The Irish poet Seamus Heaney has died, age 74, and the praise for him is universal, both as poet and personality. On one particular Irish website, there was a conversation about what Heaney’s real status as a poet would be. But of course none of us has the answer, time being the judge of that fight. But one of the most interesting conversations occurred on the New York African-American painter Carl Hazelwood’s Facebook thread towards the end of August. Oma Pollitt said that Heaney’s poem “Digging” was African in its construction. I was taken by this remark, and so I responded by saying that “all good Irish writing is African in its origins.”
Of course, I was thinking of Roddy Doyle’s great music novel The Commitments. If you’ve ever seen the film of this novel, you may recall the protagonist’s soliloquy about the Irish in which he says the Irish are the blacks of Europe, and the Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland, the north Dubliners the blacks of Dublin. So say it once and say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud. There is also a long Irish tradition of the black Irish, a type of Celt usually from the west of Ireland, out beyond the lamps, beyond the Pale.
Several years ago, the BBC conducted a study in the west of Ireland, trying to determine the ethnic origin of the black Irish outside of Galway, in County Mayo. It was discovered that nearly everyone tested had the same DNA as people from the Basque region of Spain, which explains the dark Irish if not the black Irish. Black Irish is not just a dark complexion, though, it is a kind of mood that pervades someone. It is not a racial thing.
Seamus Heaney was many things to many people, in and outside of literature, out and about Ireland, both North and South, but also significantly in America, his second home for many years. I met him several times in my life, the first time at Fordham University, where I was working in the early 1980s. I had the job of entertaining him before a reading, and so we drank Old Bushmills in my office overlooking the quad. The second time I met him was again at Fordham, and this time he had a toothache, and we had to find him a dentist. He had that Irish curse of teeth. I remember meeting him at the train station in Princeton, in the late 1980s, and once again we had to find him a dentist before he could read. But teeth aching or not, Heaney was good company.
If there were a prize for the nicest poet, he would win hands down. Sometimes I think that if Heaney is to be judged harshly, someone will take umbrage with the niceness of the poet, making it the ultimate failure of his poetry. The lesson I learned from reading Seamus Heaney was that his poetry was magnificent in his early career, but that the later work was corny, even sentimental, at least to my ears. But that is not the lesson I learned; the lesson was that a writer can’t be all things to all people, and this is not only a problem Seamus Heaney faced, it was something that all Northern Irish writers confronted.
Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, which includes England, Scotland, and Wales, too, among other entities. Most Northern Irish people I knew in London, where I lived for twelve years, carried the British passport or the Irish one, and sometimes both, depending on the situation. Heaney and Paul Muldoon, singled out of the crowd of Irish poetry, were given a chair at Oxford for a British poet. You can’t hold that chair if you are not British. We may think of these poets as Irish poets, but they are also British poets too.
There is a price to pay for this sleight-of-hand, and it is usually in the poetry where consequence reveals itself. Heaney never offended anyone; Muldoon has a way of writing inoffensively, too. Derek Mahon, another Northern Irish poet, has played this hand less well, being curmudgeonly and misanthropic, not willing enough to play the game with his Britishness and his Irishness. Northern Irish humor is dark, and from the gallows, and certainly Mahon’s poetry is filled with such examples. After all, he wrote the introduction to the poetry of Jonathan Swift, the ultimate gallows humorist, kind of the Richard Pryor of his own day.
Earlier when I wrote that all good Irish writing was African in its origin, I meant that Ireland’s music, the root of its poetry, has a sound whose origins seem to hark back to Northern Africa. Bagpipes are very Islamic in their souls. One may not think of Ireland as the westernmost reach of the European Oomah, and yet the west of Ireland had a long history with Barbary pirates. They ransacked the town of Rochester, taking all inhabits in slavery back to Northern Africa. One day Rochester was a flourishing town; the next day there wasn’t a soul in it.
I don’t hear African rhythms in most of Seamus Heaney’s poetry. I hear the north of Ireland, its soul even, which is part British and part Irish.
M. G. Stephens is the author of eighteen books, including the novel The Brooklyn Book of the Dead (“a great, great book,” says Roddy Doyle), and the essay collection Green Dreams, which Joyce Carol Oates picked as one of the notable nonfiction books of the 20th century in Best American Essays of the Century.