Lecture delivered by Doctor Seamus Heaney


Lecture delivered by

Doctor Seamus Heaney


Your Excellency Rector of the University.

Honourable authorities.

Members of the Cloister.

Ladies and gentlemen.


It is a great honour for me to receive this degree at the University of Coruña, and I must thank, in particular, Dr. Antonio Raúl de Toro and the Department of English Philology for putting my name forward in the beginning. I must also thank all the University authorities concerned with this and in particular the Rector Himself, Dr. José Luis Meilán Gil. I thank them for the distinction which they have conferred on me here today. I am proud to accept it on my own behalf, but I accept it also as a symbol of new awareness of the old connections which exist between Galicia and Ireland. Ever since I was a child, two of my favourite words have been Finisterre and Biscay. These words were spoken over and over again on the radio, at all hours of the day and night; they were constant elements in the weather reports and gale warnings that were broadcast for ships at sea- the Shipping Forecast, as it was called. To this day the names of the regions of the sea round Ireland and Britain and France and Spain are like a magic incantation in my ears, a litany of the sacred waters: Iceland, Malin, Orkney, Hebrides, Irish Sea, Shannon, Dogger, Rockall, Shetland -but none of them is more magical or far-fetched than Biscay and Finisterre.


Finsterre, meaning the end of the earth. But the end of the earth only if looked at from the point of view of those who spoke the Latin language and lived at the centre of the known world and were the first to call it finisterrae. Looked at from Ireland, for example, Galicia is not the end of the earth but the beginning, the first land we encounter as the globe curves south and away from us toward Africa and the equator.


And Galicia is also to some extent the first land in our poetic imagination, since legend tells us that first poet of the Irish tradition was one who arrived in Ireland from this part of Spain. According to the twelfth century Leabhar Gabhála, or Book of Invasions, his name was Amergin and it was because Amergin set foot on the island and uttered his incantations that the newcomers were able to invade and take possession of our misty northern shores.


I thought it would be appropriate, therefore, to talk on this occasion about an Irish writer’s experience of living at the edge, on the periphery, at the finis terrae. I want to speak to you both as myself and as the representative of an Irish literature which exists in two languages. The two languages, Irish and English, are the result of our history as a nation which was conquered and colonized -by our powerful neighbour. English has replaced Irish as the lingua franca of modern Ireland and a great body of Irish literature now exists in the English language also. And since I myself write in English, it is this Irish literature in English which will concern me here. And my particular concern is with the way a writer from the edge must situate himself in order to take the measure of the centre; I am interested, in other words, in how writers from the margins -in the physical sense of the word- avoid becoming marginal, in the literary and cultural sense.


I want to approach the topic first of all by telling two brief stories. The first one is well known in Ireland and concerns a man named O’Neill, a very common name all over the country, although in days gone by it had even greater resonance. Before the English conquered Gaelic Ireland at the end of the sixteenth century, the O'Neills had been lords in the northern province of Ulster, a noble family, members of the native Irish aristocracy who expected and received all the honour due to them because of their birth and their rank. Anyhow, the story goes that years after the defeat of the Irish forces, an O'Neill lord was invited to a banquet at the English court and was then seated "below the salt" at the banquet table, in a position of inferiority. As far as his hosts were concerned, they were teaching him to know his place in the new order of things: his position in the seating plan was meant to humble his Gaelic pride. But the lesson failed. When the Irish visitor was asked how it felt to be placed so far away from the head of the table, he replied, "Wherever an O'Neill sits is always the head of the table."


The relevance of this story to my theme is obvious. 0 'Neill had been relegated to the periphery by a colonizing power which assumed its authority to be central and universal, but his witty retort constituted a virtual redressal of the situation. It insisted on a different angle of vision, a different plane of understanding. It was in fact a reappropriation of precedence; by confounding the distinction between the top and the bottom of the table, O'Neill confounded the established hierarchy and from the periphery he cast doubt upon the power and rights of the centre. We might say that by displaying such self-possession, he managed for a moment- to repossess authority.


My second story is not so much a story as a quotation and it will act, I hope, as a commentary on the preceding parable and lead us into a more specifically literary consideration of the topic. I want to read to you the famous words written by Stephen Dedalus, the young hero of James Joyce’s novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. A Portrait of the Artist is one of the most important achievements by an Irish writer in modern times and at this point in the story, Stephen is a schoolboy, a homesick boarder in a college outside Dublin, doing the things that schoolboys like him have done from time immemorial, such as writing his name and address on the flyleaf of his textbook. Stephen’s famous contribution to this tradition reads as follows:


