Following discussions with Victoria Forrest, my designer, the original concept of a single photo book covering the landscapes of both W B Yeats and Seamus Heaney has been abandoned. We both felt that, in order to give adequate space to both poets, the book would have become unwieldy and lacking unity of tone and subject. Accordingly, for the purposes of the final major project in the MA course the subject of photo book will be the Heaney landscapes alone with the title “Verso”. The explanation for that title will be found in my proposed preface (alternatively afterword) to the book set out below.
In order that readers of this journal may follow the development of the project, I am also including in this post a PDF of the first draft of the book. Whilst the broad layout is likely to remain unchanged there will undoubtedly be some re-sequencing of the images to give greater chronological and geographical coherence. I have an all-day meeting scheduled with Victoria in Bristol next week and this will result in a further draft which I will publish on this site.
The principal aim of the book, the final major project in my MA photography course at Falmouth University, is to demonstrate how the landscape of Seamus Heaney’s childhood influenced and is reflected in his verse. Accordingly, the majority of the images depict the “Heaney country” of south County Londonderry. Significant locations include his birthplace at the farm known as Mossbawn outside Castledawson; the Hillhead Road where Seamus’ younger brother Christopher was knocked down and killed by a car in 1953; the farm at “The Wood” near Bellaghy (to where the Heaney family moved in 1953 after Christopher’s death); the forge at Hillhead (Heaney’s “door into the dark”); the eel fishery at Toomebridge; the track of the disused railway behind Mossbawn; the Moyola river and the fields on its banks (the area known as the Broagh); Creagh Hill (otherwise known as the Lagans Road), along which Heaney walked to his primary school at Anahorish. Other important sites include Lough Beg, in the centre of which is Church Island, and Slieve Gallion, the easternmost mountain of the Sperrins range. Heaney described these last mentioned features as the two limits of his childhood imagination. The final image is of the Flaggy Shore in County Clare, celebrated in Heaney’s late sonnet “Postscript”
The creation of a photographic record of the Heaney country is particularly important in view of the irreversible changes to its landscape wrought by the extension to the Belfast- Derry motorway currently under construction. This will pass within a few hundred yards of Heaney’s birthplace. It is not just the childhood landscape of water and light reflected in Heaney’s verse which will be lost, but also buildings, including the meeting-hall of the Ancient Order of Hibernians adjoining Mossbawn – an unlovely structure, but one which I was glad to be able to photograph before its demolition.
Liminality is a recurring theme in Heaney’s work: townland boundaries, field boundaries,sectarian boundaries. His father’s fields adjoined those of a Protestant neighbour and the guarded, yet benign, relationship with the Catholic Heaney family, is recounted in the poem “The Other Side”. Heaney wrote:
“I grew up between the predominantly Protestant and loyalist village of Castledawson and the generally Catholic and nationalist district of Bellaghy. In a house situated between a railway and a road…On a border between townlands and languages…”
The Moyola river was another border; also, significantly in Heaney’s memory, a stream or ditch known as the Sluggan which marked the boundaries of several townlands as well as that between the diocese of Derry and the archdiocese of Armagh. Culverted as it passes under the Hillhead Road outside Mossbawn, it runs on down to Lough Beg through meadows and wetlands:
“Every day on my road to and from school I crossed and recrossed the Sluggan and everytime my sense of living on two sides of a boundary was emphasised.”
From his childhood awareness of such physical boundaries Heaney came to recognise the power of poetry to transcend religious and cultural barriers.
Many of the images in the book include water. The presence in the Heaney country of Lough Neagh, Lough Beg, the Rivers Bann and Moyola lend an aqueous quality to the light. Water features prominently in Heaney’s work – famously, he refers to Anahorish as “my place of clear water” – and can be seen in the words of one commentator as a “metaphor for changing states and liquidity, a mode of transition”.
Clearly, I cannot divorce my project from the historical context of the Troubles. Furthermore, the unease arising from the United Kingdom’s proposed withdrawal from the European Union means that the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic is once again of great topicality. I followed the course of the Termon River which forms part of the border Fermanagh in Ulster and Donegal in the Republic capturing the image of the bridge at page [ ] which was the site of a brutal sectarian killing in 1969. The nearby Janus figure on Boa Island (the subject of Heaney’s poem “January God”) serves as a metaphor for Ulster’s troubled past and uncertain future.
The title of this book may require some elucidation. The Latin versus (abl. verso), as Neil Corcoran explains means “both a line of verse and the turn made by the ploughshare from one furrow into the next”, a felicitous conjunction made by Heaney in his second “Glanmore Sonnet”:
“Vowels ploughed into other, opened ground,/Each verse returning like the plough turned round.”
To conclude, I was struck by the wording of a sign I encountered at Downpatrick Head in County Mayo:
“Landscape is not an objective area of land or coastline or bounded space; it is perceived through the lens of personal memory and depends on the accepted beliefs through which it is interpreted.”
I must stress that the Yeats aspect of the project has not been abandoned.In fact, I have recently returned from a third visit to the Yeats country as reported elsewhere in this journal. It is my intention in the fullness of time to produce a companion volume covering the Yeats landscapes and a number of those images will be displayed in the exhibition accompanying the Heaney book launch.