Seumas Heaney, 13 April 1939 – 30 August 2013

Another Irish legend away on the way of truth. I’ve had the privilege of meeting Seumas Heaney on two occasions at the Yeats International Summer School in Sligo, and saw him reading his poetry in the Hawkswell Theatre. He had a warm, comforting voice like a crackling fire, and his demeanour was just as warm and inviting. What struck me about him, and also his fellow Ulster poet Michael Longley, was his poetic delight in and appreciation of the little everyday things in life and nature.

I remember the first poem I studied when I entered secondary school was “Mid-Term Break”, which was heart-wrenching and made me weep a little in class. After that, it was “Digging”, which appealed to me, the wee budding writerling. It was inspirational to have studied a poet who was alive at the time, and gave a sense of personal and national pride. At least his genius was celebrated and enjoyed during his lifetime.

When I went to college, I wrote an essay about the development of Northern Hiberno-English, as reflected in literature. Doing my research for this, reading what Heaney had to say on the subject, gave me my first proper understanding of how complex the situation in the north of Ireland is. I came to the conclusion that the people of the Six Counties have their own identity, and that its diversity should be celebrated, and not be a cause for disharmony.

It seems that I’ve been suffering from homesickness without realising it.  As I’ve suggested, Seumas Heaney was a peaty man in my mind, a man of the earth and hearth. These are things that Irish emigrants long for when they live abroad. To hear of the passing of a cultural hero who embodied these things pinches the nerve of homesickness.

On a more positive note, the reminder of his influence on this sad day will encourage young writers to contribute the written chain, the human chain.

Mo bheannacht lena anam uasal.

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The Linguistic Influence of Seumas Heaney

Below is taken from an essay that I wrote for a uni assignment on May 10, 2007. On hearing the news of the passing of Seumas Heaney, I thought it was worth sharing, to give him credit for being a pioneer of linguistic freedom and experimentation in Northern Irish writing.

            The distinction between the Hiberno-English of north and south is apparent in their local literature. As part of the literary revival in southern Ireland in the late 1890s and 1900s, writers wished to express their Irish identity through the use of Hiberno-English dialect writing. They were presenting an Irish identity to the world of literature, and distinguishing that the Irish people had voices in their own right, separate from Britain. Amongst these writers were W.B. Yeats, Lady Gregory, J.M. Synge, and, later, Sean O’Casey and James Joyce. It is interesting to note that all of these writers, except Joyce, are Protestants. Douglas Hyde, who was also a Protestant, was at the same time working on reviving the Irish language, in conjunction withthe Gaelic League. In this time of change, the Irish language was also changing, with the Gaelic League attempting to standardise the language and its grammar. Although Hyde was dedicated to the Irish language, his translations of Irish verses literally into English influenced the Hiberno-English style. Lady Gregory and J.M. Synge, with their knowledge of the Irish language, followed this example of translating literally from the Irish. Synge, as well as projecting the Hiberno-English voice, was also dealing in his own way with the question of both the Irish and English language in Ireland;

 

            By choosing to infuse English with the idioms and syntax of Irish,

            Synge invented a new literary method which allowed him to bypass

            the uncertainties and the squabbling over the standardisation of the

            Irish language, and to avoid the provincialism of an Anglo-Irish

            literature which could only mimic the strategies of an English poetic

            tradition. (Mathews 137)

 

Synge, Lady Gregory and Hyde were not striving to be realistic in this use of language; it was “a heightened form of peasant speech”, allowing them to “suggest the Irish national character by use of dialect vocabulary, idiom, syntax and rhythm.” (Barry 93) In contrast, O’Casey and Joyce wished to use realistic expression in their work by giving the language of the everyday people around them a voice; O’Casey “Tended to mix Dublin and rural forms of speech”, while Joyce “carefully collected dialect phrases in a notebook and used them and other aspects of Hiberno-English in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.” (Barry 93)

           

Modern poets of the northern counties include Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley; though the latter also makes use of the Ulster dialects, he refuses to be categorised as a “Northern poet”, and “shifted his focus to the west of Ireland and his own emotional innerscape.” (Healy 143) Heaney wishes to reflect Northern Ireland in his poetry with its different dialects, in order to bring each represented facet of Northern Irish culture into unity; he would address Ulster’s political disunity with poetry “that exposes the diversity of language and speaks with many dialects and in many voices.” (Molino 187) He employs “Irish (as well as English and Scots) words and dialect forms as cultural depth charges to explode in a traditional English line of verse and create a form of poetry that circumvents political monologism by celebrating linguistic pluralism.” (Molino 184) Heaney defends his use of dialect in his work, which is especially fitting in the case of his translation of Beowulf from the Anglo-Saxon into his own dialect;

