DEATH OF A POET 1310 LVI

DEATH OF A POET

By the time you read this we’ll know whether Mayo have finally overcome the hoodoo that has seen them lose their last six All Ireland Finals. One pundit commented wryly that another way of looking at it was that Mayo had a very good record in semi-finals! Whatever; after one of the most exciting and entertaining championships ever, Mayo and Dublin emerged after two enthralling semi-finals. The Hurling Championship also has been the best and most open for years, with, as I write, a replay scheduled between Clare and Cork.

The summer – better than usual, or at any rate a welcome, and warm , relief after an unusually cold spring – has also helped people forget the dismal prospect of another harsh budget and more tax hikes next year. As I observed last time, on the macroeconomic front matters are evolving reasonably well. There are now also some signs of minor economic growth (green shoots, an increase in employment), if only because the economy appears to have bottomed out. There are even signs that the housing market is beginning to pick up, at any rate in the Dublin area.

On the down side, the mortgage crisis and the problem of personal debt continues. It will be some time before the effects of the insolvency legislation and accompanying measures to assist those in debt can be assessed but even at this stage the omens do not look good. One of the experts tasked with helping debtors has already pointed out that the legislation will be of no benefit to many if not most of those in need, whatever way politicians have talked the legislation up. Some revisiting of the issue seems likely – but when?

Certainly not before the two events due this month, the Senate Referendum and the 2014 Budget. The Senate Referendum is the brainchild of the Taoiseach, an idea he launched several years ago. The Senate (Seanad) is not like the U.S. Senate in that it has no real power and its members are not directly elected, with almost one fifth in the political patronage of the Taoiseach. In practice it has become a testing ground for rising politicians (Garret Fitzgerald and Mary Robinson both started off there) or a pensioning-off ground for defeated and retired politicians.

It is hard to justify continuing the Seanad in its present form. It is expensive to run, adds sixty politicians to the public payroll at considerable expense and has contributed little since it was established. Its abolition now, however, is hardly a political priority, given the other issues begging for attention and would not be on the agenda had the Taoiseach not invested considerable political capital in the issue. The result is a poll few want after a short campaign that will see issues aired but not discussed in sufficient depth.

As I write the result looks too close to call. A debate on possible reform rather than abolition has begun with some of the various reform proposals made over the years being dusted off and recycled , begging the question of why no actual moves to reform have been made in seventy five years up to now. Predictably, Fianna Fail, which was in power for most of those years, and did nothing, has come out against abolition.

The whole issue of second chambers, their role, powers, relations with the electorate and their place in the democratic structure is one meriting careful and detailed consideration. This may well prove a potent factor in persuading the electorate, conservative on constitutional change, to reject or postpone abolition. We could well, therefore, see an outcome in which the best becomes the enemy of the good. The abolition proposal offers the Irish people a rare gift- wrapped opportunity to remove some of the political and constitutional deadwood at a stroke. It would be a pity to see this central fact obscured and the opportunity thrown away.

The Budget comes hard on the heels of the Referendum. Suffice it to say here that, politicians being politicians, the government parties are manoeuvring in a damage- limitation exercise to seek to make the spending cuts still required as palatable as possible. The Budget may contain also some populist gesture towards the doubly unfortunate apartment owners of Priory Hall, saddled with mortgages and negative equity on properties too defective to live in. The tragic recent suicide of one of their number has highlighted their plight.

Occasionally an event occurs that puts everyday concerns into a different perspective. For a brief period last month normal service was suspended for one such event as Ireland took time out to mourn the death of Seamus Heaney.

It was only fitting. In any poll of who best embodied those elements of the Irish identity in which people took most pride, Seamus Heaney would have been there or thereabouts. The expressions of loss at his passing were almost universal, akin to the mourning for the death of a favourite relative or close friend. It is doubtful if any other contemporary Irish person has been held in as much affection by the Irish people. He gave the lie to Dr Johnson’s dictum that “ the Irish are a fair people – they never speak well of one another.”

His appeal is easy to understand. He wasn’t a politician. He wasn’t a churchman. He was a poet; and Ireland likes poets. Within Ireland, in a time of dramatic change, political social and economic, his was a presence that endured in a writing career spanning over four decades. Poems of his learned at school remained fresh in the mind of successive generations. His modesty and accessibility, combined with his perceived personal and professional integrity in a period when others on pedestals proved to have feet of clay, cemented his reputation.

He enjoyed worldwide acclaim and popularity, as the many awards he received, culminating in the 1995 Nobel Prize, attest. Indeed, at his death his poems made up two thirds of the sales of living poets in Britain. Of his Irishness he was proud. An attempt to include him in an anthology of “ British poets” in 1981 met with the gentle but firm rebuff in “ Open Letter” to the effect that “My passport’s green,/ No glass of ours was ever raised,/To toast the Queen.”

He wrote of the years of violence in the North with quiet passion, yet with an equally resolute determination not to be used as a propaganda tool, responding, famously, in “ The Flight Path” that, if he did write something, “Whatever it is, I’ll be writing for myself.” There are similarities of approach here to the lines of the other great Irish poet Nobel Laureate, Yeats, who in 1915, responding to demands for a war poem wrote ” I think it better that in times like these/A poet’s mouth be silent.”

One commentator, noting the oft – used observation that Heaney was the greatest Irish poet since Yeats, observed that perhaps now it could be said that Yeats was the greatest Irish poet till Heaney. He will be missed. His last words, texted to his wife, were in Latin “ Noli Timere” – Don’t Be Afraid. Ave atque Vale.

September 15 2013

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