MUSEUMS Heaney’s Homeplace

A new internationally flavoured arts centre dedicated to the great Irish poet is opening in a small rural village. Patrick Kelly reports

There can’t be many museums that accord pride of place to an old duffle coat. But this is a duffle coat unlike any other. It adorned the shoulders of one Seamus Heaney and featured on the cover of his Selected Poems in 1980. Lost at a reading in Oxford, where he was professor of poetry, it has reappeared as a fond souvenir in a new centre devoted to the Nobel Laureate in the little village of Bellaghy in Northern Ireland.

The Seamus Heaney Homeplace is a moving tribute not only to the poet, who died in 2013, but also to his family and the small but tightly knit rural community that inspired much of his work. It is also a major investment, indeed a brave one, for a small local authority. Mid-Ulster council has committed more than £3.3m of its own money to the £4.25m centre, the rest of it coming from the NI government. That’s a substantial chunk from an authority with an annual budget of £40m.

But to the chairman of the council Cllr Trevor Wilson it’s worth it. “What is happening in Bellaghy is pretty special,” he says. So special that it aims to attract 35,000 visitors in its first year to this until now, unregarded part of Northern Ireland.

Built on the site of the former police barracks, the fortress that dominated the high street throughout the dark years of the Troubles has been replaced by a light and airy building, with an elevated viewing platform which appears to launch visitors into the surrounding countryside. Initially the council had simply planned on finding a community use for the building, says Mid Ulster’s director of leisure and culture, Anne- Marie Campbell, one which would also help to regenerate an area hard hit by the economic impact of more than 40 years of conflict. But a suggestion by a friend of the Heaney family that a room should be found for a col- lection of Heaney’s books turned into a plan to dedicate the whole space to the poet and his works. A conversation with the Heaney family won their approval and the project was on. Heaney’s voice resonates through- out the two floors of the exhibition, physically in the form of recordings which he made during his lifetime and in the displays of memorabilia from family photos and personal items to his extensive collection of books. There’s a recreation of his Dublin study, complete with fax ma- chine spilling out news of his Nobel Prize, which went unnoticed by the recipient because he was on holiday in Greece.

The Heaney spirit will even in- fuse the selection of crafts available in the centre’s shop, with jewellers, ceramicists and designers chosen by Crafts Northern Ireland on the basis of work that uses natural materials found in the County Derry land- scape.

The Homeplace will also be the centre of a network of Heaney trails taking visitors to the places which feature in the poet’s work. They will build on the work already done by Heaney enthusiast and bed and breakfast owner Eugene Kielt, whose informative and entertaining one man tours are already the stuff of legend. Kielt’s Laurel Villa guest house is already something of a shrine to the poet, who gave many a private and public reading in Eugene’s front room.

But the Homeplace will not only be a place of pilgrimage, promises Anne-Marie Campbell. An education programme for schools and community groups based on his poetry is already underway. Pilot projects have attracted 1,800 school- children from all over Northern Ire- land, says Anne-Marie. Future plans include an academic fellowship, and the funding of a post for children’s writer in residence.

If there is a cloud on the horizon, it’s a continuing row over the siting of a new dual carriageway which will run through the centre of Heaney country. Campaigners, some of them based at the Heaney school at Queen’s University Belfast, say the road, designed to relieve congestion, will despoil the very landscape that lies at the centre of Heaney’s worldwide appeal. How- ever, there is little sympathy locally for this argument, with Seamus’s brother Hugh, a local farmer, opining that the road will have little im- pact on that appeal. A protest timed to coincide with the VIP-stuffed of- ficial opening of the centre attracted just one protestor.

But the Homeplace is not just a museum, it’s also a performance space, partly supported by Arts Council Northern Ireland funding. An 189 seat venue called the Helicon will play host to a clutch of international names over the next year.

Programme manager Sean Doran says that he and fellow collaborator Liam Browne were keen that the offer should do justice to what is “the first purpose built literature centre in Ireland”.

The idea is that the vision of one artist, Heaney, should be “a jumping off point” for other artists, musicians poets and writers. The likes of actors Fiona Shaw and Stephen Rea, musicians Paul Brady and Ralph Mclean, and writers like Michel Faber, James Kelman and Louis de Bernières will pay tribute to Heaney’s 12 collections of poetry in the course of the next 12 months, from The Death of A Naturalist, his first collection, published in 1966, to Human Chain, his last original work from 2010.

The fact that stars of such inter- national standing will beat a path to Bellaghy says something for Doran’s reputation but also for the affection and esteem in which Seamus Heaney is held. The decision to build an arts centre dedicated to his memory is also an indication of the high regard for the internationally renowned poet in his back yard. “Homeplace” says Cllr Wilson “will not just be a tourist at- traction, but something for everyone here too”. He added, “Art to a lot of people is still seen as something high faluting, but Seamus Heaney proves it’s not. His work was rooted in this place, as was he.”

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