In this article specially written for the ‘Journal’, PETER GALLAGHER recalls his friend, the late Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney, as someone who “brightened any company he joined”. In particular, Peter remembers a memorable trip he undertook with Heaney and a group of friends to Ros Goill in Co. Donegal in 1960 - a visit immortalised by Heaney in his poem, ‘The Gaeltacht”.
On the day of Seamus Heaney’s funeral, it was exactly sixty-two years to the day that I first sat beside him in the ‘Big Study’ of St Columb’s College on Bishop Street.
We were sitting the examination that would determine what first year class we would be assigned to. We both finished the exam early and had a whispered conversation.
“If you weren’t here now, where would you like to be?”, I asked him. “Home”, he replied without hesitation. The speed and certainty of his reply remained with me.
I discovered that, like me, he had won his scholarship to the college a year before he was permitted to go on account of his age.
During that year, a teacher at his primary school (Anahorish PS) introduced him to the study of Latin and Irish. The “grá” he developed for both these languages was evident in his final words - “noli timere” (don’t be afraid) - to his wife, Marie, and in his recitation of ‘An Bonnán Buí’ at Derry’s Millennium Forum just a few weeks before his death.
The results of that first exam in the college determined that we should both be in Junior 2D with 27 other boys. This was to be the beginning of a friendship that would see us all the way through St Columb’s, Queen’s University and teacher training college together.
Apart from growing from a 12-year-old boy into a 23-year-old man, and gaining a greatly expanded knowledge base, Seamus, happily, did not appear to change much in that period.
I have never met anyone with such a love of learning and knowledge. I feel he would have been a success in any walk of life.
He brightened any company he joined. He was fond of a bit of leg-pulling but had a healthy capacity for self-deprecation as well.
The extent of his popularity was clear from the large attendance at the gathering a few of us organised in his honour following his Nobel prize success.
While at Queen’s, Seamus and I hitch-hiked to Dublin on a few occasions for the weekend. There weren’t as many cars in those days but many more hitch-hikers on the roads. So when a car stopped for us, there might be a whoop of, ‘Mehercule, quam celerrime” (with all speed) as we dashed after it.
On such occasions, we shared a room in a B&B on Capel Street for seven shillings and six pence each night. It was a house used by country busmen staying in the city overnight. It was very clean and the breakfast was excellent.
At other times, we acted together in plays under the auspices of the Queen’s Gaelic Society. Our producer was the late Brian Durkan, at that time a continuity announcer with the fledgling Ulster Television.
In 1960, I organised a trip to Ros Goill where I had the use of the summer college. We went for a week during the Easter holidays. Little did I think at the time that the trip would be immortalised in a poem - ‘The Gaeltacht’ - by a Nobel laureate.
Seamus came on the trip with his girlfriend at that time, Aoibheann Marren, while I was accompanied by a girl called Margaret Conway. She has been my wife now for 47 years. While there were many others who joined us on the trip, our girlfriends are the only two named in the poem. The others named in the poem are there by a combination of poetic licence and association. Indeed, many of those who joined us on that particular holiday, but who are not mentioned in the poem, are featured in the old photos which accompany this article and which serve as a lasting reminder of those memorable few days in Donegal.
The men were to stay in the house of Máire Shéimí Mhic Ruairí and we arrived on April 2, 1960. This was the birthday of Máire’s daughter, Peigí, who, with her sister, Neansaí, helped look after us for the week.
Again, Seamus and I were in the same room, but this time we had to share with others, too. Seamus nicknamed one of these fellows, ‘An t-Uasal Ó Sláinte”, for his habit of opening the windows wide to the world every night while the rest of us shivered.
Máire Shéimi was a wonderfully generous and patient woman who seemed to enjoy the fun in the house as much as we did.
On one of the days, the group embarked on a picnic to Dooey, several miles along Cúrsa na Farraige. We bought chocolate, ice cream, biscuits and Cidona in Gallaghers’ shop in Dooey.
Our babble on that rugged road above the sea was multi-lingual - Irish, English, Latin and French. There were stories, sonnets, songs and Seamus playing with words. He “translated” the last two words of the line “Tá mé ’mo shuí ó d’éirigh an ghealach aréir” into the ‘Gallagher Air’.
Forty years later, I was preparing to open phase one of a major series of extensions to the North West Institute of Further and Higher Education in Derry and had made up my mind to see if I could get Seamus to open it.
I found it difficult to locate him and, finally, sent him a fax. He sent me an unnecessarily lengthy but kind explanation as to how his commitments wouldn’t leave him free to perform the opening for me. He ended his very kind letter with the words, “Who would have thought we’d have ended up like this?”
Shortly afterwards, I discovered his poem ‘The Gaeltacht’ in his new collection, ‘Electric Light’. I have read this poem to countless student groups in Ros Goill since.
1962 saw a scattering of friends to different parts of the world of work. Happily, it was my experience that firmness of friendship did not depend on frequency of contact.
Initially, Seamus settled in Belfast but, subsequently, bestrode the world. He married Marie Devlin in 1965 while Margaret and I married in 1966. Oddly enough, Marie and Margaret attended the same small convent school in Donaghmore, Co. Tyrone.
I had the privilege, as Head of Letterkenny Regional College (now known as Letterkenny Institute of Technology), of hosting a reading by Seamus in the 1970s as part of Dr. Uinsionn Ó Murchú’s prestigious lecture series. An interested guest on the night was the then Bishop of Raphoe, Dr. Anthony McFeely, who had been our President all during our time at St Columb’s and appointed both of us prefects in our final year.
My last conversation with Seamus was after the funeral - just more than a year before his own - of Rev. Kieran Devlin.
After stripsearching my face with a look, Seamus asked me how I was doing. On being reassured of the blindingly obvious that I was still above ground, he told me of his own health problems. It was then that we noticed almost simultaneously that we were standing by the grave of our old Latin teacher, Rev. Michael McGlinchey.
The last time I saw Seamus alive was on the stage of the Millennium Forum in Derry a few weeks before he died.
I feel sure that his fellow poet Cathal Buí would forgive me if I mix some of his words with mine and say:
A Shéamuis a chroí, ‘sé mo léan do luí
Is do chnámha sínte tar éis do ghrinn.