When I was a university student, the most reckless students that I knew took large quantities of cocaine and drove while drunk. But there was one dangerous exploit that they avoided: they never uttered a word against Seamus Heaney, either in their essays or to the faces of our professors. To do so was to risk disapproval of a deadly kind. You did not want to risk your university degree for comments against the man treated like the Messiah of Irish literature.
Heaney was a guest lecturer at my university, and one day, I plucked up the courage to ask him, “What advice would you give new writers writing in a postmodern climate?” Heaney looked at me with a perplexed expression and said in front of a packed lecture hall, “Postmodernism? That’s a fashion of literary criticism.” He waved his hands from side to side and dismissed my question. None of the English literature faculty who had staked their careers on postmodernism interjected. They smiled and simpered under his every word.
It begs the question: why was Heaney so adored? Even if his poetry lifts you to new heights, as it does me, the absolute adulation is suspect. It mystifies many why Heaney, an Irish Catholic, who wrote about Catholicism, was continuously exalted by the liberal, secular elite.
Dare I unravel the mystery: Was it because Heaney wrote as though Catholicism was an institution that belonged to the past? Heaney’s catalogue of poetry records the clash between new and old Ireland, the time before electric light and the time after. But alongside gas lamps, did Heaney relegate Catholicism as something that would recede into the background of Irish history? Was it this approach that won him the favour of the secular establishment?
Let us be clear, Heaney was not an anti-Catholic poet. He did not write to discourage others from the faith. Heaney was part of the age group that came into its own in the 1960s. He painted himself as being an observer of a religion that died out with his parents’ generation.
Take the poem, When all the others were away at Mass. Heaney describes the experience of being at his mother’s deathbed. While the poet watches his mother die, the parish priest recites the prayers for the dying, but Heaney does not join in, instead he remembers his favourite memory of his mother, which was when they peeled potatoes while the rest of the family were away at Mass. The implicit message is that he would prefer to remember preparing food with her, than pray for her soul, “So, when the parish priest at her bedside went hammer and thongs at the prayers for the dying… I remembered her head bent towards my head.”
In time, it will be realised that this adulation of Heaney was the very toxin that inhibited him. Heaney was never challenged to excel beyond his great achievements, when he clearly had phenomenal talent. Not all his poems are of equal quality, and some are superior to others. There has not been a thoroughly honest comparison between Heaney and another Irish poet who lived and breathed that harsh rural, farming life. One such poet would be Patrick Kavanagh. It is telling that so few know of Patrick Kavanagh, a poet who bared his Catholic soul for everyone to see.
In our times, Kavanagh will never know Heaney’s popularity and I question if it is partly because he wrote about being inside the faith, not outside it, and as though the faith was a living reality?