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Time is running out to save Seamus Heaney's birthplace

A campaign has been launched to protest against the planned dual carriageway which will rip through the late great Irish poet's birthplace.

A little more than half-a-century ago the New Statesman published “Digging,” the early poem by Seamus Heaney that would go on to become one of the Nobel Prize-winning poet’s best-known works. In the poem, Heaney recounts a memory of his father digging potatoes in the family farmland of Mossbawn. In an early essay, writing about his home, Heaney invoked the Greek word omphalos: “omphalos, meaning the navel, and hence the stone that marked the centre of the world.” For Heaney, the centre of his world was Mossbawn and his imaginative life widened from there to Anahorish, the south Derry townland to the west of Lough Neagh which features in some of the poet’s most famous works: “Blackberry-Picking,” “Death of a Naturalist” and “Mid-term Break,” to name a few. The poem “Anahorish” begins with a translation of Anach fhíor uisce, the Irish root of the townland’s name. It was, for Heaney, his “place of clear water,” which he called “the first hill in the world”.

Yet in a decision approved in August of this year by Sinn Féin Minister for Infrastructure Chris Hazzard, a four-lane dual carriageway is set to run directly through the rural landscape of Anahorish, bisecting the area and permanently altering the landscape that gave rise to so much of Heaney’s poetry. Issues of legacy are complex and it is simplistic to argue that sites of literary interest should be preserved if they stand in the way of significant societal and economic progress, But, a public inquiry conducted when these plans were first proposed in 2007 identified and approved two other viable routes, one of which runs through a brownfield site a few hundred metres to the south of Anahorish and would provide better transport links between Belfast and Derry without destroying this site of significant cultural heritage.

Bernard O’Donoghue, poet and Emeritus Fellow of Wadham College, Oxford, has said of Heaney that the “importance of his life experience to his poetry is a crucial part of Heaney's work; he is often referred to as “a poet of place,” and Anahorish is central to that place” If Heaney is a “national treasure,” as Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams has said, then surely Anahorish is an area worth preserving?

Indeed, when I penned a letter of petition that is due to be sent to Chris Hazzard and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, support came in from around the world: Helen Vendler, Harvard Professor and champion of Heaney’s work was quick to lend her support, as was the novelist Colm Tóibin and the celebrated Irish historian Roy Foster are among those to have responded within 72 hours. This doesn’t include any of the poets, many of whom would rank as world-renowned figures themselves, who have voiced their support. The scale of the response suggests that the impact of the work inspired by this tiny piece of countryside has a global reach.

Heaney himself protested against the plans in 2007, describing the alternative route through an old aerodrome where there is an industrial estate, as less of a “wound on the ecology.” Professor Fran Brearton, Director of the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queen’s University, has said that “it is an imperative now, even more so than it was when [Heaney] himself protested against this development, to protect a legacy that exists, beautifully, both in physical form, and in the landscape of the poems that bring international visitors to this area.”

The campaign to save Anahorish is only beginning, though time is already running out: work is due to start at the beginning of October. As I was writing this, the Hollywood actor Stephen Rea got in touch again to suggest that we stage a performance featuring artists who have been moved or inspired by Seamus Heaney. For now, it is all provisional. With bulldozers primed to move in, a line from the poem “A Shiver” comes to mind; in this poem, Heaney spoke of the power to cause destruction as being “withholdable at will.” It is to be seen whether or not the decision-makers involved can be swayed, but one of Heaney's lines, quoted frequently by politicians, talks of hope and history rhyming. Perhaps we can take some heart from that.


Stephen Connolly is a poet and PhD student at the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry, Queen's University Belfast. He is co-editor, with Sinéad Morrissey of The Future Always Makes Me So Thirsty: New Poets from the North of Ireland.
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Former MP Bob Marshall-Andrews: Why I’m leaving Labour and joining the Lib Dems

A former political ally of Jeremy Corbyn explains why he is leaving Labour after nearly 50 years.

I’m leaving home. It’s a very hard thing to do. All of my natural allegiances have been to Labour, and never had I contemplated leaving the party – not even in the gloomy years, when we were fighting Iraq and the battles over civil liberties. I have always taken the view that it’s far better to stay within it. But it has just gone too far. There has been a total failure to identify the major issues of our age.

