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Irish Chamber

Seamus Heaney and the chamber

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Like many of my generation, my first experience of the writing of Seamus Heaney took place in the classroom. I still remember a teacher taking us through an analysis of Mid Term Break in the later years of primary school and discovering that literature and poetry could deliver messages on many layers beyond the usual diet of comic books.

Again, at university, his name loomed large with the Seamus Heaney library the most shiny and comfortable of facilities. I have to admit that I wouldn't have regularly been spotted there (or in any of the QUB libraries if truth be told) but we all knew about it and the man behind it.

And so, many years later, as the rookie CEO of a re-emerging chamber on the other side of the world, I had his name reappear from nowhere to no small measure of excitement and anticipation.

Some well-meaning chamber members had been in touch to say that word had reached them that there was to be "An evening with Seamus Heaney" in Middle Park on the 25th October 2011. I thought the planets were aligning for me because on that very day, only a few weeks away, the IACC were to host the reception for the touring Irish international rules team at the MCC members dining room - a team led by Anthony Tohill, another proud Derry man.

Phone calls back to Ireland and some great pursuit through her networks by my mother told the tale of how Seamus was in America at the minute and wasn't a fan of email so if I wrote a letter to him in Dublin that would be the best chance of getting in touch to invite him to the event. The letter was written and scanned in Melbourne, printed out in Tyrone and delivered in Dublin within the day.

A couple of days later, a beautifully addressed letter from Ireland arrived on my desk. Smooth, flowing fountain pen script that has stayed in my mind to this day. Sure enough, the letter was from Seamus Heaney and while he was honoured to be invited to attend what sounded like (and turned out to be) a great event amongst the Irish in Australia, he was unaware of an appointment that night in Melbourne and would surely be asleep in Dublin while we welcomed the team to Australia. He wished us well for the event and asked that his best wishes be passed on to all involved.

On further investigation, it turned out that the "Evening with Seamus Heaney" was actually a group of friends, akin to a book club, gathering in one of Melbourne's better addresses to read some of the Nobel laureate's works to each other for quiet enjoyment.

Upon learning the story behind the letter of invitation, he was amused and delighted to hear that his work was being enjoyed here. No cynicism or dismissiveness of my schoolboy error, simply generosity and warmth of humanity.

That's how I will remember Seamus Heaney.

Seamus Heaney