A Memorable Evening
with Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney (Photo Kit De Fever)

Courtesy of NYU Glucksman Ireland House

On April 13, this Saturday, Seamus Heaney would have been 80 years old. Though he passed away too early, on August 30, 2013, his work lives on. Through the last 25 years of his life, the poet had an ongoing connection with Glucksman Ireland House, the center of Irish Studies at NYU, and its founder Loretta Brennan Glucksman. On April 11, 1996, just six months after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, Heaney was in New York to celebrate the third anniversary of the founding of this premier Irish studies program. His consummate humility, humor, and intelligence come through in every word of this speech that he gave on that occasion. 

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Not too long ago in Dublin, I met someone who delivered a judgment on a character who would be well known to many people, not so well known to some people in this room, but nevertheless, he’s a figure about town who my interlocutor felt needed a certain correction. He said “Your man,” he said, “you know, he goes about thinking he’s some kind of eminence grise.” And so if this kind of thing goes on – piping and praising – I’m going to think of myself as an eminence – without the adjective – tout court. I’m going to get, as they say in County Derry, “carried away.” In fact that has more or less happened since last October. I’ve been on a conveyor belt of celebration – a perfectly jocund conveyor belt – but sometimes it turns into one of those inexorable belts that move under you in a stress test, and I was saying to Marie (who is on a stress test of her own in North Carolina at this moment – she’s sorry she can’t be here) – I was saying to her the other day that this is one of the occasions where the actual lap of honor is much more strenuous than the race itself. But Joseph Brodsky, the blessed Brodsky, before he died (I was quite lucky to meet him in January), he said, “It’s alright Seamus,” he said, “they will forget about you, they’ll forget about you.” It’s fine…a sort of sanity in it.

I don’t mean to demean in any way the sense of occasion and the sense of honor and gratitude and pride that I have in being here tonight at NYU in this company which embodies the kind of personal friendships and solid professional and institutional support which I personally have received in the United States for almost thirty years now and which scholars, writers, politicians and businessmen from Ireland have also found here.

The bounty of Sweden, if you like, is one thing, and not to be diminished either, but the bounty is very sweetly amplified and verified by occasions like this. If I might revise a couple of lines by Thomas Moore and remove them from the context of the Vale of Avoca to Washington Square. It could be said of the readings tonight by Liam, Natasha and Denis, the piping by Jerry, and the general welcome by President Jay Oliva and Loretta, of all those things and the whole attendance by everybody here, it could be said, to revise Moore’s words a little, it shows how the best charms of Sweden improve when we see them reflected in looks that we love. That is not just a personal joy really, it is an important moment for NYU and for Ireland House – a moment of gear change and change of possibility. And something epoch-making has already been achieved in the Lew and Loretta Glucksman Ireland House. I’ll never forget walking behind the pipers to celebrate that event and be celebrated. It’s just three years ago this month.

The fabulous gift from the Glucksmans changed the prospects for Irish Studies here, changed the game forever – which is not to say that the prospects weren’t good already. M.L. Rosenthal was one of the academic critics who actually took cognizance of Irish poetry and wrote about it, as they say, in a book, long before that kind of thing was going on as commonly as it is now. And he was at NYU. Any university that has a poet called Galway on its staff is well on its way to solidarity too. And I think, reluctant as we were to lose Professor Denis Donoghue from Ireland, where he has changed the whole intellectual and professional self-esteem of colleagues and students by his commitment himself to University College Dublin, and where he did wonders for the Irish sense of renewal and confidence. He ratified something by being there and helped a lot of people to shift into a new gear. Reluctant as we were to let him go, it was not a bad thing for Irish studies that Denis came here to NYU and for him to combine with Bob Scally at Ireland House to move the whole enterprise forward – it has been a wonderful thing.

