Definitively Other: Seamus Heaney and Ulster Protestantism

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This paper will mine and assess Seamus Heaney’s complicated, perpetually evolving political relationship with Ulster Protestantism. Though Heaney’s poetic voice contains fragments of this at times fraught dialogue, the paper’s main spotlight will fix on Heaney’s rather underrated critical faculty, from his reviews and essays to the views encased in Dennis O’Driscoll’s Stepping Stones (2008). It will begin with his early analysis of John Hewitt, whose poetry Heaney once described as ‘full of a stubborn determination to belong to the Irishry and yet tenaciously aware of a different origin and cast of mind’, later to be revised into the more combative assessment (always spiced by a degree of personal animus) which objected to Hewitt’s imagining of Northern Catholics as ‘definitively “other”’. Nevertheless Heaney will be shown, through the debates raised by the Field Day project and collected in the Crane Bag, to have very serious antennae for the sensibilities of Ulster Unionists. In a 1977 debate with the more unreconstructed Seamus Deane, Heaney praised Conor Cruise O’Brien for doing ‘an utterly necessary job in rebuking all easy thoughts about the Protestant community in the North’. By the end – and via Heaney’s public encounters with the likes of Danny Morrison (on a train) – we find Heaney’s gaze resting coolly on the Flag Protests which blew up at the end of 2012. ‘There’s never going to be a united Ireland’, remarked the poet in January 2013, ‘So why don’t you let them fly the flag?’ The comments provoked a minor storm of nationalist discontent with some angered by Heaney’s apparent detachment – a nuanced, considered salvo with which to close the poet’s turbulent engagement with Northern Protestantism.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)90-101
JournalThe Irish Review
Issue number49-50
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2015


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