At home in Heaney country

Seamus Heaney HomePlace, a new centre designed with the help of the poet’s family, is full of his words and spirit

My strong guess is that not even the proudest local would describe the somewhat awkwardly named Seamus Heaney HomePlace, a gleaming new arts centre in the village of Bellaghy, County Derry, as beautiful, even if it is far, far lovelier than what came before (on this site there used to stand a heavily fortified RUC barracks). Its bland, vaguely Scandinavian structure, encircled by inky asphalt, looks for all the world like a new branch of Waitrose, while its interiors, wipe-clean spaces that seem to me to allow far too little of the outside in, are nothing if not functional.

But then, it’s possible that beauty is not the point in this case. The existence of such a place at all, in a world in which arts budgets everywhere are being so ruthlessly cut, is nothing short of a miracle, Mid Ulster district council having funded almost the entirety of its £4.25m building costs (it also plans to meet the £500,000 it will take to run the place each year). “What are they on, there?” I kept thinking as I looked around. I’ve been known to make some pretty grandiose claims for poetry myself down the years, but even I’m surprised it can induce parsimonious local government officers to spend like this.

Marie Heaney, widow of the late Nobel laureate, at the opening of the Seamus Heaney HomePlace.
Marie Heaney, widow of the late Nobel laureate, at the opening of the Seamus Heaney HomePlace. Photograph: Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye/PA

Perhaps, though, it’s just another example of the Heaney effect, for isn’t there something about the late Nobel laureate that makes us all want to behave more generously, to try on his nobility for size? In the ground-floor gallery devoted to his life – the building’s permanent centrepiece – I was aware of him all the time, and not only because there he was before me, ruddy-faced and gap-toothed and too kindly-looking for words. Every display was connected to a poem (or three), and every poem to his voice, and thence both straight to my solar plexus. “We lived a kind of den-life,” Heaney said of his tumbling, rural childhood in Bellaghy, the source of the extraordinary memory-hoard from which his greatest verse always sprang (and in whose churchyard he was buried in 2013).

Well, here it was, that den-life, at once quotidian and magical, in words and pictures: railway embankments, football pitches, a blind neighbour “walking tall and straight, her white stick in hand, her pale face looking straight ahead, unwavering and unseeing” (this last is Rosie Keenan, who inspired At the Wellhead). Just as Heaney, as a boy, felt this realm to be “more or less emotionally and intellectually proofed against the outside world”, so I felt momentarily transported, out of time. It was – how to put this? – as if the poet had touched the top of my head with his hand. I felt better, but I also wanted to be better.

HomePlace was designed in collaboration with Heaney’s widow and children, and many of the contents in this display have come courtesy of them, not the least the large collection of photographs the curators use to tell his story; of his father, Patrick, the cattle dealer, and his mother Margaret, who induced in him “a sense of obligation to others”; of his aunt Mary, whose favourite he was, and his aunt Sarah, in whose house he first “got a feel for books”; of his brother, Hugh, who still farms nearby at The Wood, where the Heaneys lived from 1953, and his uncle, Mick Joyce, a bricklayer whose tool bag you needed to be “a hero” to lift.

Heaney’s school desk and satchel on display at HomePlace.
Heaney’s school desk and satchel on display at HomePlace. Photograph: Brian Morrison

There are objects, too, but they’re fewer in number, and less involving – though you’d have to have a heart of stone not to be touched by the sight of the young Seamus’s leather satchel, shiny-black with wear: once his uncle Peter’s money pouch, it wasn’t like those of the other boys, and so he was always a bit embarrassed by it. In conjunction with the poems themselves – there to be read, and heard – these things, it must be said, render wholly unnecessary the inevitable videos of talking heads. Why do we need Stephen Fry to tell us Heaney is a great poet?

Upstairs is another gallery whose theme is inspiration – here you will find butter spades like the ones in Churning Day from Death of a Naturalist, a tractor seat like the one in In Iowa from District and Circle, and a gem-studded goblet like the one in, er, Beowulf (Heaney only translated that poem, so this is cheating, really) – and the Helicon, a theatre space that will host readings, performance and music. It’s the Helicon, of course, that will ultimately make or break HomePlace: local people will need a reason to visit twice, and this is it. The programming is going to have to be exceptional, as Brian McCormick, HomePlace’s manager, doubtless knows – though given that he is a nephew of Heaney’s and that he used to run a pub before he landed this job, I’m inclined to believe he and his team won’t just tick the usual dreary literary boxes.

Seamus Heaney and family in the 1970s.
Seamus Heaney and family in the 1970s. Photograph: HomePlace Collection

Am I sounding more sceptical now, or at least, less enchanted? If I am, it’s only because I will always feel that poetry “lives” (their word, not mine) in people rather than in buildings, on the page rather than in glass display cases or via audio guides. Even at Wordsworth’s Dove Cottageespecially at Dove Cottage – the air is strangely wordless, thick with pound signs rather than rhyme and metre. But this doesn’t mean I have any argument with HomePlace. In our anxious, straitened times, who wouldn’t be happy to see a poet so honoured in the place that built him, magnificent and true?


Rachel Cooke

The GuardianTramp

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