Cliff Morgan and Seamus Heaney: Poetry, romance and rugby

Modest, confident and at ease with themselves - the deaths of Welsh rugby icon Cliff Morgan and the Irish poet Seamus Heaney have been a double blow, writes Jonathan Smith.

Cliff Morgan and Seamus Heaney.
"They delighted us because they celebrated life" - Cliff Morgan and Seamus Heaney. Photograph: Getty Images.

For a schoolboy in Wales in the Fifties, there were three stars, three heroes, and they were all box-office: Dylan Thomas, Richard Burton and Cliff Morgan. Poetry, romance and rugby, and all three crossed over into each other and informed each other, as in Wales they tend to do. And there was, I admit, something a bit personal, too. Cliff Morgan, the son of a miner, was born in Trebanog in the Rhondda Valley. He went on to Tonyrefail Grammar School. Tonyrefail, the next town along, was where my father, the son of a cobbler, was born and grew up. To those three words, then – poetry, romance and rugby –you could now add a fourth: education. In the Valleys it would be difficult to disentangle those.

Morgan was to Welsh rugby in the Fifties what Barry John and Phil Bennett became in the late Sixties and Seventies: that bloodline of brilliant outside halves who defined their nation. They were great individual talents, but they stood in a tradition. Morgan inspired Wales to the Triple Crown and then inspired the British Lions in a memorable tour to South Africa. He embodied a Welsh approach and he expressed a particular kind of Welsh inventiveness.

He also brought glamour to the game. Like Barry John, Morgan retired at the height of his powers, in his late twenties, but he was always Cliff, in the way that Barry was Barry and Phil was Phil. No need for surnames, boys, because you knew them.

In the early Sixties I was teaching English in Scotland and was more interested in literature than rugby (but only just), and it was in the New Statesman in 1964 that I first encountered Seamus Heaney’s poetry, and I liked what I heard: a new voice.

I knew something of Thom Gunn and Ted Hughes, but nothing of the Irishman. Then, in 1966, Death of a Naturalist, Heaney’s first collection, was published and things were never the same again.

He dug deep. He turned the turf, and with his spade and plough he took us into his life and the bogs of Ireland. His great spirit became the dominant force in our poetry for the next 50 years. He re-marked the pitch.

Seamus Heaney, the son of a farmer and the eldest of nine children, was born in Mossbawn, County Derry, in Northern Ireland. I have just gone over to my bookshelf and some of the titles, taken down at random, bring him and it all back: North, Field Work, Station Island, Seeing Things, District and Circle, and his final collection, Human Chain, with those intimations of mortality.

I doubt there is an English teacher in these islands who has not taught a Heaney poem, if not a selection of his work, and felt the pull of the divining rod:

We marked the pitch: four jackets for

four goalposts,

That was all. The corners and the squares

Were there like longitude and latitude

Under the bumpy thistly ground, to be

Agreed about or disagreed about

When the time came. And then we

picked the teams

And crossed the line our called names

drew between us.

Youngsters shouting their heads off

in a field

As the light died and they kept on playing

Because by then they were playing in

their heads . . .

I doubt if there is a sports fan who has not heard Morgan’s commentary on Gareth Edwards’s try for the Barbarians against the All Blacks at Cardiff in 1973. I was watching the match on television with an English friend and we were both on our feet, screaming at the set, punching the air at the sheer joy of it; a joy that Morgan had captured perfectly as a commentator because he knew when to hold back with words and when to let go.

The deaths of Cliff Morgan and Seamus Heaney, within a day of each other this past week, were a double blow to those of us who feel a romantic attachment to words and sport. When I heard Morgan had died I had to sit down; when the news about Heaney came through, I thought I was going to keel over.

As the rugby commentator Bill McLaren might have said: “There’ll be tears tonight in Trebanog and Mossbawn.” And far beyond. Because although very Welsh and very Irish, they crossed many borders and their voices, open and warm, travelled far and wide. They were leaders in their fields but also team players.

Both men had great public careers. Both were accomplished performers with a microphone, at ease with themselves. Both remained modest. Morgan had a twinkle in his voice matched by mischief in his eye; Heaney was more sonorous and measured, a man with a deeper tone and a greater reach.

They both read well, and read people well. They both loved singing and sing-songs. Morgan once sent a note to his rugby club: “Can’t make practice Wednesday. We’re doing Elijah.” They delighted us because they celebrated life.

If you say “Cliff Morgan” to me, I can see the way he carried the ball in both hands and showed it to everyone as the field opened up before him, his quick-footedness, balanced and brave, clever and crafty, feinting and running unusual lines. Come to think of it, that all applies to Seamus Heaney, too.

Jonathan Smith’s most recent book, “The Following Game”, is now out in paperback (Peridot Press, £6.99)

Tags:poetry
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