Poet Martin Dyar: ‘The world is changing but we can cling to Heaney in our uncertainty’

Curator of the Festival in a Van programme and nine other poets will remember Seamus Heaney, who died on August 30th, 2013, at an event in Co Derry this weekend

Almost 10 years ago, Martin Dyar was in Iowa when the news came through that Seamus Heaney had died. ‘Iowa’ conjures whiteness, but the late summer campus was lush and green. The Mayo man was just a week into a fellowship and found himself part of the adrenalised grief that swept through the corridors of the university. To many there, Heaney was a beacon. Partly because he was Irish and a poet, Dyar was among those asked to speak at a hastily convened memorial event. His instinct was to wish he was home. When he thinks about that time now, he retains a sharp sense of “the desire people had” to be in the room: “the jostling, the packed hall, the medium that was the void of Heaney’s passing and everyone’s sense of him.” There were a few bravura attempts at humour and some of the profs were by then in their cups, so overcome and heartbroken that they had to be helped on stage.

Memories of that strange, moving weekend drifted through Dyar’s mind during what have been a hectic past few days. His core work commitment is in teaching in medical ethics and humanities in the School of Medicine at Trinity College Dublin, where he teaches poetry and creative writing to medical students. But poetry is his vocation. His debut collection, Maiden Names (2012), was awarded the Kavanagh prize; his new collection, The Meek, will be published by Wake Forest University Press later this autumn. August has seen him hightailing it around Ireland as the curator of the Festival in a Van programme, which this summer features music and poetry performances drawn from the anthology Vital Signs: Poems of Illness and Healing, which Dyar edited. He will be among 10 poets reading and speaking about Heaney at the Heaney HomePlace in Bellaghy this weekend so it is natural that the Derry man would be on his mind. But that is nothing new.

“Well, one of the things I would say as a kind of confession is that I think of Heaney’s work every day,” he says.

“It’s helpless – it is on my mind. I think about his standards, about the standard of his achievement, I think about the love that abides, still. If you take that in the context of what is happening this weekend, the 10th anniversary of his passing: depending on how you look at it, you could say that he is more present than ever. There is really something culturally evolving that is really potent out of his charisma, out of his achievement and out of the job he did on us.”


‘The job he did on us’ is a great phrase when you consider just how long Heaney has been part of the national conversation. One morning last week the van landed in Louth, for a morning show with the folk musician Seán Matthews and the poet Tom French.

“This is a complete poem, in itself, I think.” They met the sacristan, who gave them a tour of the local hall. There was a mural of Ferdia and Cúchulainn. They were told that Daniel O’Donnell had played that hall for 10 straight years after it opened in 1992. They stopped to examine the troubling tendency of the boards on the basketball court to expand in extreme weather. All the while, nobody was turning up for the morning performance. “And one of the technicians said: let’s not put the poet on first! We’ll go with the music,” Dyar laughs.

“That will get them out.”

So Matthews played, opening to an audience of nil. But after a few minutes, two elderly men materialised, progressing across the car park in their wheelchairs. One of the men was close to the stage and started bopping in his chair. He told Dyar that his name was Jimmy. Pointing to his wheelchair, he said he had the most expensive seat in the house. Slowly but surely, a crowd from the nearby care home began to assemble. Dyar saw the first arrival beckoning him, so he headed over.

-Are you all right, Jimmy?

-I am! But are we allowed to smoke at this thing?

When Tom French read Weissmuller in Age, his stilling ode to the athlete and star of Tarzan movies, Johnny Weissmuller, Jimmy nodded and repeated the name with reverence.

The tour has been a collection of moments like that. In Dungarvan, he watched Tadhg Williams open with a cover of a Rainy Night In Soho performed for a group of disabled senior citizens.

“And it was extraordinarily beautiful and captivating. The sense of communication becomes very strong. It is a Heaney-ism to be stripped of the mantle of the poet and to go in for a face-to-face encounter. We drop out of the sky and offer this as a novelty. But these are people who have lived long lives and poetry registers as in: oh, you are going to ‘give’ us a poem or ‘give’ us a song. You know? The credit can be given to poetry in one sense for its impact in the clinical space of dementia where it triggers memories and can make people feel more social for a short time. But in another sense the word ‘poetry’ is reminiscent of a different Ireland – maybe the Ireland of Heaney’s time when there was less distraction.”

Dyar first met Heaney when he “essentially accosted him” on Dublin’s O’Connell Street. It was sometime in 2003. Dyar was working on Tom Loves A Lord, a one-man stage show based on the life of Thomas Moore, which he wrote and later performed in venues across the country. He saw Heaney and approached him and immediately became aware that this was one of an infinite number of public approaches that Heaney absorbed in his life.

“The first thing I remember is a slight blankness. ‘What is it? I am with a friend’ And the friend looked quite like him. It was another poet. They were heading up town. And I made my little pitch. And to the frustration of his friend, he just warmed when he heard it. And his first question was: ‘Is it ‘our’ Thomas Moore?’ We spoke for about 10 minutes then. And I wanted to post him tickets for the show. He gave me a two-word address. ‘The postman knows me well enough. Whatever you send will reach me.’ It relates to the extraordinary pressure he was under and his generosity.”

