Why was Unionism less than fulsome in paying homage to Heaney? – Brian John Spencer asks

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Seamus Heaney, Nobel Laureate and the world’s celebrated poet passed away August 31 2013. He was Irish to the marrow, his passport avowedly green, but he was also a committed internationalist with horizons non-bounded.

On his passing the world burst into commemoration; his face on every publication from the front page of the Irish News to the New York Times. I had the fortune of speaking with Ulster poet Frank Ormsby on the day before his passing and he spoke warmly of Heaney as both a friend and poet. I never met the man but like the many of my generation I shared Ormsby’s deep appreciation for Heaney’s verse.

But as is the habit in Northern Ireland, the passing of an icon has burped up the usual drivel of sectarian and sectional analysis – that feudal, tribal, historical anachronism in these days of moderation and enlightenment that has become so very normal. Men and women constantly digging, cultivating – those old localised, racist, caste grievances.

They tried to make Heaney into a flag. But if we can learn anything from the passing of Heaney it should be the aspiration to move beyond the binary world of Protestant-Catholic, unionist-nationalist or loyalist-republican. As Heaney said himself in a 1997 interview with The Paris Review:

“But listen to what I’m saying! Protestant, Catholic—the point is to fly under or out and beyond those radar systems.”

Yes people will take and make issue with Heaney’s leanings, he was what he was: an autobiographical poet who wrote about his roots and his upbringing – rural, Catholic, nationalist. However this is a tradition as authentically Northern Irish as the protestant and the planter, and to deny or reject the man for his historical stripe is to reject our collective history and scupper the stores of cohesion, mutual interest and respect that we will need going forward.

Seamus Heaney should not be seen as a symbol of division. Heaney was a great one for his even-handedness and he himself saw a shared story that was our collective history and saw our coming future. As he said, “the reader in posterity, is as much for me a Northern Protestant as anything else.” And so Protestants, unionists and loyalists need not reflexively jump, turn and recoil so maniacally.

Borrowing the words of Martin Luther King, whose famous oration was given tribute on the week of Heaney’s passing, our momentous decree of 1998 came as a great beacon light of hope to thousands of people across Northern and Southern Ireland.

Yet, year after year, time after time, everything that should have been eliminated from the national body in those years since continues to gush from the throat, society puking up its undigested sectarianism. We should not allow the feudal few to spoil things for the moderate many.


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About Author

Brian is a writer, artist and law graduate.


  1. I wondered if it was more to do with the media giving greater importance to the comments of Nationalist and Republican politicians. I did see a tribute from Mike Nesbitt and heard that the First Minister had made a statement but didn’t see it printed anywhere.

    • The tributes in Northern Ireland have been many and varied and have crossed the community, religious and political divide.
      “Seamus made a significant contribution to literature not just in Northern Ireland but across the world,” said the First Minister Peter Robinson. “His legacy and love of literature is something that will inspire future generations.”

  2. Seán Murray Jr on

    A great piece Brian, the challenge for us all is to” fly under or out and beyond those radar systems” in our quest to unshackle ourselves from the burdens of our past.

  3. “But as is the habit in Northern Ireland, the passing of an icon has burped up the usual drivel of sectarian and sectional analysis – that feudal, tribal, historical anachronism in these days of moderation and enlightenment that has become so very normal.”

    Several examples of this supposed “sectarian and sectional analysis” would have added to the value of this post. I saw silence from one or two quarters but nothing sectarian from mainstream Unionism. Sorry, does that not fit the narrative Brian?

  4. I tweeted about the belligerent and ignorant commentary by some within Unionism regarding the passing of the literary genius, and authentic man that was Seamus Heaney, so I am glad to see this analysis Brian. Well stated.

    Heaney, like many, was a man of his time and his words will out live the petty minds (and lives) of the little few.

    Hypocrisy is the Father to most bad things for our society here & sectarianism is still his Number 1 son.

    • Once again, provide the evidence of that “belligerent and ignorant commentary” and then perhaps we have a debate.
      The simple assertion of Unionism=Bigotry gets us nowhere and serves no useful purpose.

      • Patrick O'Donnell on

        The only “ignorant” comment I’m aware of was from David Vance. But I suspect that comes as no surprise to any man, woman or beast that has ever crossed his path.

        • As far as I am aware, Mr Vance is no longer a member of the TUV?
          Was it a literary criticism (which people are entitled to make) or a criticism of Heaney as a nationalist?
          Whatever, so what we have got apparently then is “umpteen” facebookers or tweeters providing the evidence of your assertion?
          Any event and I mean any event suffers from the same type of nonsense. For example, I am sure you remember the offensive bile which followed the death of Margaret Thatcher?
          That demonstrates the nature and weakness of the modern social media format as opposed to any kind of inherent supremacism or sectarianism within Unionism or indeed any other form of political theory.

      • I’m a Unionist. I don’t write, verbally state or by my actions convey, in any way, that Unionism = Bigotry however I won’t live in some fantasy world that sectarian, supremacist bigots don’t exist, in sizeable numbers, in Unionism or elsewhere in our society.

        Specific to your request, personnel in the TUV and umpteen elements of ‘Loyalism’ outpoured their belligerent & ignorant commentary in various social media forums, primarily Facebook and Twitter. Quite easy to investigate, go to 30th August, and read.

  5. After Martin read out the peom on the news just killed it for everyone, can’t blame unionist s.Ian like SHeaney poem because his best friend gave it to him- chuckle brotner- stands proudly in Ian Library lol.

  6. I have no problems in raising a glass to the memory of our great Bellaghy Bard, he was the gaffa,
    and that’s the view from this mournful jaffa.

  7. Perhaps because unionist politicians wished to avoid being branded hypocrites. which is a national pastime here, not exclusive to either side. Mr Heaney was an Irish nationalist, true, but such a gentle, genuine, and tolerant Irish nationalist that he was held in great regard by many unionists. There were many sincere unionists in mourning at Bellaghy.
    Unionists seemed less welcome at Donnybrook, but this was in a different place. Fair enough.

  8. Sammy Morrison on

    I find this blog post offensive and misinformed.

    Looking at the reaction to the resignation of Conal McDevitt tonight it is clear that many Unionists (my own party leader Jim Allister included) are prepared to acknowledge the man’s ability and contribution to politics – even though he is (to use Brian’s words) a “Catholic nationalist”.

    Perhaps Unionists were less quick to comment on Heaney because they were more honest than their Nationalist counterparts? I say perhaps because I know the DUP and UUP both issued statements on his passing. When Jim was asked to comment he quite honestly admitted that he hadn’t read any of his poetry.

    For the record I have read some of his work and am quite prepared to acknowledge the man’s genius – as I have no doubt people will 100 years from now.

    In his translation of Beowulf Heaney included the following lines:
    “It is always better
    to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning.
    For every one of us, living in this world
    means waiting for our end. Let whoever can
    win glory before death. When a warrior is gone,
    that will be his best and only bulwark.”

    Heaney’s verse will be his “bulwark” after death, leaving a long and pleasant legacy.

    I have no doubt that any Unionist who appreciates verse would have no problem saying the same. I also have no doubt that many politicians of many descriptions who have praised him over the last few days have never read a line of his work or if they had they only did so after his death and won’t revisit his verse again now that the fuss of the funeral has died down.

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