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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.
Terry Notary's simian appearance as performance artist Oleg in The Square
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Ruben Östlund’s film The Square hammers home the point that we are all still animals

 Each thread and simian guest star shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive.

Yasmina Reza’s play Art, about three friends whose closeness is threatened when one of them spends a fortune on an entirely white painting, offered audiences a series of packaged talking points (Does objective taste exist? What is art?) for their post-theatre meal. Ruben Östlund’s film The Square, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, serves the same function. Before the first scene is over, the Stockholm curator Christian (Claes Bang), a vision of metropolitan spiffiness in his red-framed glasses, has already wondered whether an ordinary bag placed in a gallery would qualify as art. In his current exhibition is a room filled with piles of gravel. A visitor pokes his head in, decides there’s nothing worth investigating, then leaves. We’ve all done it.

Like the canvas in Reza’s play, there is a catalyst for disorder here: the blue neon square set into the gallery’s courtyard. It is conceived as “a sanctuary of trust and caring” but its arrival throws everyone’s behaviour into sharp relief. A woman screams for help as she is pursued by an unseen aggressor, prompting everyone around her to become more than usually engrossed in their phones. Charity workers ask commuters whether they would like to save a human life, only to be given the brush-off. Christian’s relationship with poverty is squeamish. He buys a sandwich for a homeless woman. “No onions,” she says. “Pick them out yourself,” he snaps, incredulous to find that beggars can also be choosers.

His downfall, which starts after he hatches a cockamamie scheme to retrieve his stolen wallet and phone by leafleting the housing estate where he believes the thieves are hiding, is the thread on which the film’s provocative episodes are hung. Each one, such as the gallery chef flying into a rage because no one wants to hear about his balsamic reduction, shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive. A series of simian guest stars, real and pretend, make cameo appearances to hammer home the point that we are all still animals, no matter how many private views we attend. These include the performance artist Oleg (Terry Notary), whose confrontational appearance imitating an ape at a black-tie dinner – not just scene-stealing but film-stealing – exposes the instincts of the herd to conform, even if that means ignoring violence taking place at the next table.

That sequence crystallises ideas that in other parts of the film feel distinctly wishy-washy. Jibes about pretentious artists (a cameo from Dominic West) or crass advertising executives smack of the contrived bugbears of clickbait columnists – what next, jokes about quinoa served on slates? And a section of the film about a bad-taste campaign to promote the neon square will seem penetrating only to viewers who have never considered that ad agencies might stir up controversy for publicity purposes.

Östlund is sharper when he focuses on the discord beneath everyday social interactions, using sound and camerawork to disrupt supposedly simple scenes. He prefers when shooting a conversation, for instance, to linger too long on one participant, rather than cutting back and forth between them, so that we begin to interrogate and mistrust the face we’re looking at. Stand-offs between Christian and the journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss), including an excruciating argument over a condom, show this technique at its most blissfully torturous.

He is a director who is never more comfortable than when he is making audiences squirm, as he did in Force Majeure, in which a man neglects his family but not his phone when fleeing danger. But the situation in The Square, which escalates to the point where Christian must ignore a child’s suffering in order to safeguard his own existence, would have greater moral force if the film showed any interest in its poorer characters as something other than lightning rods for middle-class complacency.

The Square is undeniably entertaining, though its lasting use may be to demonstrate that movies can have the same effect as popping a coin in the collecting tin. Having seen the film, you can rest easy knowing you’ve already given. You’ve done your guilt for this week.

The Square (15)
dir: Ruben Östlund

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game