Opinion: it's not a political speech worth mentioning unless you've dug out a line or two from Heaney to add some gravitas to the occasion

Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Michael McGrath, ended his Budget Day speech to the Dáil by turning to an old reliable: "As Seamus Heaney once expressed: 'Hope is not optimism, which expects things to turn out well, but something rooted in the conviction that there is good worth working for.'"

Unfortunately for the minister, it appears that Heaney didn’t write this, despite what Google has to say on the matter. Most websites attribute the quote to Heaney, but it was actually written by former president of the Czech Republic, Václav Havel.

The confusion seems to arise from the fact that Heaney quotes Havel in his lecture, The Redress of Poetry, comparing Havel’s understanding of hope to his own conception of poetry. The quote reads: "It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out."

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From RTÉ Radio 1's The Business, does poetry have a place in the corporate world and should business leaders use it in speeches?

However, Heaney omits the preceding sentence in Havel’s quote: "Hope is not the same thing as optimism." Nevertheless, the internet has done its thing, and the above version ended up as part of the Dáil record.

Later, Catherine Connolly, in her response to the budget, suggested that Heaney was paraphrasing Havel – again, he appears never to have said or written the words himself – before herself turning to quote from Heaney’s From The Republic of Conscience.

Of course, Budget Day was not the first time politicians dug out a line or two from Heaney to add gravitas to an address. In the Irish Times, Miriam Lord called the practice "the most cliched ending to big occasion government speeches these days." Heaney was practically omnipresent during the pandemic, with the Guardian’s Rory Carroll commenting that then-Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, "channels Seamus Heaney so often in speeches that he is accused of being a super-spreader in a poetry pandemic."

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From RTÉ News, Joe Biden quotes Heaney's The Cure at Troy (again)

Across the pond, Bill Clinton regularly quoted Heaney, while current president, Joe Biden, rarely misses an opportunity to remind us of the lines from Heaney's The Cure at Troy:

History says, Don't hope

On this side of the grave,

But then, once in a lifetime

The longed-for tidal wave

Of justice can rise up

And hope and history rhyme.

For Biden, it is not merely his Irish heritage that means he reaches for Heaney, and other Irish poets, but because, he says, "they're the best poets in the world, that’s why I quoted them."

In part, it is Heaney’s poetic skill that makes him attractive to speechwriters. Poetry is a craft and words are the tools. So, if a politician cannot find the words, perhaps the poets have some, and Heaney’s words tend to be good. In the above stanza there’s the alliteration of the "h" in "hope" and history"; the rhythmic emphasis on "History," "says" and "hope" in the first line, balanced by the stresses on "hope," "history" and "rhyme" in the last; the powerful imagery of the "tidal wave / Of justice." These are all appealing techniques to a public speaker seeking to make an impression.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Arena in 2020, Seamus Heaney's son Mick and the poet's biographer Roy Foster mark the 25th Anniversary of the Nobel Prize win

But there are many good poets and yet Heaney is cited more regularly than most, particularly in Ireland. This is perhaps not surprising, given that he is our most recent winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature (1995), and there is a sense of national pride in this. He also seems more accessible than Ireland's other Nobel Laureates: W.B. Yeats' (1923) interest in fascism may make him a tricky poet for politicians, while the dialogue of dramatists George Bernard Shaw (1925) and Samuel Beckett (1969) is often less quotable than a line or two of verse in a speech.

Moreover, in contrast to Beckett, for example, who is most well-known for Waiting for Godot, a play where (in)famously "nothing happens twice," Heaney-the-poet seems like someone most of us can relate to. He was generally good humoured in his public life and made much of his rural upbringing and his familial relationships in both his poetry and interviews.

In 2015, his poem, "When all the others were away at Mass," which depicts the young poet peeling potatoes with his mother, won RTÉ’s A Poem for Ireland public vote to choose the best-loved poem of the last 100 years. The themes and images of this poem, like much of Heaney’s work, are familiar to and resonate with an Irish audience and, as such, we took him to our hearts.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's The Poetry Programme in 2021, Marie Heaney joins Olivia O'Leary for a tour of the Seamus Heaney: Listen Now Again exhibition in Dublin

At the same time, Heaney wrote during a period of intense political turmoil on the island and his work regularly engaged with the Northern Irish Troubles. Much of his writing during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s not only responded to contemporary violence, but also actively questioned the role of the poet at time of societal unrest. As such, he garnered an unusual amount of media attention for poetry that placed the North in conversation with ancient and historical narratives of bloodshed, and appealed to universal themes of hope, peace and justice.

Nevertheless, he was criticised, on the one hand, for seeming justification of IRA violence, with Conor Cruise O'Brien claiming that Heaney’s work depicts the IRA as part of his own community. On the other hand, as Heaney recounts in his poem, The Flight Path, the IRA were frustrated by his refusal to write something for them. "If I do write something, / Whatever it is, I’ll be writing for myself" was the poet’s response.

In this way, Heaney placed himself beyond politics. He had a commitment to poetry above all else and, while he doesn’t quite agree when friend and fellow poet Joseph Broskey argues that "the only thing politics and poetry have in common is the letter p and the letter o," he never sought to write propagandist verse. Heaney, then, seemed a commanding and reasonable voice at times of political intensity, so it is understandable that his work resurfaces when politicians feel under pressure.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Arena, Ruth Negga reads Heaney's Postscript, from The Spirit Level

This somewhat sanitised image as a sort of poet-statesman, someone to turn to for a sense of occasion, culminates in his participation in the Dublin Castle banquet for Queen Elizabeth II’s visit to Ireland in 2011 . This is despite the poet once declaring: "Be advised, my passport’s green/No glass of ours was ever raised/To toast the Queen."

Heaney appears to us, and most notably to political speechwriters, as a beloved Irish icon, who wrote about truth and justice beautifully, powerfully and without prejudice, capturing the world’s attention in the process. This image pervades public consciousness of the poet, even when some of his poems might counter this view, and makes it unlikely that his words will recede from public life. Although, it was recently suggested that Heaney’s family are becoming fed up with "the wanton quote dropping," Heaney quotes are probably here to stay. Let’s just hope that next time it is, in fact, Heaney who is being quoted.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