The Lithuanian poet, Czeslaw Milosz (a friend of and inspiration to Nobel literature laureate Seamus Heaney) wrote that, ‘One clear stanza can take more weight / Than a whole wagon of elaborate prose’.
For over 20 years now—whenever I have felt the dead weight of politics in the North bearing down on me, bearing down on all of us—I have turned to poetry, and Heaney in particular, for solace and encouragement.
Twenty years ago, the signing of the Good Friday Agreement had me—and, I suspect, 71% of the North’s population—'walking on air’ (to employ a favourite phrase of Heaney’s).
Since then, things have ground to a halt and reverse gear has been engaged. Politics has got brutish and nasty again, and it feels as if the Good Friday Agreement is being ripped up—piece by piece—before our very eyes.
In 1975, Faber & Faber published Heaney’s fourth poetry collection, North, in which he addressed, squarely and for the first time, the ugliness of the conflict in Northern Ireland. In Whatever You Say Say Nothing, he wrote: ‘Christ, it’s near time that some small leak was sprung / In the great dykes the Dutchman made / To dam the dangerous tide that followed Seamus.’
It’s sobering to recall just how dangerous the tide had become by the mid-seventies. The monumental Troubles history, Lost Lives, records that in the four years between 9th August 1971 and 9th August 1975, 1,342 people died as a result of our squalid little conflict – more than a third of the death toll for the entire Troubles. Almost 500 died in 1972 alone.
Heaney’s poetry offered meagre pickings for those in search of hope or encouragement in the mid-seventies: ‘O land of password, handgrip, wink and nod, / Of open minds as open as a trap, / Where tongues lie coiled, as under flames lie wicks’. It was an accurate diagnosis of what our society looked like at the time.
Good Friday 1998 changed all that, or so I thought. I remember the heady excitement—the sense of opportunity—after the deal had been done. I remember poring over the accord, line-by-line, in my mother’s home the next morning; sure, there were big asks - we all had to swallow hard - but this was an opportunity too good to miss; this was something I could live with.
I recall the euphoria of the subsequent referendum when, in May 1998, Northern Ireland’s Chief Electoral Officer, Pat Bradley, announced the result: “’Yes’ – 71.12%; the percentage for the ‘No’ was 28.88%.” Almost 95% of the electorate in the Republic said ‘Yes’ in a simultaneous referendum in the South. It was a resounding endorsement by the people of Ireland as a whole, but the euphoria dissipated fairly quickly and optimism has been thin on the ground ever since.
Heaney felt, perceptively, that peace in Northern Ireland “was always going to be a rigged-up, slightly rickety affair” (Stepping Stones – Interviews with Seamus Heaney). And as the Good Friday Agreement’s 20th anniversary arrived this week, the historic deal was being honoured more in the breach than in the observance. We’ve had no power-sharing government since January last year and—while the killings have largely stopped (no mean achievement)—hope has been all but extinguished.
Yesterday, in the Belfast News Letter, the man who chaired the talks that led to the agreement—former US Senator George Mitchell—warned people not to “take for granted the absence of violence.”
Is that it, then? Should we leave the Agreement on life support until it ‘flatlines’ and we hear the piercing ‘beeeeep’ signifying its demise?
No. We cannot let it die. We have a responsibility. Almost two and a half million of us voted for the Agreement in the referendums – 85% of the combined electorates North and South. We have to fight to resurrect the opportunity the Agreement created. But how?
Seamus Heaney rests, now, in the soil of his beloved South Derry, in the cemetery adjoining St Mary’s Church in Bellaghy. The inscription on his gravestone reads: ‘Walk on air against your better judgement’.
It was one of the quirks of democracy that the party which had railed most stridently against the Good Friday—or Belfast—Agreement ended up as the largest party in the power-sharing government. It has sometimes appeared more interested in ‘power’ than in ‘sharing’, with inevitable consequences.
The collapse last month of the political talks and the ongoing stasis at Stormont are par for the course. The challenge now is to revisit our brief flirtation with power-sharing—the compromise so many of us opted for—and make it permanent.
The next step should be obvious to all who practice or believe in politics. President Bill Clinton pointed it out again this week: “20 years ago, 17 hours late, some brave people cleared a space for the miraculous. You should fill it.”
So, how can this "space for the miraculous" be filled? How can we walk on air again – all of us, this time?
Heaney, in his poetry, resisted the magnetic draw of the Troubles for as long as he could bear. Ultimately, though, he succumbed – out of a sense of responsibility, both as a poet and as a human being. In the process, he revealed himself as something of a visionary.
In a 1995 visit to Ireland, President Clinton borrowed the ‘hope and history’ line from Heaney's The Cure at Troy to exhort the North’s political leaders to strike a deal (Heaney later said the line belonged “in the realm of pious aspiration”).
However, in Doubletake, Heaney also invoked the divine: ‘So hope for a great sea-change / On the far side of revenge. / Believe that a further shore/ Is reachable from here./ Believe in miracles/ And cures and healing wells.’
Miracles? Cures? Healing wells? We don’t ask for much, do we? Well, perhaps a smidgen of courage, too.
In Seamus Heaney’s last recorded words—dispatched by text from his hospital bed—the poet reassured his wife, Marie: ‘Noli timere’ – ‘Don’t be afraid’.
It is advice Northern Ireland’s politicians would do well to heed. One clear stanza……..