I was rung by the radio about thirty minutes after hearing the news of Seamus’s death, and the interviewer reminded me about ‘Room to Rhyme’, the poetry and music sessions across small towns in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s or early 1970s, paid for by the Arts Council of NI and featuring Seamus Heaney, Davy Hammond and Michael Longley. If I had not been prompted, I might not even have mentioned it, I was so thrown by the prospect of having to think about what I would like to say about Seamus at fifteen minutes’ notice, and had some difficulty in mastering my emotions as I spoke.
Since then, the memories have been flooding back. I think I went only to a handful of the Room to Rhyme sessions – the first one, perhaps, to report on it for the Irish Times, the others just to follow the magic. For me it was also an introduction to Northern Ireland, which few Irish journalists, or indeed few denizens of the Republic of any stripe, were able to enjoy during the 1960s.
Conscious as I was of Seamus’s impending trajectory, even then, I for a while tried to remember some of his lapidary comments about, and interpretations of, his own work that graced these small-town performances, but then even the (normally) insatiable reporter’s urge to chronicle became sated, and I just sat back and enjoyed it all. Indeed, I think our present age has become infected by the desire to substitute the artefact for the experience. My wife pointed out to me a few years ago, when we were wandering through a museum on the Acropolis, how many tourists never even looked at the wonderful objects in front of us, but photographed them, and then studied, obsessionally, the image they had captured on their tiny screens.
Part of Seamus’s genius was the way in which he could add the experience to the artefact, and continued to do so, selflessly, right up to the end, and for countless numbers of people.
It was, I suppose, also part of the innocence of the 1960s that nobody thought to record or broadcast any of those marvellous sessions. Michael Longley, now the only survivor, would be a superb witness.
The few I attended were just wonderful: the counterpoint between the three performers was never the same from performance to performance, the choices of poetry and song varied, as did the audience responses.
The private moments were great fun: convivial, sometimes bawdy, quite male – laddish, even. Davy always claimed to remember (because I simply cannot) that at one post-performance session in a small hotel somewhere in the glens of Antrim, when the harassed proprietor announced that it was time for last orders, I thought for a moment about what we were drinking, and then ordered a bottle of whiskey, a bottle of gin, and a bottle of brandy.
But the memory that has really etched itself into my memory was not of any of the actual performances, but of the morning after one of them when we were crippled with hangovers. Seamus suggested that we visit Fair Head, which was not far away.
We parked as close as we could, and then waded through thigh-high bracken until, approaching the edge of the cliffs, we could trust our damaged equilibrium no longer. So we went forward on hands and knees, inching across the terrain, until we ended up, flat on our stomachs, peering over the edge. And there, floating in a leisurely fashion about a hundred feet below us, between the cliff-top and the sea, was a golden eagle – from Scotland, no doubt – exploring the Irish habitat.