The related problems of the environment, globalisation and the migration of impoverished people are almost ignored in favour of the renationalisation of the railways and mantras about the National Health Service. The assertion that Labour could run the NHS better than the Tories may be true, but it is not the battle hymn of a modern republic. It is at best well-meaning, at worst threadbare. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life talking about renationalising the railways while millions of people move across the world because of famine, war and climate change.

The centre left in British politics is in retreat, and the demise of the Labour Party has the grim inevitability of a Shakespearean tragedy. Ironically, history will show that Labour’s fatal flaw lay in its spectacular success.

Labour is, in essence, a party of the 20th century, and in those 100 years it did more to advance the freedom and well-being of working people and the disadvantaged than any other political movement in history. The aspirations of the founding fathers – access to education, health and welfare; equality before the law; collective organisation; universal franchise – have all to a large extent been achieved. The party’s record of racial and religious tolerance has been a beacon in a century of repression. These achievements have been enshrined in the fabric of British society and reproduced across the world.

The success brought deserved, unprecedented power and created political fortresses across the industrial heartlands of Britain. But with power, the party became increasingly moribund and corrupt. The manipulation of the union block vote at party conferences became a national disgrace. The Labour heartlands, particularly Scotland, were treated like rotten boroughs, and were too often represented by union placemen.

Instead of seeking a new radicalism appropriate to the challenges of the age, New Labour sought to ambush the Tories on the management of market capital and to outflank them on law and order: a fool’s errand. It inevitably succumbed to another form of corruption based on hubris and deceit, resulting in attacks on civil liberty, financial disaster and catastrophic war.

The reaction has been to lurch back to the status quo. The extraordinary fall from a massive majority of 179 in 1997 to a political basket case has been blamed on the false dichotomy between Blairism and the old, unionised Labour. Both have contributed to the disaster in equal measure.

I believe desperately in the politics of the 21st century, and Labour is at best paying lip service to it – epitomised in its failure to engage in the Brexit debate, which I was horrified by. The Liberal Democrats are far from perfect, but they have been consistent on Europe, as they were in their opposition to the Iraq War and on civil liberties. They deserve support.

But it’s a serious wrench. I’m leaving friends, and it hurts. Jeremy Corbyn was a political ally of mine on a number of serious issues. We made common cause on Tony Blair’s assaults on civil liberty and the Iraq War, and we went to Gaza together. He has many of the right ideas, but he simply has not moved into addressing the major problems.

To be blunt, I don’t think Corbyn is leadership material, but that is aside from politics. You need skills as a leader, and I don’t think he’s got them, but I was prepared to stick it out to see what happened. It has been a great, gradual disappointment, and Brexit has brought it all to the fore.

Frankly, I was surprised that he announced he was a Remainer, because I know that his natural sympathies have lain with a small cadre within Labour – an old-fashioned cadre that holds that any form of trade bloc among relatively wealthy nations is an abhorrence. It’s not: it’s the way forward. Yet there are people who believe that, and I know he has always been sympathetic to them.

But by signing up and then doing nothing, you sell the pass. Labour was uniquely qualified to confront the deliberate falsehoods trumpeted about the NHS – the absurd claims of massive financial dividends to offset the loss of doctors
and nurses already packing their bags – and it failed. Throughout that campaign, the Labour leadership was invisible, or worse.

At present, there is a huge vacuum on the centre left, represented in substantial part by an angry 48 per cent of the electorate who rejected Brexit and the lies on which it was based. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. There is no sign from Labour that the issue is even to be addressed, let alone actively campaigned on. The Labour leadership has signed up to Brexit and, in doing so, rejected the principles of international co-operation that Europe has fostered for half a century. That is not a place I want to be.

The failure to work with, or even acknowledge, other political parties is doctrinaire lunacy. And it will end very badly, I think. The centre left has an obligation to coalesce, and to renege on that obligation is reneging on responsibility. Not to sit on the same platform as other parties during the Brexit debate is an absurd statement of political purity, which has no place at all in modern politics.

The Liberal Democrats have grasped the political challenges of the 21st century as surely as their predecessors in the Liberal Party failed to comprehend those that faced the world a century ago. For that reason, I will sign up and do my best to lend support in my political dotage. After nearly 50 years as a Labour man, I do so with a heavy heart – but at least with some radical hope for my grandchildren.

Bob Marshall-Andrews was the Labour MP for Medway from 1997 to 2010.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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