Remembering my teacher, Seamus Heaney
In May 1993, Seamus Heaney gave the annual Pratt Lecture at Memorial University, and later that evening, in the cosy atmosphere of the Ship Inn in downtown St John’s, I had a chat with my former teacher.
I had attended St. Joseph’s College of Education in Belfast from 1963-1966, and my English teacher was the young Seamus Heaney who, like me, came from a small farm in South Derry.
The college, known locally as the “The Ranch,” was perched like the Masada at the top of Falls Road. It was a teacher training college for Catholic men in Northern Ireland and it doubled as a cross between a medium security prison and a Trappist monastery. The lanky Seamus Heaney wore a black robe several sizes too small.
His enthusiasm and love of language entranced me for three academic years, and every Easter he
I loved how he could read poetry with such conviction.
staged and directed an “Everyman” play.
Even though I only had attended college for six weeks, I was assigned teaching practice for two weeks. Imagine my surprise in the first week when my gangling English teacher, dressed in a grey suit and carrying his brown leather briefcase, strode into the back of the classroom. Without an introduction I jumped right into my lesson so quickly that I put all my attention on the half-dozen students in the first row, while there was total bedlam with the 35 other students in the classroom.
I knew I made a real mess of it, and afterwards Seamus sat down with me. But it looked to me he had made no notes during his evaluation. He paused.
“Mickey,” he said in a low, slow voice and paused again.
“Let me tell you one important thing.”
I was sweating and waiting to hear the worst.
“Mickey.” Pause. “Always make the silence speak before you ever open your mouth. In other words, never speak to a class or make a presentation until you have their complete and undivided attention. Always be listening and looking around the classroom.”
At 18, I was overwhelmed by my pathetic performance, and I think Seamus sensed that, even though he was hardly more than 23 himself.
“Now, for God’s sake, don’t worry for I know when you leave college you can get a position anywhere.”
At the Ship, we chatted about “the Ranch.” Even though I had been left Ireland for a good number of years, our contacts with the Heaney family were strengthened by my late brother, Pearse, who was a great friend of the Heaneys.
Seamus’ father, Paddy Heaney, was a cattle dealer who attended the local markets. He was a man of few words but with a sharp wit.
My brothers and I played Gaelic football against our neighbouring rivals, Bellaghy Wolfe Tones, which included the Heaneys.
Seamus gave my friends and me a direct challenge.
“Some of you boys from South Derry are nothing but a bunch of philistines if you can’t appreciate or get a feeling for poetry.”
I loved how he could read poetry with such conviction. He had an infectious belly laugh and a big boyish grin. He gave a voice to County Derry at a time well before “The Troubles,” when Dublin, London and America seemed so far away.
In South Derry we lived on a small farm on the foothills of the Sperrin mountains and herded our cattle to the fair in Bellaghy.
After the animals were sold, my father, Paddy Joe Boyle, and Paddy Heaney and others could be found having a bottle or two of stout in Breslin’s Bar on Main Street. All the younger folk would spend what little money we had on lemonade and sweets.
As a fellow South Derry person, the loss of Seamus Heaney is a personal one and it is the loss of the soul and spirit of Ireland. His passing is also felt here, and in the global community. Seamus’s poetry brought hope and pride to everyone.
It is difficult to express, but in the Irish language there is an apt phrase to describe Seamus Heaney — the man and his poetry.
“Ní bheidh a leithéidí aris ann.” We shall never see his like again.