Heaney tells of his stroke ordeal

Seamus Heaney recalls the terrifying experience of suffering a stroke three years ago

Seamus Heaney recalls the terrifying experience of suffering a stroke three years ago in the Observer magazine today, one which caused him to cry for his father out of fear.

In an article to mark his 75th birthday, the poet describes suddenly falling ill in Co Donegal in 2006 and how the stroke prompted a fresh surge of love for his wife, Marie. "Yes, I cried. I cried, and I wanted my Daddy, funnily enough. I did. I felt babyish," he said.

While in the ambulance taking him to hospital in Letterkenny, he said his feelings swung between terror and love. "The trip in the ambulance I always remember because Marie was in the back with me. I just wrote about it three weeks ago. To me, that was one of the actual beauties of the stroke, that renewal of love in the ambulance. One of the strongest, sweetest memories I have. We went through Glendorn on a very beautiful, long, bumpy ride to Letterkenny hospital."

While convalescing, the Nobel laureate said he realised he had not stopped working for decades. "I looked at the calendar after these days in the hospital. I thought, 'My God, you've never stopped, Seamus.' So, for a year afterwards, I just cancelled everything."

Among his visitors in hospital was former US President Bill Clinton. "Clinton was here for the Ryder Cup. He'd been up with the Taoiseach [Bertie Ahern] and had heard about my 'episode'. The next thing, he put a call to the hospital, and said he was on his way. He strode into the ward like a kind of god. My fellow sufferers, four or five men much more stricken than I was, were amazed. But he shook their hands and introduced himself. It was marvellous, really. He went round all the wards and gave the whole hospital a terrific boost. We had about 25 minutes with him, and talked about Ulysses Grant's memoirs, which he was reading."

Referring to the Troubles in Northern Ireland, Heaney says: "These were very dangerous times. When the Provisional IRA began their campaign, people like myself, with a strong sense that things needed to be redressed, were excited."

However, he soon realised the futility of the violence. "There was a sense of an utterly wasteful, cancerous stalemate, and that the violence was unproductive. It was villainous, but you were living with it. Only after it stopped did you realise what you had lived with. Day by day, week by week, we lived through this, and didn't fully take in what was going on."

Heaney says the Agreement has brought about a radical transformation in relations on the island and between the British and the Irish. "You can have Irish identity in the north, and also have your Irish passport. As far as I'm concerned, the language has changed, the times have changed, and we have signed up to an open relationship with Sinn Féin."


Henry McDonald

The GuardianTramp

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