Traipsing between noble Nobel laureates

De Facto

MAN OF WORDS Seamus Heaney, whose work and life is being celebrated in a Dublin exhibition.

De Facto
Liamy MacNally

A walk past the Bank of Ireland building on College Green in Dublin yielded a special surprise last week – a Seamus Heaney exhibition. Mounted by the National Library, the exhibition is called ‘Listen Now Again’. It celebrates the life of the Nobel Laureate for Literature drawing on ‘the wonderful Heaney archive at the National Library’.
The archive was donated by the poet himself in 2011. The exhibition focuses on the poems the poet was best known for, ‘and offers glimpses of his work as a distinguished essayist, playwright, translator, professor, and literary critic’.
After walking the wreck of the country’s main thoroughfare, O’Connell Street, with its filth, clapped out buildings, kitsch signs and buzzed-out shops, the exhibition was a welcome oasis. It was great to get inside, away from the rush of nonsense.
‘Listen Now Again’ is divided into four sections: ‘Excavations’, a look at Heaney’s early life; ‘Creativity’, which centres on how he worked and his influences; ‘Conscience’, which is focused mainly on the violence in the North and his engagement with politics and justice; and ‘Marvels’, featuring the spring in the step of his later poetry and his legacy.
The whole exhibition was deeply moving, beautifully laid-out and thought provoking while honouring one of our national treasures. Heaney was a bog man: He loved the bog and wrote about it with deep affection. He is a man taken out of the bog, yet he brought it with him. The bog preserves and remembers. His poem, ‘Digging’, is a triumph for bog lovers, people of the spade and writers.
I was completely drawn in by the display of his writing, corrections, updating and re-writing some of his lines, all so wonderfully portrayed and augmented with audio and film. It brought me back to the previous evening, where I was in the company of another Nobel Laureate for Literature, Bob Dylan.
The US singer-songwriter had just concluded a European tour in Dublin. Drawing mostly on songs from his recent album, ‘Rough and Rowdy Ways’, the concert was a triumph. I’ve seen him perform about 75 times in most major cities in Ireland and Britain over the past 41 years, and last week’s gig was special.
There was a poignancy, and deep respect was accorded to Dylan who is in his 82nd year. Playing nine of the ten songs on the album, augmented with a selection of lesser-known songs rather than his hits, Dylan was making a statement. He doesn’t trade on sentiment but rather pushes himself to keep creating. A listen to the same set list played in the US this time last year will show how much the new songs have developed in live performances.
Augmented by top musicians, Dylan announced the tour last year, citing that it would run from 2021-2024. There’s confidence for you. Or faith. Or hope. Or all three! For those of us present last week it was a type of almost closing the circle, bringing things as near as possible to a conclusion, without inserting the full stop.
It was as if he was playing for himself, answering his deepest call to carry on his work. He played for his audience, choosing a playlist that spoke clearly and directly in the language of thanksgiving. He paid tribute to those gone before him, those who led the way, those who slipped away and those who journey still today, forever grateful and appreciative. He also honoured his God.
Despite all the things people associate with Dylan the one certainty is his faith in God. He is like a one-man biblical commentary. Jewish born, he released three overtly Christian albums plus ‘Christmas in the Heart’, with carols and songs. All royalties, in perpetuity, from that album are dedicated to supporting hunger programmes.  
Dylan finished the show with a blast of the harmonica, his shofar, as he sang ‘Every Grain of Sand’, a meditation on the assuredness of God’s infinite love for creation. “Then onward in my journey I come to understand that every hair is numbered like every grain of sand.”
Two Nobel laureates in two days was such a gracious blessing. Whatever that positive energy with these experiences is, long may it last.