Tuesday, December 03, 2019

Séamus Heaney and the Music of What Happens


Adam Low's documentary on Séamus Heaney for Arena went out on the BBC recently, and last night at the Irish Film Institute in Dublin it received a big-screen showing to a packed audience, including many members of the poet's family. Afterwards (pictured above) Professor Margaret Kelleher, Chair of Anglo-Irish Literature & Drama at UCD and Chair of the board of the IFI, led a discussion with Marie and Catherine Heaney, as well as Adam Low. 

There's no doubt that Low's work is the most powerful and comprehensive treatment of the poet on film. A skilful tracing of Heaney's life and work since the earliest days, one of its strengths is how it roots (a Heaney-esque metaphor) the work in Bellaghy, and in his family. Of course so many poems do explore this, but it is particularly moving to see so much on film, including Heaney's brothers (who themselves read some of the poems) and several family photographs. 'Mid-Term Break', a staple of schools all over Ireland, gains extra force from hearing of the impact on the family, and from his brother remembering the moment the terrible event of the dearth happened.

A second great strength is how the poetry is so present - often literally in front of us (particularly effective on the huge IFI screen), and also in the voices of Heaney's family. But above all it is the extraordinary voice of the man himself (surely the best reader of his own work in recent times) which stands out: tender, supple, un-forced.

Much of the music from the film (see the title) comes from Heaney's selection on 'Desert Island Discs'.

In the discussion afterwards Marie Heaney said it struck her strongly how much this was a love story (they were married for over 50 years), and one of the loveliest sights in the film was the handwritten book that her husband gave her in Christmas 1983 with all the love poems he had written her ('because he forgot to get me a Christmas present'). He was, she said, not 'humble', but definitely 'unassuming': he knew how good he was. But still she, as his first reader (what an extraordinary position for her to be in) was the most important critic, and he knew her so well that any tiny hesitation in her reaction to a new poem was followed by 'So what don't you like about it?' He said it was like her putting a coin between her teeth to see if was the real thing.

She was stunned when the New York Times, announcing Séamus's death, had a picture of him 'above the fold' on the front page, an indication of his extraordinary reach (see below). That reach was also reinforced by the silence and then applause of 80,000 football supporters in Croke Park in the days following his death.


Marie Heaney also said after the showing that the film impressed on her once again how terrible the Troubles were, how vital it was that nothing (current events...) should open up any repetition of that terrible time.

That Croke Park applause was echoed in the IFI last night after the film: tribute to the skill of Adam Low and his team in telling the story, and of course to the man himself and his work.


The film is available on BBC iPlayer for those who can access it.

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