“What we really want to do […] is to ‘catch the heart off guard and blow it open’”. Those were the words of the National Library of Ireland’s Director, Dr Sandra Collins, echoing Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney in December 2017. She was speaking at the announcement of a new major exhibition that would celebrate the life, works and legacy of one of Ireland’s best loved poets. Six months later, that vision has been realised in Seamus Heaney: Listen Now Again, an immersive and multi-sensory exhibition rooted in the writer’s archive, donated by the Heaney family to the NLI in 2011.
Listen Now Again focuses on the poetry for which Seamus Heaney is best known. It features original manuscripts, letters, unpublished works, diary entries, and photographs, and offers visitors an intimate, moving and tactile experience of the writer’s journey; from his childhood in Bellaghy, Co Derry, through to his global renown as a near universally admired poet. The manuscripts selected by exhibition curator Geraldine Higgins, Director of Irish Studies at Emory University, show the poet in conversation with himself; revisions and queries scrawled across drafts of his work, appearing on anything from notebooks to the backs of envelopes and loose pieces of paper.
Listen Now Again reveals the literary legend while also painting a distinctly human picture of Seamus Heaney. Personal possessions loaned by the Heaney family include a lamp which once belonged to WB Yeats, a portrait by Louis le Brocquy, and the Christmas cards Heaney sent every year to friends all over the world. The writer’s desk at which he created some of Ireland’s greatest poetry was no more than a simple sheet of wood placed on top of two squat filing cabinets, and is also on view in the exhibition. This characteristic combination of the everyday and the marvellous was affirmed during his wife Marie’s speech at the official launch, in which she described how he hand-delivered his remarkable archive to the NLI – in the boot of the family car, accompanied by his son.
The story of Seamus Heaney’s life and work opens with Excavations which details his personal and creative beginnings. Next, visitors proceed to Creativity, which examines how he approached his craft, and his many influences. From there, Conscience explores Heaney’s engagement with global issues of politics and justice, particularly the violence in Northern Ireland. Finally, Marvels shows how the poet’s later works moved towards a sense of uplift and airiness.
A particularly poignant video piece in the final section brings together various tributes made to Seamus Heaney on social media following his death, revealing the extent of his influence and impact, transcending geography, generations and backgrounds. Throughout the exhibition space, specially created soundscapes ebb and flow, punctuated by recordings of Heaney’s voice, familiar and reassuring.
As part of Listen Now Again, visual artist Maser has created two site-specific installations. Let Go, Let Fly, Forget (pictured) is a sculpture of pages turning into flying birds, rendered in the artist’s signature graphic style and soaring through the triple-height atrium. Don’t Be Afraid is inspired by the last words Seamus Heaney texted to his wife in Latin, ‘Noli Timere’, and here visitors can leave their own tribute to the poet as they exit the exhibition.
Seamus Heaney: Listen Now Again is the inaugural exhibition to be staged in the new Bank of Ireland Cultural and Heritage Centre at the Bank’s College Green complex. It is fitting that within such historically significant architecture lives a truly contemporary exhibition space honouring one of Ireland’s major literary figures.
Seamus Heaney: Listen Now Again is open Monday to Saturday, from 10am to 4pm, and is free.