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New Hibernia Review 9.3 (2005) 86-106

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Wintered Into Wisdom:

Michael McLaverty, Seamus Heaney,and the Northern Word-Hoard

Queen's University Belfast

Before the disaster of 9/11 we were, of course, aware of the delicate balance between light and dark in our world; since that day, we have all had our individual and our national unanswered and unanswerable questions. Two years later, the London Observer published a photograph of an unnamed man falling to his death from the World Trade Center on 9/11, commenting: "In the picture, he departs from the earth like an arrow. Although he has not chosen his fate, he appears to have, in the last instants of life, embraced it."1 The photograph gives us an image of a man meeting his wyrd—as all of us must—in the common language of photography. In Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), Susan Sontag suggested that certain photographs like that of the Falling Man require "the equivalent of a sacred or meditative space to look at them."2 When he commemorated 9/11 in his recent choral and orchestral work On the Transmigration of Souls (September, 2002), the composer John Adams created what he described as "a musical space for reflection and remembrance, of meditation on an unanswerable question."3 Two writers from the North—the novelist Michael McLaverty and the poet Seamus Heaney—have met their wyrd by pursuing the creation of such a space for meditation on the unanswerable questions. The two are connected not only by their sense of belonging to the northern part of a northern island, but also by a deep bond of friendship brought on by that belonging—the younger, Heaney, like a son to the elder, MacLaverty, the foster-father.4 [End Page 86]

The destruction of 9/11, not only of the symbol which was the twin towers, but also of older structures and beliefs, and the globalization that has made a village of the once wide world, may dwarf the fact that, since the beginning of time, man has always been under threat from the invader, has always been afraid of the stranger—whether the person who arrives in town, unrecognized, or the armed warrior from afar. Long ago, in the ninth century, the Irish lived in fear of the threat from the Scandinavian countries—the North. Each night they listened for the Viking invader, praying for a storm to keep from their shores the longboats carrying what Frank O'Connor's translation of a ninth century poem describes as "the hordes of hell."5

Yet, history also tells us how often the stranger becomes a settler. In Queen's University Belfast's Institute of Irish Studies, the first director was not an Irishman, but a Welshman. A pioneer in geography, geology, archaeology, and anthropology, Estyn Evans (1905–1989) came to Ulster in 1928, and made his life there as an outstanding teacher of Queen's University's students of geography. He maintained that we are all, all have been at some time or other, settlers, and that the land is far older than we. Because we all came from somewhere at some time, no one is, or has the right to claim to be pure anything—Irish, English, Scots, Welsh. We were all "invaders"—all, at some point, a potential threat. It was Estyn Evans's belief that it was "precisely this clash of native and newcomer that struck the sparks in Irish culture."6 Ten years after Estyn Evans's death in 1999, his former junior colleague in the university, Seamus Heaney, won for the second time the distinguished Whitbread prize for his translation of the thousand-year–old Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf. He was conscious that some thought an Irish poet had no right to translate what they saw as an English poem. Heaney's courteous, but firm response to this view was as follows: "Beowulf is not English. It is Anglo-Saxon. It is pre-Norman, pre-Reformation, pre-Windsor. It didn...


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