The First Hill in the World

In a lecture given in the Ulster Museum in 1977, Seamus Heaney said that there are two ways in which a place may be known and cherished; the lived, illiterate and unconscious and then the learned, literate and conscious. It was a tension that certainly preoccupied him. Perhaps it defined him as well; his ability to resolve apparent contradictions without necessarily ever laying them to rest. Heaney’s life was full of such tensions or at least was characterised by differing forces, territories and loyalties. Part of the Catholic community in Ulster, the sense of straddling boundaries was somehow always more ingrained for Heaney, right from the very beginning.

He grew up on a farm at Mossbawn, County Derry. A stream ran close to the farmhouse, dividing the townlands of Anahorish and Tamniarn, which belonged to two different parishes and which were themselves in two separate dioceses. Amongst other things, this resulted in learning – and needing to know – different catechisms for church and living in the Bellaghy district but being part of a different region’s football team. In his own words he was always “a little displaced; being in between was a kind of condition”.

This only amplified later in his life; his loyalties tested as the civil rights movement he spoke out for gave way to the Troubles, his decision to move to the Republic, his later teaching in America. And he wrote in English, was offered a place at Oxford (though conflicted, he turned it down from a desire to stay close to, and give back to, his people and roots), was part of a literary world where the English and the Irish cultures met. He returned to teach in Belfast and was instrumental in a greater recognition of Northern Irish poetry in general, part of a tradition of poets from both communities; poets like Patrick Kavanagh, John Montague and John Hewitt.

Heaney was part of a world that reflected older literary lines; in particular the resurgent Irish identity of the Nineteenth Century that resulted in a new literature, set against an increasingly secular world where those like Sir James Frazer (and his Golden Bough) sought greater standardisation and the demythologisation of traditional beliefs and the places inspiring them. The new literature was part of a counter cultural movement that sought to reinstate the importance of the native tradition, of old places, old faiths, fairie lore and the legends whose entomological associations echo in the landscape even now; place names redolent with battles and saints, flights and homecomings and the steady pattern of an ancient way of life.

One of Heaney’s greatest acts of straddling different worlds was his relationship with landscape and the land itself, between the geological landscape and that of the mind. He wrote of this relationship as a kind of marriage. He thought that just as marriage is sacred, so too is this sensing of place. The landscape was “sacramental, instinct with signs, implying a system of reality beyond the visible realities.” For Heaney it possibly stemmed from a kind of almost formalised betrothal, bathing as a boy in a moss-hole, “treading the liver-thick mud, unsettling a smoky muck off the bottom and coming out smeared and weedy and darkened.” The poems of the bog, the bog oaks, the very bog people that formed such a rich seam in so much of his later work are surely touched by such an intimacy.

It’s with a profound sadness then, if with a sense of no longer being surprised, that I heard of plans to build a dual carriageway within one hundred metres of his childhood home of Mossbawn. The impact of the landscape and ecology there can only be imagined. That landscape helped inspire poems such as ‘Anahorish’ (with it’s ‘First Hill in the World’, and also the name of his very first school), ‘Broagh’ and the ‘tattoo’ of its vocal, low ‘O’, the Strand at Lough Beg, a poem dedicated to his cousin Colum McCartney, murdered in the Troubles that Heaney always treated with both care and a rare kind of grace.

The water pump in the yard at Mossbawn once marked the centre of his world. He drew on the experiences there for his early work – his first collection, ‘Death of a Naturalist’ was published fifty years ago this week. It is full of descriptions of that way of life; his father ploughing with horses, the rituals of butter churning that could be from the sixteen-hundreds, his early disillusionments in ‘Blackberry Picking’ and in the title poem itself. They are borne out with an intense and almost cinematic detail, testaments to a very different life. He writes too of another juxtaposition as he watches his father digging, aware that he himself will now work – and dig – in another fashion.

These were the worlds that Heaney found himself both between and a part of above all the rest; his writing and the farming life, the old world that even then seemed somehow irreproachably unthreatened by modernity. But though he chose, or was destined for, a life that was at one remove from the rest of his family, he remained wedded to the land and the people he lived amongst, enshrining the culture and places of his original home. But he often lived in cities, understanding Kavanagh’s internal quarrel with “the illiterate self, tied to the little hills and earthed in the stony grey soil, and the literate self that pined for the ‘city of Kings/Where art music and letters were the real things’ ”.

It’s a quandary that in some respects affects us all today. But amid the pull and tow of cities and hills, farming and art, landscapes and the pressures of a modern world that it often seems only grows harder to understand by the day, we shouldn’t forget that we all of us have choices, that the division between the world we enshrine and that which we continually create – one way or another – remains a still malleable thing. It’s simplistic to say that roads don’t get congested or that new infrastructure doesn’t sometimes have a place. But cars remain one of the ultimate mixed blessings of our times. Surely we have it in us still to value the green and the good and not be subservient to tides of tyres and metal that hook us in with their convenience but stand to take away so much?

It’s a tragic situation that the love of so great a man; the landscape in which he grew up now stands to be desecrated (a word he himself used when he heard of the plans) by a literal inroad to a vision of modernity borne, at best, of an utter absence of imagination. In a world increasingly defined by manufactured needs we should all remember our options, look for every avenue for change, hold onto that which we value and love. Heaney’s work is a testament to those values, to a world that is carried in our culture and our hearts. Nothing can touch that. We owe him so much.

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