The Guardian obituary of Brian White, the Belfast man who served honourably but briefly as a Labour MP, included a reminder that there was a time – not too long ago – when the border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom resembled, at times, the type of border that people have been suggesting, post-Brexit, might exist between Northern Ireland and the Republic. In 1974, during the earliest phase of the so-called Troubles, when the Prevention of Terrorism Act was used as a control on travel between these two parts of the UK, the 17-year-old White was asked for his passport at Heathrow on arriving from Belfast. ‘This isn’t the Soviet Union,’ he said, ‘we don’t have gulags here.’ Another traveller whose sensibilities were similarly exercised during this period was Seamus Heaney,
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.
Two poems by Seamus Heaney were published in the first issue of the LRB. A couple of dozen followed over the years, the most recent of them, versions of Rilke, in 2005. Two years ago Andrew O'Hagan wrote about travelling through England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales with Heaney and Karl Miller: Karl always imagines, in the Edinburgh style, that a beer means a half pint, but Seamus is a proper drinker and you see pints when he’s around.