Books: A wandering voice in the storm

Cole Moreton talks to Seamus Heaney about the enduring power of an old Irish tune and Dickens for dinner - Terry Eagleton on George Eliot
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The astonishing music comes from out of the night air. Sitting up late beside the fire, with his wife asleep in bed, a shepherd hears the wind blowing over their dry-stone shelter - and a slow, mournful tune being sung outside, above and beyond.

Who can the singer be? The man and his wife are completely alone on Inishvickillaune, a remote island off the far west coast of County Kerry. One long note, then a falling, twisting stream of them, like the wringing of hands. When his own fearful fingers unfreeze at last, the man picks up his fiddle and begins to play, in imitation of the strange, enchanted music.

This is the story of the tune the Irish call Port na bPca, the Fairies' Lament, which was plucked out of the air by a man called Daly on the most westerly of the Blasket Islands in the late 1800s. When his exile on Inishvickillaune was over, the fiddler told his friends he had captured the song of a wandering fairy woman.

The tune and the story were passed from player to player, bar to bar, session to session. And last Sunday, the sound of the spirit lamenting her fate in a wild Atlantic storm was heard in the calmer surroundings of the Barbican in London. It was played on the uilleann pipes by one of Ireland's leading traditional musicians, Liam O'Flynn; and this time the tale was told by a Nobel laureate, the poet Seamus Heaney.

"The story is so attractive because it has the high voltage of tradition in it," said Heaney backstage. "The music itself is beguiling, and impossible to describe."

Port na bPca, which began the show, has become a theme tune for the collaboration between Heaney and O'Flynn. For the past 10 years the poet and the piper have formed an occasional on-stage partnership, drawing audiences larger than either could hope for on his own. O'Flynn's repertoire goes back 300 years, while Heaney has been publishing verse since 1966. They perform, in turn, words and music inspired by the same places and stories, drawing on the rich traditions of Northern Ireland and the Republic.

I first came across Port na bPca while researching a book on the surviving Blasket islanders, to be published next Spring. Some of them thought Daly had heard whales singing under canvas boats, or a seal crying in a cave. Whatever the source, Heaney believes the legend has a universal resonance. "When I first heard the story in 1968 I was struck by the fabulous archetypal quality of it," he said. "He hears the tune coming in, and he plays, then others go to see if they can hear it, but they can only hear little bits of things. It seemed to me it was at the heart of one of the big subjects of the species, really: the given-ness of art, the gift of music."

Heaney has spent many summers among the mountains west of Dingle, and met his wife Marie Devlin there. His second volume of poems Door Into The Dark, published in 1969, included "The Given Note", which was about the fairy tune of Inishvickillaune. It ends:

So whether he calls it spirit music

Or not, I don't care. He took it

Out of wind off mid-Atlantic.

Still he maintains, from nowhere.

It comes off the bow gravely,

Rephrases itself into the air.

"The sound of the mighty wind is a locus classicus of inspiration," said Heaney. Peering over glasses that had fallen half way down his nose, the white-haired poet in his tweed jacket and knitted tie looked like a favourite uncle after Sunday lunch. He spoke like a patient don giving a tutorial. "It comes into Christian mythology at Pentecost with the rushing wind that preceded the descent of the tongues of flame. I linked it in my own mind to the story of the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke in the tower at Duino, going out into a storm and hearing his big music, from which he was able to finish the Duino Elegies and then write the Sonnets to Orpheus. Even the great bad poet of the 19th century, William McGonagall, tells the story of his own origins as a poet and says, `It was as if I heard a mighty wind, and out of the wind a voice saying, `Write, write'.'"

Folk stories are the bearers of age-old values, Heaney said in his address after accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995. "The century has witnessed the defeat of Nazism by force of arms; but the erosion of the Soviet regimes was caused, among other things, by the sheer persistence, beneath the imposed ideological conformity, of cultural values and psychic resistances of a kind that these stories and images enshrine."

In London last week, as Nato bombers flew over Serbia and the peace process in his own country faltered once more, Heaney still felt the need to gain strength as a writer by putting his "psychic back up against the strong tree of tradition". The Barbican festival "From the Heart" was a good place for him to do that, as it celebrated both ancient and modern Irish culture with readings, music, comedy and film. It ends tomorrow night, but today's programme includes a concert by the cross-border children's choir Voices for Peace, traditional tales from the Ulster countryside, and workshops with the Whitbread Prize-winning poet Michael Donaghy. Tonight the Barbican Hall will be full again as Tommy Makem, Arty McGlynn and some of the other leading lights of the Irish music revival since the 1960s sing the old songs and tell the stories that go with them.

"Where do stories come from?" Heaney asked the wall of his dressing room, rhetorically. "You take them to be pre-natal possessions. They situate you in a culture, or a world. The story of the music out of the wind reminds me of that phrase of Wordsworth in The Prelude about the relationship between the individual consciousness and the cosmos itself - he describes the child as `an inmate of this active universe'. A story mediates between cosmos and consciousness: it makes the individual child, or listener, an inmate of an older, longer, deeper, more linked-up system."

By story he meant "fairy tale and the traditional inheritance - the lump of stuff that is carried around. The kind of poetry I would include in that is `Sing a song of sixpence, a pocketful of rye', and maybe certain canonical poems like `Tyger, tyger burning bright'. I mean that which the group has put into the kitbag of memory."

The poet could use the contents of the kitbag for his inspiration and raw material. "Story is primal, really. Poetry is more actively and consciously sought. There is a learned aspect to poetry, in the widest, simplest sense, that story does not require. There is an element of the initiate about the well-schooled poetry person."

Heaney is himself the best example of that. He was born in 1939 on his father's farm in County Derry, the eldest child of nine. "We crowded together in the three rooms of a traditional thatched farmstead and lived a kind of den-life which was more or less emotionally and intellectually proofed against the outside world," he once wrote. The exception was the wireless, which brought strange languages and news of the war into the life of a small boy, who strained to hear the real story behind the words being spoken.

To his neighbours in rural Derry the young man's passion for poetry placed him in an ancient tradition. "If you take the word poet in English, there is an element of the archaic and the prophetic around it," he explained at the Barbican. "There is some of that in Irish, but there is also more of what we might think of as the local poet's role: to make up stories and ballads. The farmers would say, in a bantering way - and they would still say this to me now - `Watch out for that fellow, he'll put you into a poem.'

"That is a deep traditional memory. Being put into a poem is a way of being pointed out. It's a mixture of public enquiry, gossip column, Private Eye ... you know, a way of ridiculing, and also of exposing. I have more and more respect for that tradition the older I get, but I was, so to speak, educated out of it."

Heaney and O'Flynn left the Barbican stage to the kind of rapturous applause more usually given to pop stars, after one encore. Their latest performances were filmed for television and will also be released as an album later this year. So how would this highly acclaimed man with his back to the tree of tradition reply if the farmers of Derry asked him what use his kind of poet could be? "That's a good question," Heaney said, chuckling again as he disappeared off to be photographed.

`Keeping Time: the poet and the piper' will be shown on BBC2 Northern Ireland on 11 April

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