Was Seamus Heaney a Catholic poet?

Was Seamus Heaney a Catholic poet? September 1, 2013

Religion’s never mentioned here,’ of course.
‘You know them by their eyes,’ and hold your tongue.
‘One side’s as bad as the other,’ never worse.
Christ, it’s near time that some small leak was sprung
In the great dykes the Dutchman made
To dam the dangerous tide that followed Seamus.
Yet for all this art and sedentary trade
I am incapable.

So begins Section III of Seamus Heaney’s “Whatever You Say Say Nothing”, found in his 1975 collection of poems North. In a 2000-word 30 Aug 2013obituary entitled “Seamus Heaney, Irish Poet of Soil and Strife, Dies at 74″, The New York Times offered an appraisal of his life and work, noting that:

In 1995, he became the fourth Irishman to win the Nobel in literature, following Yeats, who received it in 1923; George Bernard Shaw (1925); and Samuel Beckett (1969).

In describing Heaney’s place within literature, The Times obituary makes repeated reference to the poet’s Catholic identity and the religious language found in his work.

A Roman Catholic native of Northern Ireland, Mr. Heaney was renowned for work that powerfully evoked the beauty and blood that together have come to define the modern Irish condition. … Throughout his work, Mr. Heaney was consumed with morality. In his hands, a peat bog is not merely an emblematic feature of the Irish landscape; it is also a spiritual quagmire, evoking the deep ethical conundrums that have long pervaded the place. … Mr. Heaney was enraptured, as he once put it, by “words as bearers of history and mystery.” His poetry, which had an epiphanic quality, was suffused with references to pre-Christian myth — Celtic, of course, but also that of ancient Greece. His style, linguistically dazzling, was nonetheless lacking in the obscurity that can attend poetic pyrotechnics.

The obituary also notes Heaney’s close identification with Catholic Ireland.

Mr. Heaney was deeply self-identified as Irish, and much of his work overtly concerned the Troubles, as the long, violent sectarian conflict in late-20th-century Northern Ireland is known. But though he condemned British dominion in his homeland (he wrote: “Be advised, my passport’s green/No glass of ours was ever raised/To toast the Queen”), Mr. Heaney refused to disown British tradition — and especially British literature — altogether.

The Times also quotes a passage from his 1974 lecture, “Feeling into Words to describe his love of language, rhyme and alliteration.

 “Maybe it was stirred by the beautiful sprung rhythms of the old BBC weather forecast: Dogger, Rockall, Malin, Shetland, Faroes, Finisterre; or with the gorgeous and inane phraseology of the catechism; or with the litany of the Blessed Virgin that was part of the enforced poetry in our household: Tower of Gold, Ark of the Covenant, Gate of Heaven, Morning Star, Health of the Sick, Refuge of Sinners, Comforter of the Afflicted.”

Does all this make Seamus Heaney a Catholic poet? While his work has long been associated with Catholicism, is this a sociological or religious description? There is no doubt that Heaney is a Catholic poet in a sociological sense. Writing in The Listener in 1975, Conor Cruise O’Brien argued that in North, Heaney was giving voice to a tribal Catholicism. It was “the tragedy of a people in a place: the Catholics of Northern Ireland.” While critic Edna Longley stated Heaney’s North concentrated on the “Catholic psyche as bound to immolation, and within that immolation, to savage tribal loyalties.”

Was Heaney’s Catholicism merely communal? An accident of his Northern Irish nationalist Catholic birth? Or was it informed by belief in the tenets of the Catholic faith?  As a young man, Heaney spoke of his work as a “slow obstinate Papish burn’, but by 2002 he said that his Catholicism was more of a “‘sociological term than anything else.” In the 2002 book, In the Chair: Interviews with Poets from Northern Ireland (p 83) Heaney said:

‘Papish burn’, I’m sorry to say, caves in to that same old clichéd idiom. It doesn’t help. It’s not further language. Catholic is less conniving than Papish, but if you describe yourself as a Catholic in the North, it can still sound like a defiance or a provocation. In certain circles in the South, it might even be taken to mean that deep down you are unrepentant about child abuse by priests and not altogether against corporal punishment in orphanages. I exaggerate, I know, but only in order to emphasize the way the common mind tends to react when faced with the fact of religion and religious practice and religious value.

Which takes me back to The New York Times obituary. In what sense can Heaney be called a Catholic poet? He certainly was an Irish Catholic poet — in terms of sectarian identity. But should the sociological label — the ideological stance of nationalist and Catholic over against Protestant and loyalist — be applied to his faith life? I expect that in years to come academic monographs and dissertations will examine these questions, and I offer no dogmatic assertion that he was or was not a Catholic poet. Yet should not a newspaper be careful on this point — conflating ideology with faith?

Was The Times correct in leading its description of Heaney as “A Roman Catholic native of Northern Ireland” without inquiring into the content of his religious beliefs?

Or does the use of Catholic image, language and symbolism in his poetry enough to make him Catholic? Can we call him a Catholic poet though “Religion’s never mentioned here,” of course.

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9 responses to “Was Seamus Heaney a Catholic poet?”

  1. If he hasn’t rejected the faith, then he’s still Catholic. I don’t understand what you are getting at. We have no perfect Catholics. I don’t think it’s the place of a newspaper to be inquiring into whether he is perfectly in tune with official dogma or goes to church sufficiently to be Catholic. Francis wouldn’t do that. Lots of my church-going friends are not perfectly in line either, and we consider them Catholic.

    • I keep running up against people who insist that if what so-and-so does is good or worthwhile, than it can’t “really” be Christian, because Christian=Bad.

      • ??? I still don’t get it. I’m a communal and individual Catholic as are most Catholics that I know. Is it the newspaper’s job to sort this out and decide on the criteria?
        BTW Bad Catholics are still Catholics unless they reject the church themselves. A person not in good standing with the church is still a Catholic unless they formally leave. The church has lots of sinners. They are not cast out unless they are heretics. Even excommunication does not end being a Catholic; being excommunicated is like being in contempt of court, not like the finality of having your passport cancelled and being deported.
        Is it the newspaper’s job to decide whether the man is only culturally Catholic or politically a republican = Catholic (that’s a new one on me) or a Catholic in good standing with the church? Should the paper interview his confessor? No. If he presents himself as a Catholic, let it be.

    • I think part of the awkwardness is in the fact that there are many Catholics in Northern Ireland who are unionist, and many Protestants who are not. The NYT is not clear as to whether it is describing Heaney as ‘from the Catholic community’, ‘a republican’, or ‘practising Catholic in good standing’ (or various combinations of the three).

  2. Good question! I’ve asked it in a couple of places. I have not read enough of his work to form an intelligent opinion. From the bits I’ve read it strikes me that Heaney was a believer, so I do think labeling him as a poet who was Catholic goes beyond simple tribal identity. Was there enough Catholic thought and world view in his work to label him a Catholic poet as Flannery O’Connor is a Catholic fiction writer, I just can’t answer.

  3. Of course he’s a Catholic poet, as well as many other different kinds of poet. And they gave him a nice funeral Mass, he was buried in a Catholic cemetery, and he texted his wife, “Noli timere.” Sheesh, can you get more Catholic, or do you have to beat people over the head with it?

    Mary, Queen of Poets, pray for us.

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