Annual lecture highlights great work of Irish poets Seamus Heaney and Patrick Kavanagh

Annual lecture highlights great work of Irish poets Seamus Heaney and Patrick Kavanagh

THERE was a giddy palpable energy in the Rotblat Theatre at the University of Liverpool.

The audience were so relieved to be at this event, not on Zoom, but in person, that the excitement began well before the action started.

They were gathered for the annual Seamus Heaney Lecture, organised jointly by the Seamus Heaney Estate, and Institute of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool.

Adhering to mask-wearing and social distance restrictions, there was still a sense of it being great to be back, which is exactly what Professor Peter Shirlow, Director of the Institute, bellowed out as we welcomed everyone.

The influences of prose writers on Heaney was the theme of the lecture, which was presented by renowned Irish literature academic, Professor Roy Foster.

The evening opened with actress Sinéad Cusack, from the great acting dynasty led by her father Cyril, who read a number of Heaney poems, which were then referenced by Roy Foster in his lecture.

Mr Foster complimented Cusack on her performance, telling the audience that she had interpreted Heaney to give the audience an experience of “line fall on ear”.

In a concise lecture Roy listed the great literary influences on Heaney - including Hopkins, Wordsworth, Keats and Shelley - and the great giants of English and world literature.

But the main influence and literary bedfellow goes to, the man from the stony grey soil of Monaghan, Patrick Kavanagh.

Their poetry is inspired by the everyday life of their local rural communities.

Heaney, who was thirty years younger than Kavanagh, first discovered him when he read The Great Hunger.

This, Heaney said, “taught me that nothing is trivial”.

Kavanagh’s Tarry Flynn was biographical prose that influenced Heaney also.

Here Tarry tells his story of repressed, censored Ireland.

He craves intimacy with women but constantly subverts all occasions where this might happen.

Tarry Flynn is rural Ireland’s answer to Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Heaney told too of his challenges of growing up, in his aptly titled poem Ministry of Fear, as well as his own anxieties, while away at boarding school and of living in Ireland during the intense segregation of Catholics and Protestants.

He quotes Kavanagh early in the poem, which was read so eloquently by Ms Cusack.

“Have our accents

Changed? ‘Catholics, in general, don’t speak

As well as students from the Protestant schools.’

Remember that stuff? Inferiority

Complexes, stuff that dreams were made on.

‘What’s your name, Heaney?’

‘Heaney, Father.’

‘Fair Enough.’

No surprise then maybe, for when Heaney was asked by Sue Lawley BBC Radio 4 his choice of book (along with the bible) to take on his desert island he chooses, not Yeats or Kavanagh, but reverted to his love of prose and took James Joyce’s Ulysses with him.