Remembering Seamus Heaney

Contact Us

Download Remembering Seamus Heaney from BBC Podcasts

BBC Radio Foyle, 16-17 November 2013, BBC Podcasts
This documentary celebrated the life and work of the poet, who died on 30 August 2013, aged 74.  We were taken to his birthplace, and the school buildings he attended in Derry.  Drawing on extensive archive footage, presenter John Toal traced his radio career as a presenter and/or subject of a variety of programmes for schools as well as for general listeners.  The surviving members of his family offered their reminiscences as a coda.
What emerged most tangibly from the programme was Heaney's awareness of his background.  His father grew up as a cattle-dealer, while his mother came from a family with stronger connections to the modern world than rural life; her uncles and relatives were employed in the local linen mill.  Heaney was aware of this significant tension in his upbringing, a tension that corresponded to another inner tension also inherited from his parents, that between speech and silence. 
Heaney grew up as a country boy; even though his life involved a series of moves away from his birthplace, he was acutely aware of the "country of the mind" that informed his poetry.  At the age of twelve, he was removed from his rural life to attend St. Columb's College, a boarding school forty miles away.  Unable to see his family on a regular basis, he described this shift as a removal "from the earth of farm labour to the heaven of education." While suffering feelings of acute loneliness, Heaney nonetheless enjoyed the experience of listening to poetry for the first time, and understanding its significance for his future.
The documentary incorporated recollections from some present-day learners at St. Colomb's, many of whom were profoundly affected by Heaney's poems.  Throughout his career the poet understood the importance of poetry's responsibilities and prerogatives in the world; not only should it be rooted in daily language, but it should address daily concerns.  Poets have a social as well as an imaginative obligation to the world they inhabit.
Heaney was a natural radio broadcaster; not only did he have an excellent speaking voice, but his poems were accessible to everyone.  He tried to draw on his Gaelic heritage, showing how it was both politically and culturally central to his work.  While referring to the situation in Ulster in his poems - especially during the Sixties and Seventies - Heaney was not necessarily directly political in his work.  He was more preoccupied with the experience of being born into and shaped by a society deeply divided along social and religious lines.
Although showered with honours throughout his career, Heaney always realized the significance of his roots.  This helped to explain the sense of regret expressed by his brothers, following his death.
Remembering Seamus Heaney was so much more than a documentary; it emphasized the importance of the poet's role in the modern world as commentator, broadcaster, and communicator.