Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney was a brilliantly intelligent person. He was – and he knew he was – the best boy in the class. But he always did his best to keep his intelligence a secret.

In a poem in his 2010 volume Human Chain he describes how one day at Anahorish Primary School, which he attended until the age of 12, he was “sent/The privileged one, for water/To turn the the ink powder into ink”.

But the freedom that came with the privilege meant that he was missing a singing lesson, which he could hear “Coming out through opened windows/Yet still and all a world away.”

It was a lonely fate to be a singer and yet excused from singing. This loneliness had another result: he had, as he says in the poem, “A vision of the school the school/Won’t understand, nor I, not quite”.

The irony is that this clever, lonely child, a Catholic nationalist by birth, living in a remote and neglected part of the British Empire, was the beneficiary of Rab Butler’s 1944 Education Act. His education in primary school, in St Columb’s in Derry, and subsequently in Queen’s University, Belfast, was free.

He never raised his glass to the Queen, at least as her subject, and yet London made him. Without the support of Charles Monteith and Faber and Faber, the company that remained his publisher all his life, he could have been another outsider of genius, like Patrick Kavanagh, Paul Durcan or – the writer it is most interesting to compare him to – John McGahern.

It was, and is, of huge significance that his nationalism never became Provoism. Martin McGuinness may rule in Derry but he does so without any direct sanction from Derry’s greatest citizen.

Now that Heaney’s work has ended, the Irish people can begin to see his vision as a whole. It is a complex picture, marked by a great respect for the sound of language and the value of truth.

Long before he died one thing was plain: he had paid a big price for winning the Nobel prize. He exhausted himself in the service of poetry. He was generous to a fault with his time. He was dutiful on behalf of the State. It would be an exaggeration, but not a major one, to say he died for Ireland.

His intelligence was profoundly diplomatic – he could have been a great Minister for Foreign Affairs. In the small and frequently vicious world of Irish writing, he managed to avoid making enemies.

If there was a divide in him, it was between the way he understood how the world works and his desire to say that it is good.

In 2011, I had the good fortune to be one of the judges who awarded him The Irish Times Poetry Now prize for his book Human Chain.

In my speech at the award ceremony, I said all of the judges were agreed on the high quality of the 42 books in the competition.

But when we considered this array of talent, we were always driven back to a puzzlingly pleasurable question – why was Seamus the best?

In the end, I think the answer had to do with his character – I even dare say his moral character.

Throughout his work, he depended on his highly developed tactile sensitivities. Heaney felt as vividly as a baby does, and indeed in Human Chain, which was written after he had suffered a stroke, there is a sad sense of the infant miraculous, of being able to apprehend the physical world for the first time a second time.

The territory of these late poems is the scene of a serious contest, as the book’s title poem makes clear. Ostensibly it is about the delivery of food to famine victims while soldiers are firing over the heads of the mob.

But it is also about the poet’s art. The poems, like bags of meal, are backbreakingly heavy and the reward of lifting them up and passing them on is “A letting go which will not come again./ Or it will, once. And for all.”

Those three full stops and that one half-stop are deliberate. When we consider how sick he was, they give us pause in the throat.

A passage by the Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana tells us something about the essential Heaney.

In the simple and ignorant age of Homer, poetry was “the sweetest and sanest that the world has known. . . Nowhere else can we find so noble a rendering of human nature, so spontaneous a delight in life, so uncompromising a dedication to beauty, and such a gift of seeing beauty in everything. Homer, the first of poets, was also the best and the most poetical.”

We can say now that Heaney was the first of our poets, the best and the most poetical of them.

Even at this moment, so soon after his death, when we consider his work as a whole, we are left with the inescapable conviction that we have been given something good by someone of good character.

His intelligence was exceptional because it allowed him to become humble. He was a master who brought his word-gift in by the servant’s entrance. Here it is:

The full of a white

Enamel bucket

Of little pears:

Still life

On the red tiles

Of that floor.

Sleeping beauty

I came on

By the scullion’s door.

Note: for reasons of space I edited the paragraph by Santayana quoted above from his essay ‘The Poetry of Barbarism’in his book ‘Interpretations of Poetry and Religion’. Here is the full quote:

It is an observation at first sight melancholy but in the end,
perhaps, enlightening, that the earliest poets are the most ideal, and
that primitive ages furnish the most heroic characters and have the
clearest vision of a perfect life. The Homeric times must have been full
of ignorance and suffering. In those little barbaric towns, in those camps
and farm, in those shipyards, there must have been much insecurity and
superstition. That age was singularly poor in all that concerns the
convenience of life and the entertainment of the mind with arts and
sciences. Yet it had a sense for civilizations. That machinery of life
which men were beginning to devise appealed to them as poetical; they
knew its ultimate justification and studied its incipient processes with
delight. The poetry of that simple and ignorant age was, accordingly, the
sweetest and sanest that the world has known; the most faultless in
taste, and the most even and lofty in inspiration. Without lacking
variety and homeliness, it bathed all things human in the golden light of
morning; it clothed sorrow in a kind of majesty, instinct with both
self-control and heroic frankness. Nowhere else can we find so noble a
rendering of human nature, so spontaneous a delight in life, so
uncompromising a dedication to beauty, and such a gift of seeing
beauty in everything. Homer, the first of poets, was also the best and
the most poetical.

