This isn’t actually anything to do with grasshoppers. It’s about Irish rain, Seamus Heaney, peat fires and kindness.
We’ve just had a week’s holiday in the north of Ireland, and despite all the gloomy predictions, we had wonderful weather for all but one of the days. We bathed in the sea at Ballygally, spent a day exploring the Giant’s Causeway in bright sunshine, and went out to the far west for a few days on the wild coast of Donegal, where we had fine sandy beaches to ourselves and carpets of wild flowers to dazzle the eyes.
The one day of rain, however, beggars description. It started before we woke up, and continued unabated until we were tucked up in bed again that night. The roads turned into rivers, some with waves flowing along them, and we had to negotiate floods that came up to the top of our wheels. More than a day of that and we would have been applying for tickets to join Noah on the ark.
We were on our way back home, so needed to make some progress. It was also clear that free camping on soggy ground (or in the middle of a puddle) wasn’t a great idea, so we headed across moorland and hills to find a pub with an adjacent campsite that we’d seen on the map. As we arrived at the Shepherd’s Rest, tired and hungry, the publican came out to welcome us; however, when we said how much we were looking forward to a meal, he told us that they hadn’t got any food. Observing our faces falling visibly, he hurried to reassure us that he would rustle something up for us.
We didn’t even make it up to the official camping area, but anchored in relief in the car park and sloshed our way back to the pub, where there was a peat fire burning brightly, a large portrait of Seamus Heaney on the wall and, within minutes, a huge plate of food on the table before us. Our host, Colin, had clearly raided the ‘fridge. If any reader is ever looking for a campsite in Northern Ireland, I would strongly recommend this pub cum campsite.
Throughout the evening Colin plied me with poetry books to read and discuss, showed us the Visitors’ Book with the signature of Seamus Heaney inscribed within, and asked about my poetry. When we finally left, some hours later, he insisted that we should visit the nearby town of Magherafelt the next day, where someone called Eugene had a treasure trove of Heaney memorabilia which he would certainly be pleased to show us.
It seemed a little impertinent to turn up at someone’s house unannounced, but the final line of one of the lovely Bod books we shared with our children when they were little popped into my head: It’s amazing what you discover when you follow a grasshopper. So we called on the house, met Eugene Kielt and spent the next few hours in conversation about Seamus and a number of other poets whom Eugene knew.
Just above the chair where I was sitting was a study of Seamus, done by the artist Peter Edwards in preparation for his portrait of the poet which is now in the National Portrait Gallery.
Although Seamus lived in the Republic, he was born in Northern Ireland and visited frequently. Eugene now leads tours of ‘Seamus country’ for visitors; and his guest house, advertised as the only poetry guest house in Northern Ireland, is stacked full of Heaney poems and memorabilia.
When Eugene offered to show us round the house, I was unprepared for the sheer number of poems and pictures on the walls. There were huge linen banners with Heaney poems on them (including one that isn’t in any of the poetry collections), and others on fine paper. Each suite of rooms was dedicated to a different poet, such as Patrick Cavanagh, Michael Longley and others. In each case there was a large portrait of the poet and a number of his poems on the walls (yes, they were all men, though in conversation I found Eugene also valued some women poets, including the National Poet of Wales, Gillian Clarke).
Eugene learnt to love poetry as an adult, initially through Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, but is now extremely knowledgeable about many 20th and 21st century poets. He has run two highly successful poetry festivals from his villa in the past, but is not rushing to organise a third as there is no one except him and his wife to do all the hard work involved. He does, however, host a number of poetry readings in the house. We spent a fascinating morning in his company, and departed feeling very grateful to Colin, Eugene, Seamus himself and, of course, Bod.