Heaney Donates
Letters to Emory

By Irish America Staff
December / January 2004

Seamus Heaney, Ireland’s Nobel Prize-winning poet, is donating his papers and letters to Emory University in Atlanta. While Heaney’s manuscripts will stay in Ireland, his letters and papers will further enrich Emory’s impressive collection of Irish papers. Emory currently holds the correspondence, as well as manuscripts, of poets Michael Longley, James Simmons, Ciaran Carson and Derek Mahon, all from Belfast, all friends of Heaney. The group met as students at Queens University in their early 20s and have remained friends. “It is a tremendous coup for the university to have all this body of work in one place for student study,” James Flannery, Emory’s professor of performing arts and drama, told Irish America.

Emory already has the papers of W.B. Yeats, including the poet’s letters to Maud Gonne, muse and object of his affection. Flannery is also the director of the Yeats Foundation and the founder of the Yeats Festival, which ran from 1989 to 1993 at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre. He cited Heaney’s relationship with retiring Emory president and Joyce scholar, William Chace, as the principal reason for Heaney’s largess. The two first met in the mid 1970s when Chace was a professor at Berkeley and Heaney was an assistant professor. Chace’s mentor at that time, Thomas Flanagan, also a professor at Berkeley, introduced Heaney to Chace. (Flanagan, recently deceased, went on to write some the best historical novels on Irish history, including Tenants of Time and Year of the French.)

Ron Schuchaid, Yeats scholar and former director of the Yeats Summer School, who teaches a course in contemporary Irish poetry, is another reason for Heaney’s willingness to part with his correspondence. Schuchaid invited, at one time or another, all the Belfast writers mentioned above to Emory. And in 1980, he asked Heaney to deliver the first Richard Ellman lecture (Ellman was a visiting professor at Emory when he died and the University and Schuchaid established a biannual Ellman lecture). Heaney’s intriguing lecture (available on the web) entitled “The Sense of Place,” explored whether that country of the mind takes its tone unconsciously from a shared oral inherited culture, or from a consciously savored literary culture, or from both.

In other Heaney news, the poet has collaborated with Liam O’Flynn, the acclaimed uilleann piper, to produce an album of poetry and music.

Available from Claddagh Records, the album is a treasure. Not just a number of poems and tunes thrown together, the two artists achieve a coherent piece of work that is graceful and skillfully performed. Heaney is a wonderful reader of some of his best loved poems, and the album includes some of his early works such as “Digging” and “Bogland.” An added bonus is Ciaran Carson’s elegant album cover notes. ♦

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