He had seven or eight encounters with Heaney after that, some leisurely, as he began to make his way as a poet. By then, Heaney was already coping with national treasure status, which became omnipotent after his Nobel year in 1995 (“Before I was like a goalkeeper who had a ball shot at him every four minutes. But now there’s a row of bionic forwards shooting at you,” Heaney humorously told interviewer Charlie Rose in 1996). The immense reputation, a personal charisma which became twinkling in his later years and the intense connection with his poems meant that poetry had plunged Heaney into a life role for which nobody could prepare. About two years after his death, Dyar was sitting around with people at a festival. And Heaney’s name came up. The general conversation was: how did he go stratospheric? Lots of people have talent, several outright brilliance. Few fill the sky as he does. How does that happen?

“And someone said: ‘he did it one person at a time’. I thought that was a beautiful way to puncture the cynicism about the advantage of Faber, about the currency of the Troubles as material. Heaney had this ability to weather the fame and criticism and the envy. Because he has spoken and written about that. There is a whole tone and performance in a lot of the to-ing and fro-ing that engages with the idea of him being run down: absolutely depleted, losing poems, losing faith, losing his imagination because of the attritional nature particularly of the post-Nobel status. And this idea of the ‘they’; a population of people he had to keep at arms lengths.

“Famously, with respect to critics he invoked Ezra Pound and agreed that unless that person has produced significant work, I am not going to pay attention to what they say about me. And ‘they’ being a legion of people who expected feedback, blessings, work commitments, etc. And, then, another constituency of people who convinced themselves that they hated him. One of the things I am very interested in is that Heaney was fit for posterity by the age of 25. Not just in terms of the quality of his work but his knowingness, his awareness and sense of himself in the canon. Not as a prolific young writer but as a true vocational poet like Wordsworth, like Kavanagh, like Yeats. He had studied the whole autobiographical basis of their output and he felt it mirrored his aspirations and instincts. And I think he held on to that very strongly. I think it possessed him.”

Time – oxygen for anyone who writes anything – became the scarcest commodity. Heaney’s daughter Catherine has written of how the prelude to each family Christmas was the “rigour and planning of a small military operation” that went into the writing and replying to the deluge of festive cards and letters he received. He responded to each one. It’s a snapshot into a life in which he somehow managed the intense concentration of creating poetry with an unflagging belief in the power of friendships and public commitments.

“One can only marvel at his work rate and output. He wrote very quickly but the archives show us he was a meticulous and fretful reviser. He got bounces of time. The other thing is, he was voracious. He gets Joyce to advise him in the last canto of Station Island to cultivate a ‘work lust’. We are talking about a profound talent but also a profoundly committed and industrious professional. To turn to sport: the guy who turns up first and leaves last.”

The world of writing and reading has changed immensely since Heaney’s death 10 years ago. It’s something everyone battles with.

“It involves the rarest thing in our world: concentration,” Dyar says.

“That muscle has been depleted for all of us. Nobody wants to admit how badly impacted their psychic life has been by their relationship with their phones, for example.”

During the pandemic, Dyar moved to Wicklow and inadvertently stumbled on a valuable example of concentration. He began working some hours in the ecology shop run by the local Dominican nuns. Most had been on missions across Africa. Over time, he became friendly with them and was fascinated by their stories and began a project to record formal interviews with them. He found a religious community with a genuine feminist leaning and an instinct to embrace science.

“And also, to carry forward spirituality instead of religion. Everybody has a desire towards meaning. They are alert. They are readers. They read the newspapers every day. They have opinions on everything – on Ryan Tubridy, on Michael D [Higgins] ... they will see every article and keep each other abreast. There is an environmental project in Wicklow town because 30 years ago they decided; vocations are about to be nil. Let’s do one more thing before our order is finished. And they quickly put all their primary and secondary schools into a trust and gave their energy to this project – converting 70 acres of land to organic, developed a farm shop and began an education course that has two 10-week courses running for 20 years.”

Dyar’s recorded conversations cover everything, including their views on clerical abuses. “They are a vessel of social history. And a community of women who stood alone in their church and ploughed their own furrow. It is a very special thing.”

This experience, too, taps into something of the legacy Dyar believes Heaney planted.

“We think about family, place, the Troubles, literature. But actually, his big concern is: what is this planet I find myself on? What are its phenomena and what’s the best way to relate to them? His vision of agriculture is alarming in that it is in tune with environmental breakdown and also alarming in the way it can remind us of who and what we are at a deep instinctual level, and it is one of the reasons he will be an extraordinary cultural presence in 50 years’ time. Because, yeah, the world is changing but we can cling to Heaney in our uncertainty. There is no doubt about that.”

Throw a stone anywhere in Ireland and you are likely to hit a poet. Nonetheless, it’s a deep and unusual commitment to decide to “become” a poet in the true vocational sense. Dyar laughs when he tells you about his first published poem. He was a first-year in school in Swinford and was asked to contribute a piece for the school magazine. He delivered a handwritten poem concerning heartbreak. The title was ‘done’- with a lower case ‘d’.

“But I didn’t write it neatly. And they published it as ‘alone’. So, I was scalded! It was a double initiation into the thrill of being published but also having one’s words mangled – traumatised to this day.”

That long-ago moment might flash through his mind in the Heaney HomePlace this weekend, along with fragments of the scenes in Iowa a decade ago and even his first encounter with Heaney, the famous V-shape frown dissolving into easy warmth on O’Connell Street. Mainly, though, this weekend will be about the thrill of reading and hearing Heaney’s words, which will drift towards whatever Ireland is in the next century.

“The poems are still finding their way, inexorably. I know there will be a special sense of his presence in Bellaghy, of his memory. It’s his turf.”