I Breathe A Drug

This is the text of the poem set to music by Jerome De Bromhead

I Breathe A Drug

I breathe a drug
And what I call it is
The air.

The war against the war,
Against the waste of things,
Gives way to awe,
The poet’s useless pity for
The O in everything
That fights against the law
And fails.

What brought all this about?
What makes the poet think
He has it in his power
To bring his moment out
Of time and burn it in
To someone else’s hour,
To call the laws of sequence false,
And send you walking through
The blueness of an evening town
That yearns for going out
For fear of staying home?
Well, that was done to him and now
He wants to do it in return.

The town knows what is meant.
It’s covered with a sheet of doubt
Imperial in width and length,
And on it all the drops of neon light
Are sequins, like the tears
A youthful woman sheds the while
She’s lying helpless on her back
Beneath her friend the moon.

The moon is glazed with waiting.
The town has emptied out.
But still the traffic lights trip through
Their declaration of inhuman rights,
And still the streets cry Yield.
Our best weapons cannot be used,
But what use could we put peace to?
Atom bomb or Milky Way, both lose.
Victory or defeat ends with a sigh,
Threatening the walls with doors.
And look, here is an open one,
And someone coming through it,
Breathless, impatient, saying,
People have lost patience,
There’s going to be war in the streets,
The place is deserted,
I’m telling you, I was out there,
And it’s the same as in here, or nearly.


for Françoise Connolly

The time will come, perhaps,
(But death will come first)
When we may be able to visit
The dead and where they lived
When we first knew them,
And then, though they will not
Be able to see us, we shall
Look at those faces we
Loved once with better thanks
And more praise than we gave,
Or were able to give,
In those moments – how few
They were – of love expressed, and
More praise and thanks, too,
Than we can show even now,
Even now when regret
For the things we have lost,
Les choses perdus which we chose
To lose, would seem to have made us
Capable of showing,
And of saying, too, what
We are mindful of, so bitterly,
Because we cannot help
Imagining that there is
A heaven on earth at all times,
And those so disembodied bodies
We knew once have found there
A joy that is like our own
In thinking lovingly of them,
Though love maybe was not
What we felt at the time, nor did
The places seem as lovely
As they do now in memory,
So that in this mistaken joy
The dead and ourselves are
Reconciled to a world they grew
Weary of, and that we are
Growing weary of, too,
And refreshed then by
Our shared tiredness,
In the heart-felt way of
What the aging, perforce,
Think is the best way of
Passing their remaining
Time on earth, that is to say
Looking back (unlike the new
Born, who look forward with
The cry of the newly homeless),
In thankful recollection
Of the world as it once was,
Or, rather, as it once
Was not, perfect in –
The French are to blame for this too –
Its imperfection.

The first two lines in this poem were spoken by the poet William Cowper to his friend the Reverend John Newton on the 28th of May, 1781. The general thought is also Cowper’s, but greatly changed, in part by reflection on the way Marcel Proust imagined the past as another world concealed in this one. Cowper, although his attitude to France was very much that of a Protestant Englishman of the revolutionary period – ‘Love your country, beat the French and never mind what happens next’ – greatly admired Jeanne-Marie Bouvier de la Motte-Guyon (1648 –1717), the French Catholic poet, mystic and prisoner of the state. An episode in my novel about Cowper, The Winner of Sorrow, quotes briefly from the book of translations he published of her poetry.

Brian Lynch

Peter Jankowsky’s translation

click to enlarge, click image for slide show

L'Imperfection translated by Peter Jankowsky L'Imperfection (2) translated by Peter Jankowsky L'Imperfection explanatory note translated by Peter Jankowsky


Pity for the Wicked
Pity for the Wicked. Photo of Margaret Wright © Pacemaker

Brian Lynch
Published 9 May 2005 The Duras Press
ISBN 1-873748-16-7
PRICE: €15

Pity for the Wicked can be ordered from The Duras Press.

