sweet remembrance, made durably palpable.

'No scotch could be too big':
The laurel-woven-wreath and the spent-cannon-shell
Encircled and powdered that dictum.

Conversation, like conjunctions, breaches memory,
And makes congratulations into a festive frolic.

It was a night of complete hospitality and he wrote a travel guide to Dublin for us, 'Fart around the Dart' (or Dublin Area Rapid Transit)!

He was unfailingly polite and always responded to the birthday greetings I sent him each year in April. This year there was silence. I felt that something was amiss. He had written in 2006 saying he'd had a small stroke. He was then in high expectations of the arrival of a first grandchild. In the letter he included a copy of a get well card — 'His condition is improving rapidly — he is sitting up in bed blowing the froth off his medicine!' (Flann O'Brien). Sadly, Warfarin limited his 'froth'.

I have always loved the 'Bog' poems and I read the book The Bog People that was useful to Seamus. It seems to me that those poems have made a new 'turf' for the preservation of the people dug up from the past. The past is made present, the new present is made a future. He gives a voice to them in his own voice, and the two will ring out so long as man reads. His language is tough, resilient and enduring. It is the language of the deep soil made flesh by the 'snug gun' in his hand. Digging is the beginning and the ending. We should rejoice at the spade-work and the love that went with it.

In his very first book, Death of a Naturalist (1966), the first poem is 'Digging'. It concludes:

between my finger and my thumb
the squat pen rests.
I'll dig with it.

He's back in his turf.



by Peter Gebhardt 
for Seamus Heaney on his 70th birthday, 13 April 2009

'I made no vows but vows
Were then made for me ...'

'Praising, that’s it!’

'And the word was made flesh
And dwelt among us …’
Flesh gives its word and keeps it,
A compact,
To dig and to glean,
To heave the harvest from the hosting soil.

'Ah yes,’ says Justin, 'germination grounds incarnation’.
A day late mind you!

Milestones can be millstones,
But not so,
Just polished stepping stones
Across the shining, running, trilling stream
To a distant edge where trees are thick.
It is dark there
And the wretched blackbird is hovering again,
But the eels still slither, trout hoop upstream.

The papal smoke thick thatch
And the farm house’s stoked fire
Endow the times with a special glow.
Singing to the legislators
The redress of the word
In building.

Not bombing.

Strangers invited to hold his hand,
We are all stronger
As we join the realms,
The troubling and the troubled,
Man and this world,
And the glorious company of word-weavers.

Peter Gebhardt headshotPeter Gebhardt is a retired school principal and judge. His most recent book is Black and White Onyx: New and Selected Poems 1988–2011.

Topic tags: Peter Gebhardt, Seamus Heaney, poetry



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Existing comments

Thanks for these words about Seamus Heaney. I have had only a very limited exposure to his poetry but I like everything I've read. My husband and I are planning to visit Ireland next year as part of a journey around Europe. 'Fart Around the Dart' sounds like one fine travel guide!
Pam | 04 September 2013

Beautiful tribute by Peter Gebhardt to the great Seamus Heaney. Thank you Eureka Street.
John Jacobs | 04 September 2013

Thank you, Eureka Street, for publishing Peter Gebhart's tribute to Seamus Heaney. I was fortunate enough to be born in Northern Ireland three years before Seamus. I was more fortunate after my family migrated to Australia in 1949 to have an English Literature teacher who believed that every time the English language was stagnating along cam an Irish writer to revive it. Of course the other twentynine boys in the class reckoned the teacher, a minor poet himself, was exaggerating but I knew in my blood he was right. Names I grew up with - Swift, Goldsmith, Sheridan, Moore, Wilde, Yeats, Shaw, Joyce, Synge - were produced to prove his point. I would add Heaney to the list. But more than his poetry, rich and brilliant though it is, I believe Heaney's Nobel Lecture in 1995, Crediting Poetry, is the best composition he ever wrote. One sentence I shall never forget - "Poetic form is both the ship and the anchor". Rest in Poesie, Seamus Heaney, you were faithful to your Muse and your blood!
Joe Quigley | 05 September 2013

I very much enjoyed this tribute to Seamus Heaney, and it is a great reminder to return to poetry. Many thanks Peter Gebhardt.
Geraldine Mackey | 05 September 2013

Thank you for this lovely reminiscence abut Seamus Heaney. I think there must be many thousands of us who have little stories of encounters with this singular man. My own are slight, but did include tea with him and a mutual friend in the early 80s. I first came to love his poems when I met him and several of the Belfast poetry set at the Yeats Summer School in Sligo during that momentous summer of 1969. We all sat numbed before the t.v. in the social room watching the eruption of first Derry and then Belfast in the early days of the "Troubles." It might interest the author of this piece and some readers to learn that it is possible to see coverage of the funeral as well as a fine documentary. We went to the website for RTE (Irish Radio and Television), downloaded a free App and were able to be present from a distance (Florida) at the beautiful Mass in Dublin. I believe it will only be available for a week or so, but may be of comfort to those who feel the loss of this great soul.
Sheila | 05 September 2013

Thanks for a worthy tribute to a great man. His passing seemed to put a temporary halt to Irish anger with banks and builders. Yesterday, my wife and I visited Derry from our temporary base here in Donegal. As we passed St Columb's College, the teacher in me could but marvel at a secondary school that would have two Nobel prize winners on its roll at the same time. Did young John Hume (Year 9) claim rights to schoolyard seating over Seamus Heaney (Year 7)?
Frank | 05 September 2013

Thank God for Seamus Heaney and his wonderful gift. Please God, he's caught up with his friend and fellow poet, Fr Peter Steele SJ, both lead tenor additions to the choirs of heaven
John Kelly | 07 September 2013

Loved the details in this piece, almost as much as I love Seamus Heaney's poems. Thanks for this.
Pat Frisella | 13 September 2013


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