“But I’ve No Spade to Follow Men Like Them”

It started at a tourist information office on O’Connell Street and an unsuccessful quest to visit John Millington Synge’s birthplace in Rathfarnham, Dublin.  The ever-obliging Tourist Officer, recognising me for a literary fellow, suggested, by way of an alternative, a recently opened exhibition of the work of Seamus Heaney.

“It’s in the Bank of Ireland building on Westmoreland Street.”

I knew a little about Seamus Heaney – not a lot; just a little.  It seemed like a good opportunity to learn a little more.

Crossing O’Connell Bridge, it was a short walk to Westmoreland Street.  There, I encountered large wooden double doors; a female security guard; and two signs stating: “Bank of Ireland. Entrance, 100 metres.”  A helpful arrow indicated the direction.

400 bank ireland sign

Now, I am a law-abiding type of chap, used to obeying signs.  Dutifully, I followed the arrow 100 metres and I came across the main entrance to the Bank of Ireland and a male security guard.

“I’m looking for the Seamus Heaney exhibition,” I asked, nervously.

He pointed back the way I had just come:

“100 metres that way.  Double wooden doors.  You can’t miss it.”

400 bank ireland doors

I wanted to say that I had missed it but, instead, I thanked him and retraced my steps to the double wooden doors on Westmoreland Street, the female security guard, and the arrow resolutely pointing the other way.  Of Seamus Heaney or an exhibition there was not a mention.  Anywhere.  It is with even more apprehension that I approach the female security guard:

“Seamus Heaney?”

Like a magical ‘Open Sesame’, the words lead me into a different realm.  I am ushered from the sun-soaked tourist hordes into a cool and silent sanctuary beyond the double wooden doors.  A spacious atrium finally advertises the exhibition: Seamus Heaney: Listen Now Again.  I am in the right place.

Eighteen months before his death in 2013, Heaney donated his personal archive of works to the National Library of Ireland and the present exhibition, which is due to run for several years, is primarily drawn from this resource of original manuscripts, letters, notebooks and photographs.

400 bogland manuscript copy


It is a fascinating collection, intelligently exhibited, chronicling Heaney’s poems, literary career, and wider political achievements.

My interest in Heaney is chiefly related to his naturalism poems – his early poems recording the life of an older generation working the land close to his home in County Derry.  While I can appreciate the political interpretation of some of his later works, written during the time of the ‘Troubles’, it was not my fight and they do not have the same resonance for me as they would for someone who had been more closely involved with the struggle.

400 death naturalist

I am particularly drawn to ‘Digging’, from his first-published collection Death of a Naturalist, Faber, 1966.  In the poem, I can recognise a kindred spirit in someone who, not so much romanticises the country idyll, but who is sufficiently realistic to appreciate that the pen is their particular tool of work and not the spade.  It chronicles an older way of life, more attune to the countryside, and one which was even being lost at the time of Heaney’s youth, and which seems a million miles away from the busyness of modern Dublin.

© Fergus Longfellow


Fergus Longfellow believes the pen is no mightier than the spade

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