Stalking Seamus Heaney

Leilani Barnett: 

Fintan O’Higgins was as Irish as his name. Ginger-haired and freckle-faced, he looked like a man on whom you’d slap a tweed cap for a Dublin travel poster circa 1968. It was the early ’90s though when I had latched onto Fintan at a poetry reading in the Monster Truck Art Gallery in Dublin. That was the month I ran away from Alabama to find the poet, Seamus Heaney.

Heaney meant tradition, kindness, real Ireland, and based on his poetry I’d penned a lesson plan that had won me airfare and a room for a month. Heaney was a drinking buddy of Bill Clinton, and that summer I stood outside the Clarence Hotel, waiting for the two of them to emerge until a member of the not-so-hard-to-spot security detail in the crowd had allowed a half smile and confessed, “He’s not coming out for quite a while.” In my wild, wild dreams, I pictured myself somehow joining them as they pitched back Guinness and after Guinness and talked in their divergent accents about family, new books, world peace, and, of course, me and how delightful I was. Bill, in that fantasy, threw his head back and laughed at my jokes, while Heaney’s eyes just twinkled. 

I stayed so long in Dublin that I became annoyed by “the tourists,” an irony Finton was quick to point out. But, I found myself being asked more and more for directions as if I were a local, which I took as a positive sign. “Go just past the leprechaun selling the oversized bubble blowers and walk until you see Mary and Jesus in chalk on the sidewalk by the flower stands,” I’d advise. “Take this bus.” “Take that tour.” “Neary’s has good bread and soup if you’re looking for a pub lunch.” I knew the name of the prostitute at my bus stop in town, and I knew around seven every night she’d be humming, “Hey, babe, take a walk on the wild side.” But, I didn’t know whether or not I’d ever run into Heaney. 

He was not to be found at the bus stop or the Monster Truck Art Gallery. He was not at the pub where Fintan taught me to drink Jameson whisky though the bartender said Heaney had been in earlier that very day.  He was not at any of the Poetry Ireland events I attended or the poetry lunches sponsored by the Bank of Ireland. He was not under the angels on O’Connell Street, nor did he frequent the kiosk where I’d bought sugary donuts for 50 p. each. Still, I looked for him in the sparse crowds at the creepy National History Museum and on the Number 2 bus I took from my rented attic in Sandymount back to Fintan’s inherited place in Dublin proper. I looked for him at the train station when I went to Joyce’s Martello tower and on the park benches in St. Stephen’s Green.  

The first Sunday morning after my arrival, lightning struck my house near the beach. Perhaps, I should have started thinking about becoming Catholic at that moment. Twenty years later, I did convert, as much as a political act as a religious one, but at that moment, I simply thought God was blessing me with some added permission, some inspiration that I couldn’t have received at home. Maybe, he’d meant to strike Heaney’s house and missed. Either way, I took the lightning as a good sign. My father didn’t. With his own Irish roots hidden by only a generation, he had warned me I was risking a good husband by spending a month away, but I loved who I was in Ireland, just another poet, “something good from America,” Fintan had told his friend Birch whose smoke rings I’d poked holes in one night at the Monster Truck. “Like Cab Calloway,” Birch had agreed, and they had sung “Minnie the Moocher” on Fintan’s roof from which shots had been fired during the Easter Rebellion. Later, we’d all gone for chips with curry from the take-away nearby.  

My circle of friends grew, but Heaney remained elusive. I lived in hope that I might muster courage to simply—as my landlady had suggested—knock on his door which was just down the road from her house. “He’s a lovely man,” she said. “I’m sure he’d talk to you.” That seemed too invasive though, and I was a stranger of no importance, one of a million fans from America who taught “Digging” to urban high school kids who had never touched a piece of soil, much less sod. Who was I to show up unbeckoned? 

In the meantime, I left my shoe leather on the cobblestones, walking around and around the city, writing in first one pub and then the next. I struck up a conversation with a woman on my bus route who was wearing an apple green sweater with a pink broach. “How pretty you look in your sweater!” “Oh, I’m terribly bright,” she said, “but I’m trying to cheer myself up, I guess.” I ventured to ask what occasioned her need for cheering, and she told me about her ailing husband. They had come from Belfast, she explained, years ago during the worst of “The Troubles.” The next day when she got on, another woman started speaking to her and moving a sack of groceries over so she’d have a place to sit. “Oh, no, don’t bother, Hattie,” she said. “I’m going to sit with my American friend today.” I was as proud as a middle schooler asked to sit at the cool kids’ table. 

Ultimately that first year, I returned to Dublin two more times, spent a Christmas with Fintan’s family a decade later, had a fling with an Irish soccer player trying to recover his lost youth, and never spoke again with most of the young poets who had befriended me in my early Ireland days. Still, I went back again and again in my mind, in reality, and through the pages of books and collections of poetry and photographs. I will never be finished with Dublin. I knew that much the instant I spotted Heaney, the poet, in the flesh. 

I was looking toward the sea when he appeared.  I didn’t see him walk from the direction of his house.  He was just of a sudden…there…on Sandymount Beach in my own view from my own rented window. His hair was wilder than usual in the wind. Sometimes I think I remember a dog nearby, a very Irish sort of dog, sniffing around in the wet sand as Heaney stood with a half smile and his hands in his pockets, looking up to my window now and then as if he could feel my needy eyes. Did he welcome those stares or fear them? He stayed there for a long, long time. Perhaps he was waiting, a gentlemanly thing to do. I could have caught him, approached him with a goofy Texas grin, spoken, invited him up for a drink, explaining that in the American South, we offer those with whom we want to visit an iced tea. “I’m just there,” I would have said and pointed. At worst, he’d have said, “Oh, I’m sorry, dear, but I have a previous engagement.” I could have told him about the poetry grant from Indiana that had brought me to that beach, my story-telling father, my students, the lovely husband I had left at home. But, I was frozen. I could no more have interrupted Seamus Heaney gazing at the wild Irish sea than I could have interrupted a priest in prayer, lost as he was in his own occupation, drafting a poem I didn’t dare interrupt.  

Since those early days, I have been kissed by Fintan O’Higgins as a constant, polite snow fell on a gray winter afternoon. I have heard him refuse my summer offer to drop him somewhere as I escaped buckets of a mad August rain in a taxi. “No,” he said, “I’m not yet sure where I want to go.” I remain convinced my life would have been quite different had he simply gotten in. And now, Fintan has married another and fathered a red-headed baby whose snapshots make my dried-up, empty womb echo as if it were one of Heaney’s childhood water wells. In the years that have passed since my first days in Ireland, I have fallen in love with more foreign cities than Dublin has churches, and Heaney has shuffled off his windy Irish beach for good. I keep returning, basking at last in whatever it was I came there looking for. “Oh, we’re just back from a trip to Ireland,” someone will tell me now and then. I confess I think to myself,” “Bless them. They didn’t know they were merely tourists.” Then, I’ll see in some realm meshing fantasy and memory and the beginnings of senility, Fintan’s smile as he shakes his head to remind me I’m a lost cause, while there in the corner sit Bill looking older but just as adoringly and Heaney, ghostly pale but eyes a’twinkle. 

BIO: Leilani Barnett is a teacher, world traveler, and social activist. She lives in downtown Dallas, Texas, and her work has been published in English Journal, Perceptions, Raven’s Perch, The Westchester Review, and other publications.

Photo: Sarah Leamy

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