I have always felt a connection to Seamus Heaney, the beloved Irish poet who died exactly two weeks after my grandfather, ten years ago this year. Heaney’s poetry is not only beautiful but a call to arms, an ode to the power of poetry and the public poet in tumultuous political times. He was a firm believer in what he termed the “redress of poetry” – poetry's transformative power to change society for the better. His early career almost exactly traced that of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, with Death of a Naturalist, his first collection, published in 1966, and the explicitly political North appearing amidst the escalating violence of the 1970s. The opening lines of his first collection described his pen as “snug as a gun” (‘Digging’), and in that vein he wielded his poetry in the face of the ongoing violence, never shying away from it. But violence was rarely his own response, and his work was varyingly filled with hope, grief, fury, love, shame, and even humour – unexpected yet powerful weapons in a time of crisis.
Heaney’s 1995 Nobel Prize in Literature, awarded at a pivotal point in the Northern Irish peace process, acknowledged the social and political dimensions of his role as poet. In his acceptance speech, he spoke of the “deeper need” for poetry to provide “a retuning of the world itself”. In the same year, he published The Redress of Poetry, a prose collection based on his lectures as Oxford Professor of Poetry. The titular “redress” is a multifaceted concept: Heaney describes it varyingly as “the idea of counterweighting, of balancing out the forces”, as “reparation”, and as an act of restoring. Though in some ways disparate, these definitions intersect, particularly in the potential of poetry to provide a productive alternative, or “counterweight”, to the present reality. As he asserts later in the collection, “it is essential that the vision of reality which poetry offers should be transformative”. Clearly, “redress” shares more than just a prefix with the ideas of “retuning”, “reparation”, restoring, and responsibility (another recurring concern of Heaney’s). Central to Heaney’s idea of poetry is its ability to envision alternative planes of reality, and, through that mental “retuning”, to manifest change.
“No poem or play or song / Can fully right a wrong / Inflicted and endured” – so say the Chorus in Heaney’s The Cure at Troy (1990), an adaptation of Sophocles’ ancient tale of intransigence and compromise, Philoctetes. These lines come from the penultimate chorus, Heaney’s addition to Sophocles’ tragedy, where he probes his responsibility as poet. He may not be able to “fully right a wrong”, but he still yearns for what his art can achieve. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, he noted his attempts “to make space in my reckoning and imagining for the marvellous as well as for the murderous”, the seeds of which we see in this chorus. Brutal anger and grief – for “The innocent in gaols”, “A hunger-striker’s father”, and “The police widow in veils” – remain, but this is also a chorus about optimism. Occasionally, “hope and history rhyme”, as Heaney expresses, and President Bill Clinton famously quoted in a 1995 speech in Derry as part of the peace process:
So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that a farther shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles
And cures and healing wells.
The shift is not a physical one, but a mental one, and the power lies in the mind of the poet and the reader to enact it – we must “hope”, we must “Believe”. Moreover, as Heaney explicates in his poem ‘The Settle Bed’ – published just one year after The Cure at Troy, in 1991 – we must also “Imagine”. The titular bed, sturdy and burdensome, is an uncomfortable inheritance from an ancestor, representing both the bed itself and the generational conflict and trauma of the Troubles. Heavy stuff. But not for Heaney, who, after a few stanzas of suffering its weight, proposes a ridiculous, surreal alternative. He turns his attention from the bed to both himself and the reader, with the instruction to “Imagine a dower of settle beds tumbled from heaven”, a “nonsensical” image that wholly changes the direction of the poem. Buoyed by this, he declares:
Then learn from that harmless barrage that whatever is given
Can always be reimagined, however four-square,
Plank-thick, hull-stupid and out of its time
It happens to be.
Liberated even from formal constraints, the idea that “whatever is given // Can always be reimagined” is a manifesto for Heaney’s poetry, and his belief in the power of the mind and the poet to enact positive change. It reminds us that imagining alternative presents and futures is a brave, radical, even revolutionary act. The response to tragedy doesn’t have to be grief, anger, or shame; love, hope, and humour are equally powerful weapons. In ‘The Settle Bed’, this final quality is a particularly important one: freed by the manifesto above, the poem ends with the surreal and utterly liberative image of a lookout, “That far-seeing joker”, who has lost his ship while up on the mast.