To belong to Ireland and to speak its dialect is not necessarily to be

cut off from the world’s banquet because that banquet is eaten at the

table of one’s own life, savoured by the tongue one speaks. . . . I do

not yield to the notion that my identity is disabled and falsified and

somehow slightly traitorous if I conduct my casual and

imaginative transactions in the speech I was born to. (Heaney 20)

 

The use of the dialects of Ulster, the style of speech the poet was born with, creates a sense of freedom, politically and creatively; until recently, the Hiberno-English words were undefined in dictionaries. As a result, readers outside of Ireland would find it difficult to understand certain expressions. As Tom Paulin observes,

The language therefore lives freely and spontaneously as speech,

but it lacks any institutional existence and so is impoverished as

a literary medium. It is a language without a lexicon, a language without

form. Like some strange creature of the open air, it exists simply as

Geist or spirit. (Paulin 11)

Heaney, through his use of the Ulster voice, has presented to the world of literature the modern Irish identity, and has also defined the Northern Irish identity in its own right.

 

References

Barry, Michael V. “The English Language in Ireland”. English as a World Language.

Ed. Richard W. Bailey and Manfred Gorlach. Michigan: The University of

Michigan, 1986. pp 84-133

 

Barry, Michael V. “Historical Introduction to the Dialects of Ulster”. A Concise

Ulster Dictionary. Ed. C.I. McAfee. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

pp ix-xii

 

Heaney, S.  “Forked Tongues, Ceilis and Incubators”. Fortnight 197. 1983. p 20

 

Healy, Elizabeth. Literary Tour of Ireland. Dublin: Wolfhound Press, 1995. p 143

Mathews, P.J. Revival: The Abbey Theatre, Sinn Féin, The Gaelic League and the

Co-operative Movement. Cork: Cork University Press/Field Day, 2003. p 137

Molino, Michael R. “Flying by the Nets of Language and Nationality: Seamus

Heaney, the “English” Language, and Ulster’s Troubles.” Modern Philology,

Vol. 91, No. 2. (Nov., 1993), pp 180-201. May 8 2007.

<http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=00268232%28199311%2991%3A2%3C180%3AFBTNOL%3E2.0.CO%3B2-4>

Paulin, Tom. A New Look at the Language Question. Ed. Seamus Deane et al.

Derry: Field Day Theate, 1983. p 11

 

Toiseach na Rèabhlaide Ghàidhlig ann an Taigh an Uillt

****I last worked on this blog on April 9, 2012. I had saved this blog post as a draft, and meant to return to it. Of course, I have since been taken away by the current of life, and have had many experiences that I hope to write about. Now that I’ve found harbour for a while, I’ll get back to writing and this website. This post describes my first experience of working on Scottish Gaelic when I came to live in Scotland in February 2012. Looking back on it makes me feel like I’ve travelled miles and miles, and years too. Enjoy the prelude to what continues to be a whirlwind of an adventure!****

Iain MacPhàrlain agus mise, Taigh an Uillt, Feb 2012
Iain MacPhàrlain agus mise, Taigh an Uillt, Feb 2012

Here I am in Scotland, realising and living the (Gaelic) dream. I do have to pinch myself to prove that it’s not a dream — there’s been a two year build-up to this adventure. As you can see from my previous posts, Gàidhlig has been a preoccupation of mine since beginning to study the language, literature and culture during my Masters in 2010. I’ve gone on wee Gàidhlig expeditions over the two years, and it seems that I’m finally here to stay to learn and to promote, specifically, Argyllshire Gaelic (Gàidhlig Earra-Ghàidheil).

The moment when the happy reality of having started this quest hit me was when Àdhamh Ó Broin and myself drove through the majestic Argyll landscape, with Griogair Labhruidh playing on the CD player, as we discussed our plans for the weekend. We were on our way to Taigh an Uillt to meet up with native Gaelic speaker John MacFarlane, who we have affectionally nicknamed “Am Brigadier” (or “Am Brig” for short). John is the last native speaker of Gàidhlig in his area; as a linguist himself, he understands fully the hard facts that not only is Gàidhlig as a minoritised language under a great threat,  his dialect in particular is on the verge of extinction. Only a week or two previous to our expedition, John had been talking on BBC Radio about the unfortunate reality facing mainland Gaelic dialects, in lieu of the release of linguistic research findings at the University of Edinburgh reporting that the dialects on the Hebridean islands of Lewis and Uist are expected to be the only two dialects of Gàidhlig to survive in the not-so-distant future. Àdhamh had been in contact with me once he had discovered my keen interest in learning an Argyll dialect, and had discussed the possibility of me embarking on a project to work with John to learn, adopt and preserve his dialect; it was the confirmation of this possible collaboration that was the object of our visit.

I won’t reveal too much at this early stage, but we have set the ball rolling and there is no doubt that we will set to work as soon as possible.

— April 9, 2012