Passing Laurel Villa, you’d never suspect it was a Tardis. You have to enter this modestly proportioned house on the outskirts of the County Derry town of Magherafelt to taste its magic. Your first impression is of a beautifully kept B&B. Then you notice the photographs and paintings lining the walls: James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Seamus Heaney. There are poems printed on linen, and first editions in glass cases. Upstairs you pass bedroom doors: the Kavanagh Room, the MacNeice Room, the Heaney Room. Laurel Villa is a shrine (though a very unstuffy one) – a genuine House of Poetry.
Gerardine Kielt keeps things immaculate, and cooks the best breakfasts in Ireland; Eugene, her husband, organises poetry readings at Laurel Villa, and maintains contact with poets far and wide – including Seamus Heaney himself, the most celebrated and best-read living poet in these islands.
Born on a farm a few miles from Magherafelt, Heaney has great admiration for the Kielts’ love of poetry. So much so that this Nobel laureate, hugely in demand and feted all over the world in this year of his 70th birthday, found the time to come to the Magherafelt house in June and give a reading to an audience of 50. My wife Jane and I were there; so were Heaney’s brothers, his relations and local acquaintances. Watching him chat and sign books, joke and clink wine glasses afterwards, you got the measure of a genuine and grounded man, pleased to be back on the soil that inspired all those famous poems.
Joining Eugene Kielt on one of the guided tours he conducts round Seamus Heaney country, we found the building blocks of Heaney’s young life and his art coming at us round every corner, shining a light on poems that we seemed to have known for ever. At Hillhead, near Magherafelt, Barney Devlin’s forge stood beside the roaring Toome road, a low “door into the dark” exactly as Heaney described it in one of his best-known poems, “The Forge”. And there was the 89-year-old Barney himself – “90 next Boxing Day!” An ageless man, full of life and fun, delighted to be so much visited. We leaned against the door jamb and listen to the smith ring the anvil with his great hammer, as he did at the millennium hour. He pointed out hearth and bellows, long-redundant tools, a stuffed rooster in the rafters – “Dick the fighting cock, champion of Meath!” Pouring a none-too-mean measure of whiskey, Barney gave a wicked chuckle and slapped me on the back. “I’ve never touched it in my life, but I like a man who takes his drop.”
In the townland of Broagh below the forge, a long-abandoned railway line curved across the lanes. Heaney wrote in “The Railway Children” of climbing its grassy cutting, level with the telegraph poles where “words travelled the wires/ In the shiny pouches of raindrops”.
How many people wish that Mossbawn, the original thatched house where the poet was born to Patrick and Margaret Heaney in 1939, had not been demolished? But it was, some years ago, and in its place another long, low, modest farmhouse stands beside the Toome road. The McLaughlin family live here now, farming the same fields and milking cows in the same yard as Patrick Heaney did 70 years ago. We looked around the place – the byre, the sheds, the waterlogged field at the back of the house where the Heaney boys put down “four jackets for four goalposts” and played football, as he wrote in the poem “Markings”, until “the light died”:
And the actual kicked ball came to them / Like a dream heaviness, and their own hard / Breathing in the dark and skids on grass / Sounded like effort in another world …
Of all the places we visited, I found Church Island on the shores of Lough Beg the most resonant. The spire stuck up from the massed trees of the island, unapproachable beyond a rain-sodden wetland. Leaning against the ivy-grown wall, Eugene quietly read us “The Strand at Lough Beg”, Heaney’s eulogy for his second cousin Colm McCartney, murdered by sectarian killers in 1975. The backdrop of the poem and the present setting were one and the same: cows in a mist, clay and water, a soft treeline.
… I dab you clean with moss / Fine as the drizzle out of a low cloud / I lift you under the arms and lay you flat / With rushes that shoot green again, I plait / Green scapulars to wear over your shroud
The afternoon light began to fade. The rest of Heaney country would have to wait for another day – Anahorish (the inspiration for “Anahorish 1944”, “We were killing pigs the day the Americans arrived”), Bellaghy Bawn, the graveyard where Seamus’s brother Christopher Heaney is buried.
“I like to think that I belong to these places,” said Eugene Kielt, steering us back towards Magherafelt, “and they belong to me. That’s Seamus Heaney’s magic – he can attach a total stranger to these places, and leave that stranger attached to them as strongly as I am myself – to these ordinary places that I’ve known all my life.”