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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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How did Don’t Tell the Bride lose its spark?

Falling out of the love with reality TV’s wedding planning hit.

Steph, 23, from Nottinghamshire, is standing in a drizzly field wearing a wedding dress. Her betrothed, Billy, is running around in a tweed flat cap trying to make some pigs walk in “a continuous parade”. A man from Guinness World Records is watching with a clipboard, shaking his head. Bridesmaids gaze sorrowfully into the middle distance, each in a damp pig onesie.

Thus ends the second wedding in E4’s new series of Don’t Tell the Bride – and the programme’s integrity with it.

When the classic programme, which follows grooms attempting to plan their wedding (punchline: human males doing some organising), began a decade ago on BBC Three, it had the raw spark of unpredictability. For eight years, the show did nothing fancy with the format, and stuck with pretty ordinary couples who had few eccentric aspirations for their wedding day.

This usually resulted in run-of-the-mill, mildly disappointing weddings where the worst thing that happened would be a reception at the nearest motorway pub, or an ill-fitting New Look low heel.

It sounds dull, but anyone who has religiously watched it knows that the more low-key weddings expose what is truly intriguing about this programme: the unconditional commitment – or doomed nature – of a relationship. As one of the show’s superfans told the Radio Times a couple of years ago:

“It’s perfect, and not in an ironic or post-ironic or snarky way. The format has the solemn weight of a ceremony . . . Don’t Tell the Bride is not about ruined weddings, it’s about hope. Every wedding is a demonstration of how our ambitions curve away from our abilities. It’s a show about striving to deserve love and how that’s rarely enough.”

It also meant that when there were bombshells, they were stand-out episodes. High drama like Series 4’s notorious Las Vegas wedding almost resulting in a no-show bride. Or heart-warming surprises like the geezer Luke in Series 3 playing Fifa and guzzling a tinny on his wedding morning, who incongruously pulls off a stonking wedding day (complete with special permission from the Catholic Church).

For its eight years on BBC Three, a few wildcard weddings were thrown into the mix of each series. Then the show had a brief affair with BBC One, a flirt with Sky, and is now on its tenth year, 13th series and in a brand new relationship – with the more outrageous E4.

During its journey from BBC Three, the show has been losing its way. Tedious relationship preamble has been used to beef up each episode. Some of the grooms are cruel rather than clueless, or seem more pathetic and vulnerable than naïve. And wackier weddings have become the norm.

The programme has now fully split from its understated roots. Since it kicked off at the end of July, every wedding has been a publicity stunt. The pig farm nuptials are sandwiched between a Costa del Sol-based parasail monstrosity and an Eighties Neighbours-themed ceremony, for example. All facilitated by producers clearly handing the groom and best men karaoke booth-style props (sombreros! Inflatable guitars! Wigs!) to soup up the living room planning process.

Such hamminess doesn’t give us the same fly-on-the-wall flavour of a relationship as the older episodes. But maybe this level of artifice is appropriate. As one groom revealed to enraged fans in The Sun this week, the ceremonies filmed are not actually legally binding. “It makes a bit of a mockery of the process that the bride and groom go through this huge ordeal for a ceremony which isn’t even legal,” he said. Perhaps we should’ve predicted it would all eventually end in divorce – from reality.

Don’t Tell the Bride is on E4 at 9pm

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.