The lookout of ‘The Settle Bed’ is very different to that in ‘Mycenae Lookout’, a 1995 verse adaptation of Aeschylus’ Greek tragedy trilogy the Oresteia, in which Heaney unleashes his anger, discomfort, and shame at the Troubles. As he notes in Stepping Stones (2008), a book of interviews with fellow Irish poet Dennis O’Driscoll, here “the impulse was to give a snarl rather than sing a hymn”, conveying his full “rage at what had gone on in the previous twenty-five years”. The lookout in ‘Mycenae Lookout’ becomes both the narrator and victim of extreme violence. This lookout, so different to that of ‘The Settle Bed’, is equally important for the Troubles: the poem is presented as a momentous breaking of silence after many years without the words, vital to which is the lookout’s – and Heaney’s – unapologetic outburst. But the “far-seeing joker” of ‘The Settle Bed’ reminds us that humour is a key and often underacknowledged part of the recipe for art on the frontlines.
In this way, Heaney’s poetry shares a quality with a recent cultural export from the county of his youth, the 2018-2022 sitcom Derry Girls. 1990s Derry provides the backdrop to this show’s four Northern Irish schoolgirls, Erin, Claire, Michelle, and Orla, and their developing friendship with Michelle’s cousin James, the “wee English fella”. Yet the Troubles pose no interference to its hilarious exposition of normal teenage life, a defiant display of the humour and awkwardness of adolescence in and out of (literally) troubling times. The conflict encroaches in unexpected, comical ways: a bomb threat on a bridge in the opening episode risks derailing Sarah’s tanning appointment; a suitcase of vodka that Michelle brings on a school trip, misidentified as a suspicious device, is blown up by the British army.
Nonetheless, humour is not mere light-heartedness, and the show has a remarkable ability to handle serious moments with gravity yet ease. The season one finale celebrates the solidarity of the friends joining Orla’s quasi-farcical step aerobics routine in the school talent show, before cutting to the grim-faced adults watching news reports of a fatal explosion. The final episode of season three (before the separate extended finale) ends with the unexpected death of Clare’s father. Sometimes, grief displaces humour. But sometimes humour can help the grief along, much like Heaney’s own idea of “balancing out the forces”. After Derry Girls won two comedy awards at the 2023 Royal Television Society awards (as well as multiple BAFTAs), Lisa McGee, the show’s creator, spoke about the need to focus discussions of the Troubles not on “the terrible things that happened to us”, but instead on “the ordinary people who survived those terrible things. With humour and heart and warmth.”
And “humour and heart and warmth” are resoundingly present. In the final moments of the season two finale, the girls forgo Clinton’s speech in Derry to reunite with James, a newly self-pronounced “Derry Girl”. Community and friendship are the focus, set against Clinton’s background exhortations of togetherness. The girls may ignore the speech itself, but the importance of Clinton’s visit is not lost on viewers. The episode ends with archival footage of the actual speech, starting just after his quotation from Heaney’s The Cure at Troy, and incorporates his Heaney-inspired imperative to “believe that the future can be better than the past”. Believe despite, believe because – this is the exhortation that Heaney and Derry Girls share, as history, poetry, and comedy align.
It makes perfect sense, in fact, that in Erin’s Diary (2020), a book by McGee based on the show, Erin names Heaney her “second favourite poet” (after herself), opening with a quotation of the final lines of his poem ‘Digging’:
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
The poem which opened with the pen “snug as a gun” now sees it transformed to a spade. Art can be a weapon for destruction or a tool for growth – the choice rests in our hands. This choice is forefront in Derry Girls’ ultimate finale, where belief transforms into action. The episode is set a year after the rest of season three, in the leadup to the Northern Irish referendum on the landmark Good Friday Agreement. 71.1% of voters supported the peace agreement, which marked the end of the worst violence of the Troubles and celebrates its twenty-fifth anniversary this year. Against a montage of police and paramilitary violence, victims, and politicians (John Hume, Margaret Thatcher, and Tony Blair among them), the episode’s final scenes see the show’s many characters at the polling booths, participating in constructing the alternative future they dare to imagine.
This year, Erin got her own Heaney moment, just like her second favourite poet. In a conference commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, the head of the Northern Irish civil service quoted the show’s finale and Erin’s acknowledgement of the need for change: “Things can’t stay the same. And they shouldn’t. No matter how scary it is, we have to move on and we have to grow up because things, well, they might just change for the better.” No one knew this better than Heaney himself. From the “great sea-change” of The Cure at Troy, to the transformative mentality of ‘The Settle Bed’, to Erin’s monologue on progress, the power of art remains the power to remember, retune, reconsider, redress – and reimagine.
by Rachel Rees