To come into Ireland House – I met Bob there today and Patricia, Eliza, and Bernadette – it was the first time I was in it when there wasn’t a reception on, and I envied them working there. It’s a wonderful place. So it must be very gratifying for Jay Oliva to contemplate the success of this venture within the university, since it was his support that clinched it from the beginning. It is marvelous to think of Pat and Eliza and Bernadette there constantly. I know from the programs I have been sent, from the people I meet, from the reports I hear and just from the changed sense of voltage that you get, that this has been a transforming thing.

Seamus Heaney at the opening of Glucksman Ireland House in 1993. (Photo James Higgins)

A change of status, of course, in the fortunes of Irish studies has not been fortuitous and it has not been miraculous. It has been the work of committed individuals: a work that has been conducted patiently, sometimes passionately, and sometimes with vision. And the change in the status of Irish studies is part of a whole world movement that has emerged in our time, a movement involving challenge to the cultural authority to larger, older, more colonial, and more imperial centers. This is a movement which writers like James Joyce and W.B. Yeats have contributed to. They have been seismic influences, in a sense, in world terms; Joyce in deconstructing, and Yeats in reconstructing, the bases of cultural authority. These two writers changed the coordinates of the imaginative sphere forever. I’m also happy to acknowledge that this change was registered and its significance amplified by the American scholar Richard Ellman, one of the beloved and great persons of our times. It is a change also, I know from experience, a change in the status of Irish studies, a change that was definitely needed.

I went to university in Ireland, in the one sense, at Queen’s University Belfast. In another sense, I went to a British university. It was British in its administration and in its cultural and intellectual predisposition. Maurice Hayes, someone who is known to many of you, a man of great honesty, clarity, forthrightness, and sometimes bluntness  – but always refreshingly so – wrote a book recently, called Minority Verdict. It was about growing up a Catholic in Northern Ireland. It hadn’t a whiff of the victim about it but it had a certain refreshing clarity and in it he reports about being at Queen’s University studying English in the late 1940s. He had the same professor as I had, who was a man from New Zealand who bewildered us by talking about Elizabethan handwriting for three classes. Maurice said that his only exposure to Irish writing at Queen’s University in the 1940s was from an Egyptian student he met who told him that he should read Yeats and Joyce. In the 1950s it had moved on a bit. Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France and George Bernard Shaw’s Three Plays for Puritans were on the first-year syllabus, but they were treated as examples of British theater, British constitutional history, and British politics. There was some reference to Yeats, but Yeats was thought of by our professor as a kind of pre-Raphaelite, and I remember that the professor’s lecture was based upon a book called New Bearings in English Poetry by F.F. Leavis. Anyway, I don’t want to do down the thing, people were doing their best. Maurice Hayes was appointed chairman of the Community Relations Commission later in 1969 and he went to Queen’s University to the sociology department to see if there were any theses or articles or essays or things on issues like sectarian divides, local government, gerrymandering, problems of one sort or another, and he was told that no, there was nothing on that because these issues would be too divisive to study. So things have moved on.

My own entry into Irish studies came through American studies in Queens University, to tell you the truth. I was asked to stand in to give a lecture on some aspect of American literature and I was reading about the prairie and the myth of the West and so on and that led me to thinking about bogs and one thing and another. So, through the prairie I got to the bog and entered Irish studies personally in that way. But more important still for me was the American entry into Irish studies in the year 1970-71, when Marie and myself and our two boys spent a radiant year at the University of California at Berkeley. There is actually a program going out tonight on RTÉ Radio called My Education. It is a series many people take part in and I’m on it tonight. One of the things I’m talking about on My Education is that year that I spent in California which was a re-education, a re-orientation, a re-casting of the mind that came about largely through the great company, the great learning, and the great imaginative and emotional gifts of Tom Flanagan. Tom’s keyboard of reference was and remains steadfastly Irish; that is not to say that he isn’t steadfastly Renaissance and Greek and everything else. These cosmic universal references are incorporated into a perspective, a coordination that is partly Hibernocentric. And it was a great excitement for me to incorporate my Irish / Northern Irish minority neuroses into intellectual liberation and into a vision of things that was post-colonial and multi-cultural, although Tom is much too stylish and well-behaved to use those words ever. He was, however, post-colonial avant la lettre. And that year was a great one. Conor Cruise O’Brien gave lectures there and talked indirectly about the Irish situation. It was the time of great political protest in the Bay area; of the Black Panthers; of anti-war demonstrations. All this glamor, all this volubility, mixed in with the intellectual excitement of talking to Tom and Conor Cruise O’Brien and being together in a genuine commune both emotionally and intellectually supportive, with Jean and Marie and Máire and all of us together. I do seriously count that time as a re-education, as the kind of thing that now, perhaps, even universities take for granted. But this was before Tom had written what I think of as his post-enlightenment aislingThe Year of the French, his vision of Connacht in the 18th century, so to speak, and to be a part of that was wonderful. So, it is great to be able to report that kind of reorientation and renewal and confidence in one’s own cultural possessions. The transposition of subcultural anxiety into cultural advantage, all that kind of thing, has been aided considerably by the establishment of Irish studies as a university discipline, both in Ireland and in America, in Australia, in Italy, in Japan, etc… It has been a wonderful thing.

