Re­mem­ber­ing my teacher, Sea­mus Heaney

The Telegram (St. John’s) - - EDITORIAL - BY MICHEAL BOYLE Micheal Boyle writes from St. John’s.

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.

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