Over the course of his lifetime, the great Irish poet and Nobel Prize winner, Seamus Heaney, made his way “from belief to nonbelief”. It’s a change studied by Professor Kieran Quinlan of the University of Alabama in an engrossing, perceptive, and – its genuine scholarly heft notwithstanding – moving book, Seamus Heaney and the End of Catholic Ireland (Catholic University of America Press).
Quinlan sympathises with Heaney’s transition, and writes of it in a way that expertly mixes precision with human feeling. Heaney was a man “who experienced the satisfactions, exhilarations and fears of traditional belief, its slow dissolutions, and its replacement by other, more diverse compensations”.
Quinlan’s account of the history of the faith in Ireland and the stages it moved through during Seamus Heaney’s lifetime is knowledgeable and even-handed; and his commentary on how Heaney approached the hellish Troubles is meticulous and dispassionate. Beady-eyed close readings are enlivened by always interesting digressions.
Quinlan thinks and writes with a clear and watchful eye, and can manage being ironical without descending into chronic smugness. There are fascinating and fruitful comparisons between Heaney and James Joyce, David Lodge, his friend Czeslaw Milosz (who, unlike so many 20th-century writers, kept his faith) and others.
Heaney’s story is without doubt emblematic of the country at large, as it once was. He was one of nine children. He came to know the practice of “vigilant frugality” at the same time as, through prayer and the sacraments, he entered into “the presence of the Immensities” (Eamon Duffy).
He once drily remarked that he was “over-supplied” with religion in his early years. The old faith provided “a totally structured reading of the mortal condition” that the poet never quite deconstructed. While comparing himself with Yeats, Heaney concluded that he was much closer to the “fundamentally Catholic mysticism” to be found in another great Irish poet of the 20th century, Patrick Kavanagh: “My starlight came in over the half-door of a house with a clay floor, not over the dome of a Byzantine palace.” Dante would later become a source of “high cultural ratification” for his Irish Catholic sub-culture.
So, while he could declare in a radio interview relatively late in life that all that awaits us in the end is extinction, Heaney’s eye kept returning to an empty sea of faith in search of lost meaning: “The emptier it stood, the more compelled / The eye that scanned it.” Turn away and then around again, and the scene remains “Untrespassed still, and yet somehow vacated”.
Poetry stepped into the gap. It represented a new “ultimate court of appeal”, because, while “the infinite spaces may be silent”, the human response is to say that “this is not good enough”.
He managed thus always to evade the unrelieved, remorseless fatalism of Philip Larkin’s “Aubade” – a poem that both fascinated and repelled him. In the “metaphysically Arctic conditions” of modernity, Heaney thought, all that Larkin really offered us by way of protection was “the frail heat-shield generated by human kindness”.
Heaney was more appreciative in this regard of the Welsh poet (and Anglican clergyman) RS Thomas, who confessed his disappointments “while also choosing to remain on his knees in hope”.
Reflecting on Heaney’s trajectory (and setting to one side momentarily all of the failings and transgressions, all of the external events and trends, that wreaked havoc on Irish Catholicism), I find myself wondering whether any people living under modern conditions could have stuck with a religious culture and belief system that had filled up so much, that required superhuman efforts and discipline just in order to be sustained. Perhaps it all simply had to burst or at least deflate.
As the air went out of religion in Ireland, Heaney stepped up to become one of the giants not just of poetry but of lapsed cultural Catholicism.
Ultimately, however, when trying to extract wider meanings from Heaney’s relationship with the Church, a tough truth, or at least a tough question, flickers on the edge of our field of vision. Time will not displace Seamus Heaney’s poetry from its rightful place near the summit of the craft. His humane equanimity, his subtle probings of art and the human condition, expressed in verse but also in prose, will draw us back to him continuously.
But time’s onward march must surely prompt us to wonder exactly how important Heaney’s experience with religion still is; the experience, that is, of those who gently digested their apostasies as the decades inexorably steamrollered Catholic Ireland.
Heaney was never at odds with traditional Irish society in the way that other big names around him were. He could scrutinise and dissect the defects of the old religion with great acuity, but his rebellion was never relentlessly confrontational.
“The loss occurred off stage,” as one of his poems has it. Moreover, as Professor Quinlan reminds us, the Church’s own caretakers were turning a blind, or at least not unkind, eye to those departing the fold in peace.
By contrast, how much more interesting now are the experiences of, to use a phrase of Heaney’s, “my youngsters’ youngsters”? Those growing up Irish in our time who have no deep or durable attachment to, or even a passing knowledge of, the old faith, but who certainly have newer attachments that will doubtless be just as decisive in their formation.
How much more interesting, too, the small clusters of younger Irish people who have somehow clung on to the faith. Are they ready to start rebuilding, slowly, painstakingly, a Catholic country in some shape or form? And what of any champions of wholesale progressivism experiencing the first stirrings of buyer’s remorse?
Perhaps Heaney’s poems will serve a purpose for all of these, explaining some of the receding background radiation of religion in Irish society and summoning up the spirit of a world now confined to old photographs.
Nevertheless, these are the groupings, more so than Heaney’s kind, who will stalk the cultural landscape of what is not merely, as people have got so used to saying, a changed country or a country transformed.
Compared to its past, though still Catholicism-speckled, Ireland is now a foreign country. They do things differently there.