Stephen Dedalus

Class of Elements

Clongowes Wood College


County Kildare



The World

The Universe


The character and situation of Stephen, of course, reflect the experience of the young James Joyce and this little passage, like almost everything in Joyce’s writing, can be read as both surface and symbol. On the surface, it is a realistic account of the kind of thing an Irish schoolboy might have done in the last decade of nineteenth century, a piece of information which we can treat as reliable sociological evidence. But on the symbolic plane, it is an announcement that this boy will become the writer James Joyce, and that James Joyce intends to situate himself and his writing and his Irish experience at the very centre of the universe. Before Joyce wrote A Portrait of the Artist, Clongowes Wood College did indeed exist on the political and geographical map, a Catholic school in a peripheral district of the British Empire, a provincial nowhere for from the imperial capital in London, but that was all about to change. Joyce was about to redraw the literary map of the world, projecting a new shape of things from that school at the periphery. With the publication of his first book Dubliners, then of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, then of Ulysses, and finally of Finnegans Wake, Joyce shifted the perspective. Instead of Dublin and Ireland being places inspected and described from the outside, they became the defining centres from which an entirely new reading of the world was to be conducted.


To put it another way, Joyce set himself up as a one man historical backlash. Wherever he sat down to write was the head of the literary table. By the sheer force of his genius as a writer, Joyce installed himself as a paradoxical figure, a patron saint of the peripheral who came to occupy a central relevance, a writer who celebrated the specific speech and mores of a local parish and thereby inscribed them in the border-free universe of the imagined, a universe where the sound of Roland's horn at Roncesvalles and Basho's frog jumping into a pool in Japan and Molly Bloom's bedsprings jiggling under her adulterous backside in Dublin are all equally audible.


*      *     *


W B. Yeats, of course, preceded James Joyce as a turner of the literary tables. Born in 1865 and already at the height of his powers in the 1890s, Yeats was both visionary and subversive. Aspects of the Irish experience which his nineteenth century British contemporaries would have regarded as disadvantages Yeats re-envisaged and elevated into advantages. Thanks to the imperial operations of our British neighbour, Ireland was at that time like a third world country within the first world. Its economic backwardness, its religious habit of mind in the age materialism, and its subculture of folklore and folk music, all this Yeats regarded as a plus rather than a minus. As far as he was concerned, Irish civilization was superior to English in the way Greek was superior to Roman. Yeats in fact equated the Celts with the Greeks, and by an act of cultural resistance and poetic power made the values of the Celt a positive force in the world of the belle epoque. What Yeats did within the English-speaking culture of the time was to reinstate one of the peripheral peoples of Europe at the centre of contemporary consciousness. The Celts, who had melted away before the imperial armies of Rome, and had been driven eventually to the western coasts and islands of mainland Europe and into the western reaches of Britain and Ireland, these people who had escaped the dubious advantages of modernity were suddenly being perceived as exemplary and enviable. The Celtic Twilight, the name of one of WB. Yeats’s early books of stories and poems became the name of a whole new way of feeling and knowing. By the late 1890s wherever Yeats sat was once more the head of the table.


There is no time to discuss Yeats’s renovating effect not only upon Irish literature, but upon the literature of the world beyond. I mention him here as one more example of the countercultural direction which Irish literature has taken within the larger world of English language culture. For political as well as cultural reasons, we have often tried to bypass London, quite often by way of the Aegean; the great example of this Greek detour is, of course, Joyce's Ulysses, but I realize that I myself have often gone the same route, and for the same reasons -a desire to relocate the centre of the universe at the centre of my own home ground. Outside the door of the farmhouse where I grew up, for example, there used to be a water pump, one of those slender, snouted, upright iron pumps with a handle sticking out rather like a lion’s lifted tail. And the sound that this pump made was one of the first sounds I ever heard, and one that I kept hearing all through my peripheral childhood. As the years went by, however, I realized it was telling me that I was not peripheral at all but that I lived at the very centre of the universe. As I grew up I began to hear what the pump was saying every time somebody worked the handle. It sounded, to my ear, like the Greek word omphalos being repeated over and over again: omphalos omphalos, omphalos. Omphalos, you remember, was the name of the stone that stood in the sanctuary of Apollo in Delphi, and marked the centre, the original navel of the whole Greek world; and so, when I imagined the pump saying the word, I was able to relocate the farmyard within those marvellous old co-ordinates and take possession of it even more richly in the name of Apollo and in the name of poetry. A single word helped to change the order in which my life existed.


Creativity in the literary arts consists in being able to make language garner and guarantee that which we feel to be most inward and essential to our being ourselves. As a poet, I am perhaps less interested in themes and issues than in the images and cadences which fix these elusive yet definitive states in words. Poetry comes into being because of a neediness that will only be satisfied when the right words get said, a feeling that those words are the only foundations upon which life can proceed. The poem is the fully persuasive word which the language speaks to itself and when a poet writes a true poem, he always has the sensation of having outstripped his own biography; which is a way of saying that the experience of linguistic rightness is an experience of extension and liberation. And from this comes the liberating and consolidating power of literature itself.


