My family escaped the Manchester attack. Seamus Heaney’s words kept fear at bay | Xavier Greenwood

As the horror unfolded from the Manchester Arena and I learned that my mother and sister were safe, it was words that gave me hope against terror

It is with welcome relief that we reach the end of 2017 – a year enveloped by terror. Five attacks in the UK and 35 people killed. But we are through it, and we endure. Others have been less fortunate, and it is hard to imagine how their families feel. For them, it wasn’t a year punctured by the feeling that the whole world is falling apart, but a year punctured by the feeling that their world has already fallen apart.

My mother and my sister were on the brink of such tragedy. At their millionth Ariana Grande concert, they heard a bang and they ran. They escaped by a back exit of the Manchester Arena and saw nothing but smoke. Usually they leave before the encore to beat traffic, and if they had done so on 22 May, they probably would have stepped right into the path of the attacker, Salman Abedi.

I got the call that my family were safe while sitting in a library studying for my university finals. Seamus Heaney was swimming in my head, and little was I to know that he would stick around for quite a bit longer. His words became the way of managing my fear.

For as long as terror has been a part of the world, words have resisted. As the German language poet Paul Celan toiled in a Nazi labour camp surrounded by death, “only one thing remained close and secure ... Language. Yes, language.” Words will never dissolve bullets nor break knives, and yet they stand their ground against such threats. They can, as Heaney puts it, make an order “as true to the impact of external reality as the ripples that ripple in and rippled out across the water”. There is a space for them in everything. They breathe and they help others to breathe. 

“Don’t look back in anger, I heard you say.”

“This is the place in our hearts, in our homes.”

“Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high.” 

These were the words – from Oasis, Tony Walsh and Ariana Grande (via Judy Garland) – with which Manchester resisted

Against his own terror, the unceasing horror of the conflict in Northern Ireland, Heaney had words of his own. He grew up in between, a Catholic born in Protestant Ulster – “lost, unhappy and at home”. He shrank from picking a side but felt discomfort at being non-aligned. His 1975 poem Punishment sees him look on the mummified body of a young girl found in the Danish peat bogs and admit to his own inaction. “I who have stood dumb when your betraying sisters, cauled in tar, wept by the railings.”

Later he would comment: “It’s a poem about standing by as the IRA tar and feather these young women in Ulster. But it’s also about standing by as the British torture people in barracks and interrogation centres in Belfast. It’s about standing between those two forms of affront.”

For so long, Heaney’s poetry performed this function – to articulate the horror that surrounded him. By putting sectarian violence into words, he could relieve the “pile-up of hampering stuff”. But then he underwent a turning point soon after Station Island, the 1984 poem in which he makes a pilgrimage to meet ghosts of the Irish literary past and describes himself as “stepping free into space”. 

“Finally, and happily, and not in obedience to the dolorous circumstances of my native place but in despite of them, I straightened up, imagining for the marvellous as well as for the murderous.” 

The poetry that followed drew “an inspired sketch of a better reality” without ever falling into naivety. In his 2010 poem Route 110, Heaney still recalls the conflict, “the age of ghosts”, and its harbinger of death – “the handheld flashlamps”. But those lights, while never forgotten, become in Heaney’s present the “bunch of stalks and silvered heads”, the gift of flowers which he brings to his newborn granddaughter – “the tapers that won’t dim”.

These were the kinds of words that helped me breathe after that night in Manchester. The words that show that one day we will be on the other side of terror. A side of music and companionship and humour and poetry and humanity. It is a side that will not be beaten.

Before Heaney’s death in 2013, his final words, texted to his wife, were noli timere – “do not fear”. Looking forward to next year, we could do worse than to bear these words in mind. Because the more we fear, the more they win.

• Xavier Greenwood is a freelance journalist


Xavier Greenwood

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