Heaney draws the crowds at Kate O’Brien Weekend

The 28th Kate O’Brien Weekend rounded off very successfully with a reading by Nobel Prize-winning poet, Seamus Heaney, to a packed auditorium in Mary Immaculate College today (Feb 26). I discuss it further down.
Firstly, there is an update on Kate O’Brien’s former home, Boru House. Mayor Jim Long announced that it was to be restored and turned into a writers’ centre. No-one could tell me definitively, however, whether the purchaser was a private individual or the local authority. It may even be a partnership of some type. The irony of the event’s theme ‘Tell it slant” isn’t lost on me! But the important thing is that it’ll be preserved. It is obvious, judging by the strong attendance at the weekend, that the city’s literary history has a certain appeal.
The weekend involved lectures, discussions and recitals. It was well organised as always, drawing a big crowd and featuring a broad range of participants. I went to several talks/readings on Saturday.
Leading sociologist, Dr Niamh Hourigan, gave a very interesting presentation on the concepts of intimacy and integrity in post-Celtic Tiger Ireland. We have two conflicting moralities. She spoke at length about the role that colonisation had in shaping our modern culture and society. She even put forward an explanation of why the Irish political system depends so much on favours and funerals. Her research is still in progress and I’d say the finished product will be a compelling read.
Heaney n KOB 2 copy
Seamus Heaney reads under the stern gaze of Kate O’Brien
The poet, Katherine Towers, delivered a lovely reading of her work. Her poetry had strong natural themes running through it but I preferred her pieces about music. She said someone had told her once “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”. Well I don’t agree and thankfully she doesn’t either because otherwise she wouldn’t have written poems like ‘Counterpoint’ and ‘The Glass Piano’. Most of the vocabulary of music, unsurprisingly, has great sounds and Towers harnesses that language to great effect.
Novelist John Boyne read from his latest novel, The Absolutist. He spoke briefly about writing in general beforehand; his best piece of advice was probably that there is no set place that writers get ideas but they have to be open to ideas; recognise the good ones and grab them! The novel deals with the tricky subject of a conscientious objector during World War told from the viewpoint of his best friend. Boyne is a fine writer and an engaging reader. I’m definitely going to get the book on the strength of the reading.
Frank McNally, who writes the brilliant ‘An Irishman’s Diary’ in The Irish Times, drew comparisons between Flann O’Brien and Kate O’Brien, or “the two extremes of 20th century Irish literature” as he described them. His talk was as witty as the column, although he pointed out that Kate O’Brien rarely used humour in her work…where Flann couldn’t see the serious side of things.
Seamus Heaney
Heaney 2
The closing event was The Kate O’Brien Lecture, which took the form of a reading by Seamus Heaney but he also spoke about how the poems he selected came about and his personal experiences. Heaney is to Irish literature what Bono is to Irish rock music in his ability to draw a crowd, and hold it totally in thrall. The new Lime Tree Theatre was full to its 500+ capacity and with all types of people, from kids to the elderly, such is the universal appeal of his work.
He read several poems about Spain because O’Brien had close links with the country. ‘The Little Canticles of Asturias’ was particularly interesting. His writings about his childhood tend to strike a chord with a lot of people. He read, Mossbawn: Sunlight, which is one of my favourites. It’s a beautiful tribute to his aunt in a description of her baking: “And here is love like a tinsmith’s scoop sunk past its gleam in the meal-bin”. The little miracles of household chores were also present in two sonnets about his mother, which describe peeling potatoes and folding sheets. Their closeness is apparent in every word.
The love poem, ‘Tate’s Avenue’, is another study of intimacy. ‘Chanson d’Aventure’, about Heaney’s stroke several years ago, is very evocative. He describes the “bone-shaking” ambulance journey with his wife looking on, worried. One line resonated: “We might, O my love, have quoted Donne/On love on hold, body and soul apart.” It was a diverse cross-section of his work. ‘Out of the bag’ was an unexpected delight. It’s a poem about how a young Heaney thought the local doctor brought babies in his big bag and his surgery must be full of baby body parts…sounds perverse but it’s funny when you hear it! Another poem that people seemed to respond to was ‘Peacock’s Feather’, written as a christening present for his wife’s niece. You can hear the reading here, courtesy of Limerick Writers’ Centre.
I saw him read once before in Mary I when I was a student there and his poetry is as powerful as ever. It was a pleasure to hear him read again. Unfortunately, he didn’t read my favourite poem of his—‘The Forge’. That’s a giant of a poem, much like the man himself.
All I know is a door into the dark,
Outside, old axles and iron hoops rusting;
Inside, the hammered anvil’s short-pitched ring,
The unpredictable fantail of sparks
Or hiss when a new shoe toughens in water.
The anvil must be somewhere in the centre,
Horned as a unicorn, at one end square,
Set there immoveable: an altar
Where he expends himself in shape and music.
Sometimes, leather aproned, hairs in his nose,
He leans out on the jamb, recalls a clatter
Of hoofs where traffic is flashing in rows;
Then grunts and goes in, with a slam and a flick
To beat real iron out, to work the bellows.