Life of Irish poet Seamus Heaney displayed in new Emory exhibit

Last year, the death of the Irish poet Seamus Heaney was announced at a Gaelic football match between Dublin and Kerry, and 80,000 spectators respectfully held their tongues during a moment of silence.

Then the arena burst into applause. “They gave a three-minute ovation,” said Geraldine Higgins, director of Irish studies at Emory University.

Heaney, called the most important Irish poet since Yeats, was a Nobel Prize winner, but the applause for the 74-year-old wasn’t just from lovers of verse, who may well be far and few at a football match. Heaney had become a unifying and adored figure in Ireland, and elsewhere.

An exhibit curated by Higgins that tells the story of Heaney’s life and of his connection to Emory opened last month at the university’s Woodruff Library. Those looking for a scent of the old sod might celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with a visit to “Seamus Heaney: The Music of What Happens.”

The exhibit includes photographs, original manuscripts and Heaney’s writing desk, a primitive affair featuring two boards scavenged from a bench at a women’s college where he once taught literature. One also can hear recordings of Heaney’s poems read aloud by Heaney himself and by a host of others, including Atlanta poet Natasha Trethewey and actor Liam Neeson.

And, speaking of sod, Higgins has actually imported a few chunks of the peaty topsoil that Heaney’s grandfather dug for fuel and that inspired Heaney’s poetry.

The poet’s connection to Emory began with Emory professor Richard Ellmann, a noted Irish scholar, who persuaded Heaney to serve as the first speaker in the lecture series named in Ellmann’s honor. Heaney’s connection to Emory grew stronger when the university acquired his correspondence, which ranged far and wide and was rich in letters between members of “The Belfast Group,” including Ted Hughes and Michael Longley.

Higgins, who grew up in Ballymena, Northern Ireland, about 15 miles from Heaney’s hometown, began assembling the exhibit as a tribute while Heaney was still living.

One of its four sections traces the history of the sectarian violence that ripped through Heaney’s home of Northern Ireland, and demonstrates Heaney’s nuanced approach to the conflict. The poet recognized the devastation and loss on both sides. While he wrote, “No glass of ours was ever raised to toast the Queen,” he also drew attention, with chilling effect, to the Irish girls who were publicly shamed, shaved and tarred for daring to love a British soldier.

Heaney was an accomplished elegist, rising to the occasion when it came time to sum up a life, and delivered an elegy for Ellmann when his friend died in 1987.

Fintan O’Toole, literary editor of the Irish Times, reviewed the Heaney exhibit, and commented that walking into the library brought home two harsh thoughts. “One is the simple, bleak reminder that he is in fact dead. The other is that there is no Seamus Heaney to write his elegy.”

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