In 2010 we set off on a poetic pilgrimage to Bellaghy in Co Derry, NI, the birthplace and now the burial place of Seamus Heaney, his ‘place of clear water’. To get there from our holiday house on the Antrim coast, we had to pass this avenue of trees. It felt like passing through a portal.
Bellaghy turned out to be an ordinary looking little place in Co Derry (sorry, Bellaghy but you did then). I couldn’t stop thinking of Heaney’s poems about his family and his childhood there. I was on the look-out for a policeman riding a bicycle, a turf spade, a latched doorway, a well, a pump with a windlass, cobbled yards where work went on, a lane of alders, a water diviner, a slaughter house. I even looked for a sign to a place called ‘Anahorish’.
But what we did find was the beautiful Bellaghy Bawn (an old plantation house) where the Northern Irish Environment Agency keep an amazing archive of Heaney manuscripts and memorabilia and you can go and see it for free. At the entrance is this amazing figure….
I remember how we wanted to pay the woman at the Reception desk and said we’d be happy to pay whatever was asked to enter, but she just shook her head. Here are some photos of some of the things that we saw…. I took the pictures of the notebooks as I was so intrigued by the drafting, the crossings out and the amount of revising from start to finish. I think these are unpublished (so far) poems.
They even had the school bag itself!
On our way back to our holiday house, we stopped off to see Lough Beg. All around the lough it was waterlogged – ‘soft as pulp’ – its whole shore being an impenetrable bog where the cattle still graze ‘up to their bellies in an early mist’ … so we couldn’t get any closer for a better view than this…
I wanted to touch, like Midas, the water that hardens wood to stone, or see the men lamping for fish, the woman on the shore. At the other end, I think there are some fish or eel farms on the River Bann that is full of clay that ‘holds and gluts’. In the centre of the lough is Church Island with a church and an old burial ground on it. During the high summer there might be a ferry to get there. In early September there is a pilgrimage to it. But this was late September and there was nothing available.
Perhaps the peaty figure doing the good turf digging outside the Bawn bears some resemblance to him, now I come to think of it!