Opinion: An Irish groundbreaker lost

Elaina Sauber

Elaina Sauber

Elaina Sauber is a senior English major and a columnist for the Daily Kent Stater. Contact her at [email protected]

This past spring, I took an opportunity and studied abroad in Northern Ireland. In the four months I spent there, I made invaluable memories and learned more about Northern Ireland’s history and culture than I ever could have from a book and took literature classes exploring the area’s most progressive writers. One of Ireland’s most prized writers was Seamus Heaney, the 1995 Nobel laureate in literature and considered by many to be the greatest Irish writer since W.B. Yeats. Heaney passed away Aug. 30. If I had never traveled to Ireland, I wouldn’t have thought twice about his death. However, after living in a place where Heaney himself called home, I felt a connection because I could understand why his death brought on, in the words of Irish prime minister Enda Kenny, “great sorrow to Ireland, to language and to literature.”

Heaney lived in a time of radical change in Ireland. In 1922, 26 of Ireland’s 32 counties gained independence from the United Kingdom. However, the six remaining counties in the northern section of the island, known as Ulster, remain to this day part of the U.K. and never gained independence. This is because Anglican and Protestant settlers from England and Scotland were sent to Northern Ireland in the 17th century in hopes of erasing the Celtic and Roman Catholic influences on Ireland’s culture. As a result, those settlers’ descendants not only identify as British and Protestant, but also eventually outnumbered the number of Catholics in Northern Ireland, unable to relate to the blatant discrimination toward them. After decades of anti-Catholic discrimination in Ulster, which often denied them employment, housing and voting rights, the Troubles in Northern Ireland broke out in the late 1960s, resulting in almost 40 years of violence from the British military and Ulster Volunteer Force, as well as the provisional Irish Republican Army, claiming over 3,500 lives.

Heaney was raised Roman Catholic in Northern Ireland and witnessed the Troubles firsthand — and likely experienced discrimination himself. He described England’s presence in Northern Ireland beautifully: “To put it metaphorically, and yet historically, Ireland, the feminine country, was entered by England, possessed by England, planted with English seed, withdrawn from by England, and left pregnant with an independent life called Ulster, kicking within her.” Heaney never compromised his Irish identity, but what made him so remarkable is that, despite his staunch beliefs, he never condoned the republican violence of The Troubles. Concerned with conveying a contemporary Ireland, he refused to buy into the myth on either side of the Troubles that sectarian violence would solve anything. In his poem “Sybil,” first published in his book “Field Work,” Heaney fears that Ulster’s fate will be self-destruction, “Unless forgiveness finds its nerve and voice/Unless the helmeted and bleeding tree/Can green and open buds like infants’ fists.”

From across the Atlantic, Seamus Heaney doesn’t seem particularly relevant. But to Ireland — especially Ulster — he was the voice of reason during one of the most vicious periods of her history. Like many leaders of our own civil rights movement, he never forsook the idea that bloodshed is not necessary for social progress.