New HomePlace arts centre to celebrate life and work of Seamus Heaney

Opening will take place next month after £4.25m transformation of police station in poet’s Derry hometown Bellaghy

A once heavily fortified RUC police station, for decades a symbol of division during Northern Ireland’s Troubles, will next month complete a remarkable £4.25m transformation celebrating a village’s most famous son.

The site of Bellaghy station is to become Seamus Heaney HomePlace, an important arts and literary centre exploring the life, literature and inspirations of the Nobel prize-winning poet who died in 2013 and is buried in the nearby church graveyard.

As well as being a tourist draw it will be an important community resource and the symbolism of it being a former RUC station, from division to unity, is important, said Heaney’s son Michael.

“I think there is something in that,” he said. “I hope there is anyway.”

The Heaney family have given their blessing to a project driven and mainly funded by Mid-Ulster Council.

“I think dad would be happy,” said Michael. “The truth of the matter is I think he might be slightly unnerved by the scale of the undertaking. I don’t mean that in a bad way but his antennae would be up. Equally if they weren’t doing anything he might have raised an eyebrow too. Who knows?”

The converted station, clad with wood, with a glass sided pod attached to the side
The 2,000 sq metre former RUC station has been converted into Homeplace and takes in views of the surrounding Derry countryside. Photograph: Seamus Heaney HomePlace

At the centre’s core will be a permanent exhibition documenting Heaney’s life and poems, with many personal artefacts, such as his duffel coat and dozens of family photographs.

There will also video recordings from friends and neighbours, world leaders and cultural figures, with their own Heaney stories; audio of the poet himself reading his poems; and an elevated viewing platform with views across the south Derry countryside that inspired so much of his work.

Heaney, Ireland’s first Nobel-winning poet since WB Yeats, was born in his family’s farmhouse Mossbawn, near Castledawson, in 1939. He grew up in the nearby village of Bellaghy, from where he drew so much inspiration in his poetry.

“It wasn’t just a desiccated memory,” said Michael. “It was a living place and that is important … he left there as a child but he was writing about it 50 years later. There is a lot of family up there as well, we’re the kind of Dublin outpost.”

Michael recalls spending family summer holidays in Bellaghy. “There are a lot of childhood memories,” although it was mostly playing in the fields, he said. “It sounds like a cliche but being honest there wasn’t a lot else to do, I suppose there was the odd British army patrol nearby, which rather added to the idyllic nature of it.”

Seamus Heaney with his wife, Marie, and three children
Seamus Heaney with his family in the 1970s, when his son Michael recalls visiting Bellaghy. Photograph: HomePlace collection

Anne-Marie Campbell, Mid-Ulster council’s director of arts and culture, said Heaney was an incredibly important figure for the area. “We as a council, but also as a people, are very proud of him and have a lot of affection and warmth for him. A lot of people in our area knew him … he was a a very ordinary man who could talk to anybody at any level.”

As well as the Heaney exhibition – designed by Tandem Design, the company responsible for Belfast’s Titanic exhibition – there will be a 189-seat performing arts space, a library, education and learning spaces, the obligatory cafe and an annex for community use.

The library will include the desk Heaney used in his attic study – a place Heaney called his “hutch” – and a large selection of books from his home, all donated by the Heaney family.

Seamus Heaney’s school desk at HomePlace
Seamus Heaney’s school desk, one of the items on exhibition at HomePlace. Photograph: HomePlace collection

It is a big building to play with. The centre will take up 2,000 sq metres (21,527 sq ft), and Campbell hopes the space is being well used. “It is one of our key projects, we feel incredibly privileged but we feel a great responsibility as well. We’ve worked closely with the family and we see it as an important driver of culture and the arts in the area.”

A cultural programme for HomePlace’s first year has been developed by Seán Doran, formerly in charge at English National Opera, and Liam Browne, former director of the Dublin Writers Festival. It will be based around Heaney’s 12 published volumes and titled 12 Months, 12 Books – kicking off with Death of a Naturalist in October and finishing with Human Chain in September 2017.

Another part of the project will be ‘My Seamus Heaney Story’ with the centre encouraging everyone who knew him to contribute a story online.

The opening weekend on 30 September will include performances by the singer-songwriter Paul Brady and a classical music experience called ‘Bach to Broagh’ with cellist Christian Poltéra playing three of Bach’s cello suites intercut with Heaney poems.

The project has been supported by poets such as Michael Longley, one of Heaney’s oldest friends, who said he hoped HomePlace “will become an echo chamber for the poet’s beautiful lines.”

• HomePlace opens 30 September.


Mark Brown Arts correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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