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6 September 2016

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.

By Stephen Connolly

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.”

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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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