What the critics said

“Brian Lynch’s extraordinary testament is like a shattering alarm in the middle of the night.” – Gerald Dawe, The Irish Times. Full Review

“Brian Lynch does Irish society a service by tearing the mask from murder and terror, by dispelling the fog of romanticised amnesia in which horror is embalmed as history is rewritten to justify a campaign of murder, by trying to restore the meaning of language.” – Maurice Hayes, The Irish Independent. Full Review

“One of the most devastating critiques of the savagery of the Troubles and of the hypocrisy of the ‘peace process’.” – Dennis Kennedy, The Belfast Telegraph. Full Review

I believe that the publication of Brian Lynch’s book will contribute to the isolation of Sinn Féin-IRA, and their eventual disappearance from the political map of Ireland.” –Conor Cruise O’Brien, from the Introduction

In Memory of the Childhood of Margaret Wright, by Gene Lambert
In Memory of the Childhood of Margaret Wright, by Gene Lambert
Written between 1993 and 1996, Pity for the Wicked is a contemporary depiction of a momentous period in Irish history. It was first published in a slightly different form in The Ring of Words, the anthology of the 1998 Arvon Foundation/Daily Telegraph International Poetry Competition under the title An Angry Heart, An Empty House. About the section of the poem that deals with the murder of Margaret Wright (which was published separately in New and Renewed), Philip Casey said in The Irish Independent, ’It will stalk your dreams.’ Fiona Sampson said in The Irish Times that ’it is a shaming, difficult and necessary read; and worth buying the book for in its own right.’



Dublin, RHA Gallagher Gallery and New Island Books 1997

Cover Painting by Gene Lambert

This book has a troubled history. Gene Lambert, who had heard me read from ‘Pity for the Wicked’ at the Dun Laoghaire poetry festival, suggested including in the book the section referring to the murder of Margaret Wright. I agreed and wrote a poem, ‘The Childhood of Margaret Wright’, tying it to the cover painting, which also appears on the back of ‘Pity for the Wicked’. There were other poems relating to the theme, and the introduction, which I wrote, explained the connections.

In Memory of the Childhood of Margaret Wright, by Gene Lambert
In Memory of the Childhood of Margaret Wright, by Gene Lambert

The then Director of the RHA Gallagher Gallery, Ciaran MacGonigal, was enthusiastic about the collaboration and, at my suggestion, arranged a co-publishing deal with New Island Books. However, shortly before the book was to go to press, Ciaran announced that he had got legal advice that the Margaret Wright extract was libellous of the people involved in her murder. I agreed reluctantly to remove the extract, the other poems and to rewrite the introduction – some, not all, of the details are set out in an appendix to ‘Pity for the Wicked’. As far as Playtime was concerned, the result was that the book was not distributed to bookshops or reviewed in the newspapers.


Bremen, die horen and Galway, Salmon Press, 1992

Poems by Brian Lynch with photographs by Peter Jankowsky. Translated into German as Oster Schnee –Ein Iland vor Irland.

Another book with a less than happy publishing history. As it was being prepared for printing, Jessie Lendennie’s Salmon Press was in grave financial difficulties and in the process of being taken over by Philip MacDonagh’s more commercial Poolbeg Press. The result was the book was poorly distributed and scarcely noticed. However, Michael Viney wrote about it warmly in The Irish Times.

Sadly, too, the quality of the reproduction of Peter’s photographs is not the best – they deserve better and I have often thought that either a new edition or an exhibition of the photos and the poems together would be a good idea.

When I wrote the majority of the poems I had never been on Clare Island, so the book is, for my part, purely, or impurely, formal.

The poem reproduced below describes a carved head in the Abbey on Clare Island – when I saw it the abbey was open to the four winds and one could only dimly see the frescoes on the ceiling through moss and mould. These extraordinary works, almost all of them secular rather than religious, have now been restored after many years of labour by Christoph Oldenbourg and others and can be seen in the Royal Irish Academy volume devoted to the fourth Clare Island survey. The images do not appear to be on the web, which is unfortunate, not least because the interpretation of their meaning is still uncertain and their significance in the iconography of European art history would seem to be great.

[Update: some pictures of the conservation are now on the web. Conservation work on the Abbey]

The Face

This is a religious object,
Which means it’s hard to find,
In the ruined Cistercian Abbey
At Cille on Clare Island.

I’d searched and couldn’t see,
Yet when my German friend,
Whose photograph this is,
Showed me it was obvious,
This hidden thing, and godly.

The stone on which it’s carved
Is stuck into a wall, waist
High, the first block
That butts the arch
Above the bishop’s throne,
The sedilia, as it’s known.
The other blocks that make this up
Are otherwise unmarked
With carving, and this is odd
Since as the face is side-
Ways to the vertical,
You’d think it would repeat
Until the curve were capped
And held together by
An image of the Lord.
It does not. It’s on its own.

The face is mantled with a mould,
A shawl of blooming stuff, a moss
More tightly napped and emerald
Than baize. It’s earlier than the church
And probably was used by chance,
Because it fitted into place.

Because it was there and fits here.
This is an answer to anxiety,
A definition of the art of poetry.

