To commemorate the 10th anniversary of the death of Seamus Heaney, RTÉ presents a series of essential recordings from the archives.
Professor Heaney at Oxford is the second of two of RTÉ Radio programmes made and first broadcast in 2014 in the months following the death of Seamus Heaney. The focus for their presenter John Kelly is on Heaney the working man, the teacher, the mentor at two of the world's most prestigious universities: Harvard and Oxford.
The this programme has an abundance of Oxford sounds: peeling bells, bicycles, punting, choral singing.
Its contributors include academic colleagues and students from the time Heaney spent there as well as other writers, all highlighting the significance of this period in his own creative life, its positive impact on what it is to be Irish in Britain and in revitalizing the role itself for future poets elected to the Oxford Chair.
Seamus Heaney was elected Oxford Professor of Poetry in 1989, the first Irish poet in the role. Previous holders at the time included Mathew Arnold, WH Auden and Robert Graves and since Heaney others to hold the role have included Paul Muldoon, Ruth Padel and Simon Armitage.
He mentioned more than once that during his four-year tenure - which required him to deliver fifteen lectures - never once did he tell a joke because he felt with the stereotyping of the era, the minute he would, he would just be another Paddy.
Irish poet and Oxford lecturer Bernard O’Donoghue campaigned for Heaney’s professorship. He says it was a thrill to have him at Oxford at the end of the 1980s, coming at a time when Anglo-Irish relations were still particularly tense. Writers Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion give a context to the significance of Heaney’s appointment following what had occurred earlier in the 1980s. They co-edited the 1983 Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry and included Heaney among the poets.
With Heaney they navigated the consequences of his reaction to his inclusion, asserting his Irishness with his Open Letter of clarification that include the now famous lines '…be advised. My passport’s green / No glass of ours was ever raised / To toast the queen…’. Motion adds that one result of the episode was how it brought about an opportunity to crystallize identity.
Like other students who feature on the programme, Geraldine Higgins was at Oxford during Heaney’s time. She is now Director of Irish Studies at Emory University’s Seamus Heaney Collection and thinks he agonized over every public stance he made and if there was one line, he could undo it might be ‘Whatever you say, say nothing’, because he always figured out what he was going to say - and then said it.