This evening we rejoice, in particular, that nowhere has Irish studies been more vigorously enshrined that at this university. It is great to be here tonight in the presence of the people I have already mentioned, and of the distinguished visitors from Ireland who have been associated with the program here  – Professors Joe Lee, Cormac Ó Gráda, and Kevin Whelan, and other visiting scholars like Cathy McKenna. These presences and affiliates testify to the immediate success and the great prospect for Irish studies here. Among the prospects, as we know tonight, has been the launch of the new fund, and it is a propitious moment also because of the great gift by Dr. O’Reilly of $50,000. It’s a wonderful founding, and of course, I know everyone will be hoping to endorse and vie with it.

Seriously, it is indeed a propitious moment. And because of all I have said  – and not just because of the bounty of Tony, so to speak – it is a moment when Irish achievement in the literary and academic fields is brimming; when the artistic pulse of the country is strong  – strong, as we have seen tonight, in film, in drama, in acting, in music of all kinds – a moment when the Irish-American link is strong; when the poet Derek Mahon’s most recent book is not called “The Lagan Letter” but The Hudson Letter; when Paul Muldoon rewrites the Pantisocracy; when the Brooklyn-born Montague publishes his poems with an Irish-born publisher; when Peter Quinn publishes his book about the Irish in New York; when the Irish American Society’s Recorder has been revived and re-energized; when a magazine like Irish America can enter the mainstream visibly, naturally, unanxiously; when Poetry Chicago and The Southern Review do special issues on Irish writing; when Nuala Ní Dhómhnaill writes for The New York Timesabout the Irish language; when Mary Robinson transmits her sense, her wisdom, and her feeling for famine and immigration because of the Irish experience. All this is most propitious and it is a great moment for the establishment of this fund and for the changing of the gear of an already successful drive.

Support for the program, one could say, will be support for what you might call that which Irish studies stands for – a re-imagining of our past in order to better prefigure our future. This is a proud and great endeavor.  ♦

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Two days after he spoke at Glucksman Ireland House, I interviewed Seamus Heaney for Irish America’s May / June 1996 issue. It was April 13, and it was the poet’s 57th birthday.  I brought him a bunch of daffodils to mark the occasion, and I have a clear memory of him leaning over the kitchen sink as he ran the water to fill the vase to put the flowers in.  We talked about his poetry, the state of the Northern Irish peace process at the time, his work teaching at Carysfort College and Harvard University, his experience as an Irish Catholic, and his motherWe met several times over the following years. He was a lovely man who hid his brilliance behind a gentle smile and mild manner. It took some prompting to get him to talk about himself. He was a listener, always interested in the human condition and how others were doing. I’m lucky to have had the opportunity to spend time with him. He was not just a great poet but a wonderful human being. And I will always be grateful to Glucksman Ireland House for facilitating that first meeting.  Click here for our conversation.

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