Friday, September 14, 2007


In a rare interview, Seamus Heaney talks to Jenny McCartney about the crises - both personal and political - that still fire his work.

Dublin may be a brasher city than of yore, jammed tight with traffic and frantic shoppers, but the old courtesy still clings to Seamus Heaney, standing in the sunlit kitchen of his house poised on a sweep of beach at the city's Sandymount Strand. He hands me a cup of tea, with the milk placed in a small jug next to it. Then he looks at the plate beside the cup, and notes its uncomfortable blankness.
'Would you like some … bread?' Heaney asks, tentatively. I tell him that I have already eaten. 'A monastic biscuit then!' he says, and goes off to dig out the tin of digestives from the cupboard. It is, perhaps, the casual exactness of that word 'monastic' that might betray Heaney's profession to one who didn't know.

But then almost no one can be unaware, either, of Heaney's profession, or his stature within it. Irish wags refer to him as 'Famous Seamus' in a sly but proud acknowledgement of his international celebrity, crowned with his Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995.
Although Heaney was born into a Catholic, nationalist family in Northern Ireland - and once objected to inclusion in a book of British poets with the warning lines: 'Be advised, my passport's green/ No glass of ours was ever raised/ To toast the Queen' - British readers can't get enough of him: it is an oft-cited statistic that his books account for two-thirds of the sales of living poets in Britain.

I met Heaney some years ago when he was teaching at Oxford. I was visiting sculptor Anthony Stones who lived in Oxford at the time and while we were lunching in a pub Heaney came in and Stones introduced us. Stones later sculpted a bronze head of Heaney for the Dublin Writers Museum.

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