For me, with each passing year, I seem to find a little more time to think about we lost relative to what we have to look forward to. Without a doubt, this past year we lost many great women and men, with Nelson Mandela likely the greatest of all. His contribution to global humanity will not be forgotten. That being said, for me, the passing of Irish poet Seamus Heaney in August was extremely sad. Heaney is arguably the greatest Irish poet sine W.B. Yeats and that is saying a great deal! Poetry is hardly a popular form of literature these days - it takes some effort to appreciate - like any endeavor associated with the arts. But Heaney was special. In 1966, at the early age of 27, he published his first collection that included an incredible poem called "Digging". The poem beautifully captures the spirit of family, rural livelihood, nature and the coming of age of a poet in Northern Ireland.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.
The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.
By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.
My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner's bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I've no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I'll dig with it.
Of course with Irish poetry something extra is gained by hearing it directly from the author.
Heaney wrote numerous volumes of poetry and was likely the most popular poet in the world over the past 30 years. If sales are any indication, he is the J.K. Rowling of the poetry world. However, his work is also very popular with academics; so much so that in 1995 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature - the fourth Irishman to be so decorated. Heaney wrote: "I can't think of a case where poems changed the world, but what they can do is they change people's understanding of what's going on in the world." His works in the 70s spoke to the "Troubles" in Northern Ireland associated with the violence between Catholics and Protestants. Indeed, scholars, artists and heads of state were deeply influenced by his works. Former President Bill Clinton quoted from "The Cure at Troy" during a 1995 speech in support of the Northern Ireland Peace Process:
History says, Don't hope
on this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
the longed for tidal wave
of justice can rise up,
and hope and history rhyme.
So hope for a great sea-change
on the far side of revenge.
Believe that a further shore
is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles
and cures and healing wells.
At the time of its writing, Heaney saw the fall of the apartheid regime in South Africa, and the political rise of Nelson Mandela without massive bloodshed, as hope for Northern Ireland. A certain synchronicity can be found in that I think. On a personal level, the passing of my father in law John Tierney in November is a poignant connection to Heaney for me. He grew up in County Clare in Ireland, not too far from Heaney's birthplace near Derry. He too wrote and loved poetry, and like Heaney, he was proud of his Irish heritage, loved his family and was a caring person. Heaney wrote "the end of art is peace" - here is to wishing you and your family a peaceful , healthy and happy New Year!