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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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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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