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The Irish Government issued dire advice in November, essentially a ban on cross country travel recommending that family gatherings be eased during the Christmas season. Irish living outside Ireland were advised bluntly: Don’t come home! Thomas Ryan, an associate professor at Trinity College floated the idea in this pandemic year Christmas be postponed until the end of January. Makes some sense as the pandemic holds its deadly grip across the planet. However, in delaying the Christmas Season there’s no guarantee when the pandemic will vanish.  On a personal level I vote for postponing. What’s the point of buying, wrapping and mailing Christmas presents to family and friends if we’re not together to witness the festivity of opening box after box, applauding the contents even if old Auntie Maude continues to recycle the gift she received last year?

Changing the subject, was delighted Joe Biden and Kamala Harris secured the presidency. Biden’s Irish forebears came from Cooley, County Louth on the east coast. Famed for  mountains and scenic routes, a handful of kilometers from Dundalk where I was born. I’ve heard myself boast with no apologies that the Bidens were our neighbors.

Chalk that up to Irish embellishment! During the campaign the Irish speculated whether the President-Elect would be good for Ireland. The first time I heard him quote an appropriate stanza from Seamus Heaney’s poetry, I teared up, the Irish were anointed with Biden’s imprimatur. Quoting Heaney, Ireland’s most contemporary poet, He sent rivulets of emotion down Irish spines. Biden was one of us!

I was privileged to know the Poet Laureate of Ireland as poet-in-residence at Harvard University. in the early eighties. Interviewing him following his appearance at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, was a defining moment in journalism. He responded to thundering applause in the university theatre admitting coyly to his audience, “narcissism has its own rewards.” When he smiles his eyes disappear into slits of merriment and he declared that aside from sexual jealousy, literary jealousy is probably the most demented emotion. On that evening he recited verse transcending the provincial narrowness of his native County Derry as it rose above the corrupt surroundings in Ulster.  He managed to transend the horror and devastation in Northern Ireland as well as demonstrating a capacity to absorb the atrocities and create them into poetry.

Heaney was accused by critics of ignoring in his work the crisis in the North, and in 1975 in an obvious answer to that criticism he published North, a book of poems demonstrating a continuing preoccupation with the political strife. The police, British army, rioting children, journalists, prison camps, poverty and devastation all come to the forefront of  Heaney’s verse.

During a lengthy interview he admits to the criticism but immediately ponders the question about the real function of art and the role of the artist in a time of crisis. “Because Bobby Sands fasted himself to death, does that mean there should be a poem written about him,” he asks. Mulling over his own question, he answered it by discussing the role of French painter Henri Matisse. “During the Second World War, Matisse painted still life, landscapes and pictures of apples and other fruit at a time where there were concentration camps,” Heaney emphasized. Although photographs of those camps triggered horror and distress in people forty years later, Heaney stressed that Matisse’s art work proclaimed a certain continuity of humanity, a certain humane celebration of life. Heaney’s questioned whether that is the function of the poet, pointing out the danger of shutting your eyes to the inhumanity. “I suppose as long as you can put images into focus, in intelligence defiance, that is one way of coping.” Heaney deals with grief, and out of grief comes his poetry. One verse “The Strand at Lough Beg,” a poem dedicated to the memory of his cousin, Colum McCartney returning from a football in Dublin one August evening, was shot dead in his car near Dundalk en route to his home in Armagh.

That night at the university in his one-night-only appearance in Lowell, he recited the poem imagining the washing of his cousin’s corpse. A poem that reads more like a rite of healing, than a vessel filled with bitterness.

I turn because the sweeping of your feet
Has stopped behind me, to find you on your knees
With blood and roadside muck in your hair and eyes,
They kneel in front of you in brimming grass
And gather up cold handfuls of the dew
To wash you, cousin. I dab you clean with moss
Fine as the drizzle out of a low cloud.
I lift you under the arms and lay  you flat
With rushes that shoot green again
I plait
Green scapulars to wear over your shroud.

As America moves forward into a new era of political kindness and respect, Seamus Heaney’s poems will continue to emerge from the lips of President-Elect Joseph Biden. Its appropriate here in this time of chaos to quote Heaney: “The future is a verb in hibernation.”

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