BELLAGHY, Northern Ireland — As Seamus Heaney often recounted in his poems, he was forever rooted in the soil of his family’s rural home outside Bellaghy, County Derry. That’s where he grew up as the eldest of nine siblings, and that’s where he came to rest. His life seemed to form a pantoum — a poem where the last line is the same as the first. So now Heaney’s grave occupies a leaf-blown corner of the St. Mary’s parish churchyard near his parents. His epitaph, from a poem he wrote about the hard work of trundling gravel in a wheelbarrow, says simply, “Walk on air against your better judgement.”
The Nobel laureate, who taught at Harvard for many years, drew frequently from the well of childhood memory. Thus, Bellaghy was a special place in the singular universe of his poetry. Now the people of this corner of Ulster have repaid the devotion of their native son by erecting an arts center on the site of the former Royal Ulster Constabulary barracks next to the parish church. The Seamus Heaney HomePlace opened in the autumn of 2016 as a paean to the poet’s origins and his accomplishments alike. Heaney so prized his rural roots that we were surprised to learn that Bellaghy is situated just 45 minutes in opposite directions from the cities of Derry and Belfast. That made it an easy stop on our drive between the two.
All stone and glass and wood, the exterior of HomePlace exudes a kind of modest spareness. Its riches lie within. The sweeping entrance lobby is dominated by photographs of the poet as a boy and in his later years. At age 12, the budding scholar went off to boarding school in Derry, which removed him from the day-to-day of family life in the village of Castledawson, outside Bellaghy.
But small artifacts on the first floor conjure the poet’s youngest days. Quotations from his work and interviews pepper the walls. His well-worn leather bookbag, for example, had been his uncle Peter’s money pouch. The hand-crafted bag “wasn’t what the others had, so it bothered me,” Heaney later admitted. It’s a subtle peek into the psyche of a gifted boy who pined to fit in like everyone else. His school desk from Anahorish Primary School in Antrim still has the empty hole for an inkwell and “those little carved-out grooves for pens and pencils.” His Aunt Sarah taught school in Bellaghy. “It was in her house that I first got a feel for books,” he recalled.
Where artifacts are lacking, remembrance takes their place. Heaney’s family members and neighbors have recorded their recollections of the man and rural Ulster life. It’s a little like listening to a wake through a headset. To hear the rush of memory from them all could tie up most of the day.
The second floor of HomePlace approaches Heaney more obliquely — not through biography, but through the complementary processes of inspiration and language. A wooden butter paddle provides the tangible root for quoting “Churning Day” from Heaney’s first book, “Death of a Naturalist.” Boston firefighter Bobby Breen’s fire helmet (a gift to the poet) conjures Heaney’s celebration of the sacrifice of firefighters in his poem “Helmet.” Dangling mobiles of words from Heaney’s poems — as quotidian as “clucking,” “fledge” or “ditch” or as evocative as “rath,” “mizzle,” or “clabber” — invite visitors to turn the language around in their mouths for the sheer pleasure of how it feels.
Few of Heaney’s poems are displayed at length. A notable exception is “Chanson d’Aventure,” which relates his ambulance ride with his wife, Marie, after suffering a stroke one Sunday morning. It comes like a lightning strike in the midst of reverie.
For those of us visiting from afar, it’s hit or miss whether we can capture a reading, lecture, concert, or play in the Helicon, the small theater inside the HomePlace that animates the museum with the ongoing joy and work of literary creation.
But there’s more than one way to honor the poet. The night after we visited, we ordered a couple shots of Bushmills neat at Bittles Bar on Victoria Square in Belfast. Beneath a giant oil painting with images of Heaney standing in a field and writing at a desk, we clinked glasses to one of the greats in the august line of Irish letters.
IF YOU GO . . .
Seamus Heaney HomePlace
45 Main Street
Bellaghy, Northern Ireland
+44 028 7938 7444
Mon.-Sat. 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Sun. 1-5 p.m.
adults $9.75, children 8 and older $6.25Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org