Recently, for example, I translated the Old English epic Beowulf, a work which belongs deep in the foundations of the English language itself. Many of the words that I used in the translation came from the country speech I used when I was a boy growing up on a form in Northern Ireland. What we spoke there was not the Irish language, but an Irish form of English, what might be called Ulster English or Hiberno-English, an idiom distinct from the official, educated lingua franca of the English middle classes. As an Irish writer, I greatly enjoyed this bit of appropriation. It was like taking the Crown jewels from the Tower of London and displaying them in the National Museum of Ireland. In a minimal way I was following the path originally cleared by Stephen Dedalus, the path that leads in and through, one might say -in to -the intimate reality of one’s own experience, named in one’s own language, and then through to an understanding that this repossessed experience does not make one unique or especially distinguished, but rather only makes one freer to be human, to belong more fully and knowledgably to whole human community.


But is there not, perhaps, something already old-fashioned, something nostalgic about the account of the subject that I am giving you here? In the age of corporate capitalism, the age of MacDonalds and Disney, is there not something outmoded about the very idea of borders between the periphery and the centre? Nowadays, after all, everywhere is at the centre of the web, computer speaks to computer, stock market answers stock-market with the speed and understanding that used to be the mysterious privilege of angels. Nowadays the lords of creation are not the Greeks who regarded all who did not speak their language as barbarians but the sales managers who regard all nations as market-outlets and all the barbarians as potential customers. In the post-modern world of consumers and franchises and the transnational homogenization of language and culture, has a universal blandness not perhaps triumphed? In an age when the folk musics of the world have been become muzak piped into the penthouse and the chic pub, when (as Czeslaw Milosz says) airports cover areas as large as tribal kingdoms used to be, when the indigenous arts of even the most obscure tribes are on display in boutiques from Tokyo to Toronto, in an age like this can the specificity of the local hold its own?


A few years ago I was thinking thoughts like these in a hotel away out in the middle of the Irish countryside, late on a summer night. A summer night full of noises you might not immediately associate with the Irish countryside. What I heard was not the bark of dogs or the lowing of cattle, but the heavy dum-dum-dum of rock music from the discotheque in the hotel basement.


And there and then I was overcome by feelings of pathos and regret, and began to reflect on the sad erosion of the local life, on the way the parish dancehall was being absorbed into the commercial culture of the pop music industry, the charts and the hype, the homogenization of it all. Then all of a sudden, the discotheque was over and crowds of young people were pouring out into the open, scattering all over the car park, whooping and yelping, singing and taunting, making a right old hullabulloo. And there and then, quite unexpectedly, I had to rebuke myself for my very conventional, very sentimental stock response to the sound of rock music and reconsider my trite thoughts about the spread of pop culture. For I suddenly realized that what I was hearing in those local accents, in those country shouts, in those unruly vowels and consonants, what I was hearing in them was the guarantee of a future for everything that was local and self-reliant and untameable. What I was hearing, in effect, was the sound of a culture enjoying itself, celebrating itself and making a song and dance about itself. And as I turned away from the bedroom window, the muse of that culture appeared to me in the car park below: the moonlit figure of a girl in a white dress, being cuddled by her boyfriend at the side of a car, giggling and muttering in turns, the guttural muse of dialect and outback, the delicious young muse of the peripheral.


Tonight that young girl or somebody like her will be laughing in a carpark in Africa and in another one in the Punjab and in another one in the outskirts of Coruña. The neon lights of the Coca Cola advertisements will be blinking above her, the latest American rap group will be firing up in the tape-deck of her car, her body will be decked out in Gucci and Nike, and everything on the surface will proclaim her a citizen of the world beyond -everything, that is, except her local speech and her local accent. And it is her speech and her accent, after all, which are the vital elements in her at-home-ness in the world; but still, in order for her to be able to take complete possession of herself and her home ground, her Amergin will have to arrive, the poet who will verify and amplify and orchestrate her speech by playing it back to her within the enhanced acoustic of poetry itself.


The poet always raises the energies of a subculture to cultural power and in doing so transforms the possibilities for the liberation and integration of self and community. Poetry, indeed, has been called the dividend that comes to us because of who we are and what we know, and this definition also applies to literature in general. Literature is in some sense owed to us, it is our reward for being true to what we are and its effect is to waken us to what we can be. It reminds us that our address is as expansive as Stephen Dedalus’s. It lets us hear, as I said earlier, beyond our biographies, and it makes us believe what we hear. It situates the parish within the universe. It mitigates the solitude of being an individual and helps us to gain a foothold on the shores of our memories and experience. It makes Amergins of us all. It makes everyone of us a native of Finisterre.