The blackberries on the cycle path where we walk the dog are finally ripe and as I ate the first few last week I remembered the lines from Heaney's poem, Blackberry Picking:
Late August,given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine, summer's blood was in it
And now he's dead. I was very sad to hear the news, having loved Heaney's poetry since first being introduced to it by a wonderful English teacher in the early 1970's. He read us The Early Purges, which is about kittens being drowned on a farm and it contained the line 'the scraggy wee shits', which of course scandalised and delighted our class at that time, Like Heaney as a child I lived on a farm in South Derry, so I recognised the things he wrote about: gathering potatoes; picking blackberries.... and kittens being drowned. Poetry had been mysterious and distant until then: I hadn't realised it could be about things I knew about. In some ways it was this experience that set me on the route to my career as an English teacher.
So now I introduce Heaney's poems to the classes I teach: he's been on GCSE syllabuses for many years now. Although few have much experience these days of collecting frogspawn or picking blackberries, the poems still resonate with them, a favourite being Mid-term Break, Heaney's early poem about the death of his 4 year old brother Christopher in a car accident.
In 1995, I wrote to Seamus Heaney and told him about how I loved his poetry. I described my memories of growing up in Ballyronan which is about 6 miles from Toome and how much his poetry had influenced me when I was young. I was taking a group of 'A' level students to hear him speak at a conference in London on the 17th March that year and cheekily asked him if he'd like to join me for a drink to toast St Patrick. I didn't really expect to get a reply as I'd sent the letter to Faber and Faber, but I did. He not only wrote me a letter, but phoned me up to apologise: he was already committed to lunch with others that day. I thought it was my dad on the phone - he sounded just the same with his South Derry accent. And then when we were at the conference during the break there was an announcement asking me to come back stage. My students were very impressed: my 15 minutes, or 5 seconds, of fame.
And so I met him. He was a lovely, modest, genuine man. We talked of home: he knew John McGlone in the garage across the road from us and how his wife is from Ardboe, not far from Ballyronan. I was a bit overwhelmed and didn't really say any of the things I should have said. And I couldn't stay long, being in sole charge of a group of students. Even so this was one of the most memorable experiences of my life.
When I left that school in 2001, my leaving present was a copy of Heaney's latest collection, Electric Light with a signed dedication from Heaney. This is a very precious possession.
I thought of walking round and round a spaceUtterly empty, utterly a source
Where the decked chestnut tree had lost its place
In our front hedge above the wallflowers.
The white chips jumped and jumped and skited high.
I heard the hatchet's differentiated
Accurate cut, the crack, the sigh
And collapse of what luxuriated
Through the shocked tips and wreckage of it all.
Deep-planted and long gone, my coeval
Chestnut from a jam jar in a hole,
Its heft and hush became a bright nowhere,
A soul ramifying and forever
Silent, beyond silence listened for.