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On Seamus Heaney's turf

  • 05 September 2013

Seamus Heaney, 13 April 1939–30 August 2013

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