Was Seamus Heaney making a statement in donating his manuscripts to the National Library of Ireland?

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Heaney’s manuscripts and ephemera could have been to Queen’s University Belfast, what ‘The Book of Kells’ is to Trinity College  Dublin.

So poet Seamus Heaney chose to give his papers covering his life’s literary output to date to the National Library of Ireland. He was within his rights to do what he wanted to do with those personal papers. I have no right to be prescriptive for him in this case as I have no right to be prescriptive about what he writes.

Knowing nothing of Heaney intimately since there has always been something of a gulf personally between him and me I feel however I have a capacity to interpret his mindset given that ‘our legs hung out of the same nest’ culturally. Am I wrong to surmise then Heaney struggled intellectually in deciding to hand over his manuscripts and ephemera to the National Library of Ireland and not to his alma mater, Queen’s University? I could be.

Seamus Heaney is so revered and well liked by editorial writers that it is unlikely that his depriving Queen’s University of this crock of gold will result in their asking the question I am posing.

Needless to say, despite the reticence of such scribes to criticise or question the Nobel Laureate’s decision to bank his coveted literary treasure trove in the National Library in Dublin I am willing to say it – I am a little disappointed. I feel sorry for Queen’s University even though I am little more than an occasional visitor there. Heaney is synonymous with Queen’s. He was a student there. Knowing the indelible mark Trinity College Dublin left on me I doubt if Queen’s University DNA is not in Heaney’s sinews. There is something extraordinary about what happens in that phase of one’s life 17-24, particularly in the event of moving from the countryside such as Heaney’s Mossbawn, or South Armagh in my own case, to university in any city.

Memories of fields at home in the words of Heaney “lie deep, like some script indelibly written into the nervous system.”

The marks left on me from my experience in Trinity College “lie deep, like some script indelibly written into the nervous system.”

I doubt if Queen’s University didn’t register accordingly in Seamus Heaney’s veins.

Why then did he prioritise the National Library in Dublin? Was it because it is the national library? Did he conclude Queen’s University is little more than a provincial university?

To get some insight into Heaney’s thinking we read what is reported by the Irish Times:

Dr Heaney (72) said he was overwhelmed by the “majesty” of the Taoiseach’s address and felt a sense of pride at handing his material over to the State;

“It is a privilege and an honour to have my own worksheets, drafts, manuscripts and typescripts in our National Library, joining the great writers of the past and present who have also contributed. It is all part of a written, human chain,” he said.

I went to Trinity College. I loved and love every cobblestone on that ancient site.

Queen’s University Belfast was Seamus Heaney’s alma mater. He has been remarkably generous to Queen’s with his time down the years. He has been  rewarded and acknowledged by the hierarchy through the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry.

The manuscripts and ephemera of the son of Mossbawn would be the most coveted literary legacy for seats of learning anywhere in the world. Seamus Heaney’s motive for donating his papers to the National Library was not governed by financial gain and this is to his credit. He could have named his price to any American university for this treasure trove. He spurned this.

Heaney’s manuscripts and ephemera could have been to Queen’s University what ‘The Book of Kells’ is to Trinity College Dublin. Side by side with the Titanic Signature Quarter, at last, there would have been an overwhelming reason for visitors to come to Northern Ireland.

In the collection District and Circle Heaney writes of the ‘gypsies’ arriving in his area:

‘Every time they landed in the district an extra-ness in the air, as if a gate had been left open in the usual life, as if something might get in or get out.’

With those manuscripts resting in Dublin that ‘extra-ness’ eludes us.


About Author

I am a regular contributor to discussion programmes on TV and radio both at home and abroad. An experienced political editor and author specialising in Politics, Security and 20th Century Art.

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