For this face, as you can see,
Opens its mouth and sings or cries
Or shouts the glory of its maker –
In art there is no difference
Between our grief and joy: it’s all,
In high or low or no, relief.
In life there’s no confusing them.

Being sideways and damaged round
The eye and nose does not affect
Its wholiness. Instead it adds to it,
As a lover sees on the beloved’s neck
A bruise and knows who made it
And for that reason will not forsake her,
The wounded creature of the day
Displaying what their night approved….

Nor do I disregard, being blind
To grammar, the ambiguity above:
I knew then whose was this photograph.
This is a German face you’re looking at –
And a poet’s too and also yours,
If you have come to be this hard to find,
All those who ever have been moved
By god, the sex of art, or earthly love.

Caught in a Free State

Caught in a Free State
script by Brian Lynch

RTÉ/Channel 4 co-production. 1983. Jacobs Award for script. Banff International TV Festival, Canada, award for best drama production 1984. A four-part series about German spies in Ireland during World War II.

The main spy, Dr Hermann Goertz, is played by Peter Jankowsky, with whom I subsequently translated Paul Celan: 65 Poems and who took the photographs of Clare Island about which I wrote the poems that comprise Easter Snow – Peter also translated the poems into German.

The series was directed by Peter Ormerod who went on to direct Eat the Peach before quitting the film industry in disgust to become a Ryanair pilot.

Let It Run And Set It Black

Let It Run And Set It Black

This is a 1983 play about Northern Ireland which I rewrote in 2004. The new version was, like the first, rejected by the Abbey. The play is set in a Dublin newspaper at the time of Bloody Sunday and the Aldershot bombing, events also described in Pity for the Wicked. For me it’s interesting on two counts: primarily, of course, as a political statement, but also structurally. A great deal of what is said on stage is quoted directly from reports published in newspapers on the days referred to, so the play is essentially a documentary. In other words what is usually background is here foreground. One consequence of this is that the characters are deliberately veiled – they are, of course, to the forefront but hidden by what is happening.

The play was commended in the 1984 O.Z. Whitehead Play Competition, but as yet is unproduced.

Crooked in the Car Seat

Crooked in the Car Seat
by Brian Lynch
Gemini Productions
Dublin Theatre Festival 1979.

Nominated for Best Play in the Harvey’s Theatre Awards.

Another work with an unfortunate history. When Hugh Leonard was Script Editor for the Abbey Theatre the one play he recommended for production in his first year was ‘Crooked’.

I was welcomed into the theatre by the then Director Tomas MacAnna and told that approval by the Board of the Theatre was a formality. As I remember it, the Board was to meet some days later. When I heard nothing I began to phone the Abbey, but MacAnna was never available. After about a week I rang again and by chance MacAnna picked up the phone. He told me the play had been turned down by the Board and that they would be writing to me about it.

Their letter was pretty lame: my memory is that they didn’t like the bad language. I responded, very unwisely of course, by writing a letter, copied to each member of the Board, in which I gave them a piece of my mind.

The real reasons, however, related less to the play than animosities directed towards Hugh Leonard. To this day I don’t know the details, but at the time I heard a variety of stories about the involvement of other Abbey playwrights – one of these stories in the Evening Press Dubliner’s Diary column led to an apology being printed in the paper.

In the event Leonard resigned from the Abbey.

He then persuaded Phyllis Ryan of Gemini to put the play on in the Eblana, a nice little space under the city’s main bus station. She had difficulties getting a director: the future Director of the Abbey Patrick Mason, for instance, refused on the grounds that the play’s central character, a self-hating sharp-tongued gay journalist, was unsympathetically portrayed. Donald Taylor Black, who got the directing job, went on to become perhaps Ireland’s leading TV documentary-maker. Getting someone to play the lead role was also difficult: Donal McCann turned it down and the part eventually went to Kevin McHugh, a highly competent and intelligent actor. Deirdre Donnelly played the female lead. The other members of the cast were Oliver Maguire, Paul Murphy, Maria McDermottroe, Bob Carlile, and Ronan Smith. The reviews were good on the whole, but I remember Maeve Kennedy, daughter of the novelist Val Mulkerns and not a first-string reviewer, saying in The Irish Times that wonderful dialogue was not enough in a play. I think she was right: the play didn’t have a proper shape and the ending, in particular, was less a dying fall than a stumble towards the exit. Irving Wardle in the London Times disliked it thoroughly. On the other hand, the doyen of Dublin theatre critics, JJ Finnegan, compared it to Look Back In Anger and said in time to come it would be seen to have the same importance in Irish theatre as the Osborne had in English theatre. Some prophesy.

The main result, apart from the fact that it effectively terminated my career as a playwright in the Abbey, was that RTE (in the persons of the then Controller of Programmes Muiris MacConghail and the director Peter Ormerod) commissioned me to write Caught in a free State.

Incidentally, the title comes from Van Morrison.