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So, I once took a snapshot of Seamus Heaney himself. I was a graduate student attending the Yeats International Summer School in Sligo, Ireland, in 1989, and after the two weeks of lectures, workshops and performances were done, I decided to take the train south to Dublin to look around and do my own version of the student- tramping-though-the-old-country thing. (And it worked out for me, too; for years after, and even now, I have been mining that experience and producing whole series of McNeilly in Ireland poems, tourist-as-genealogist stuff. Some were published a decade ago in The Antigonish Review.) I had even called ahead to the hostel there to book a few nights. I was prepared and pretty organized.
There had been a number of important speakers at Sligo, including Richard Kearney, Declan Kiberd, Elizabeth Butler Cullingford, Terry Eagleton, Edna Longley, as well as poets such as Richard Murphy and Michael Longley, so it was quite an intensive and academically rich gathering. On the train to Dublin, I ended up sitting with Helen Vendler, who had given a talk at the school and whose graduate student I had befriended – although I haven’t been in communication with him since that trip, neglectfully. It turned out she was being picked up at Connolly Station – honestly, I remember it as Heuston, but the ticket stub says Connolly – by Seamus Heaney. Her piece in The New Yorker had appeared a few years earlier, and she was probably his chief advocate and apologist in America; he has of course since dedicated poems to her. She invited her student to come meet him, and, I’m sure because I was sitting next to him and had been chattering about Canadian literature, she felt a little sorry for me and, politely, invited me come along too.
Sure enough, there Seamus Heaney was on the platform, waiting. She introduced us both, her student first. Heaney was gregarious, smiling, welcoming, generous. For the few minutes I can claim to have been in his presence, stories of his warmth and kindness seemed more than true. I had a foxed Faber paperback of his Field Work in my knapsack – I think I bought it in Sligo at a small bookshop there – and he signed it, holding the book open in the air with his left hand and scrawling half-wildly on it with what I remember as a Bic stick-pen. Professor Vendler was coming to stay with him, and her student had booked a bed and breakfast somewhere across town. Nicely, Seamus Heaney turned to me and offered me a ride. I should have lied and said I was staying somewhere out in the country or something like that, but stupidly I told him that the hostel where I was staying was right across the street, which it was, so I declined the lift. “Okay then,” he said, and we all walked out into the parking lot together. I thanked them and waved goodbye, turned, and headed across the street. At the last minute, it occurred to me that I hadn’t taken a picture, and that nobody would believe that I had almost got a lift from Seamus Heaney himself. So I quickly pulled out a disposable plastic and cardboard camera I had bought, likely at the same store as his book, wound and cocked it, pointed it in the general direction of his car, which they were just getting into, and snapped.
When I got back to Canada and had the pictures developed, I found that the picture I had taken was actually of a fairly tall hedge in the train station parking lot. Peeking over the hedge is a shock of greyish-white hair, the face turned down and away. “That’s him,” I have told people when I showed them the snapshot. “That’s Seamus Heaney’s hair.” Sure, they tell me. Sure it is.
Sadly, too, I have since lost the photo, and can’t find the negative to replace it, which is a drag. Now, I don’t even have the inconclusive proof. I have hope it will turn up someday. And, I did find my copy of Field Work, with his signature on it. Mercifully, he wrote my name too.