“A certain parallel…”: Seamus Heaney and the Czechs

Seamus Heaney

There was much sadness last Friday at the news of the death of the great Irish poet, Seamus Heaney. He will be missed in the Czech Republic: his poetry was widely read here and the poet had a fondness for Central Europe that went back several decades. David Vaughan takes a look at Seamus Heaney and the Czechs.

Seamus Heaney
Seamus Heaney did not actually visit the Czech Republic until 2002, but when he did come, he was given the kind of welcome you would expect for a rock star rather than a poet. At the time he told Radio Prague about his enthusiasm for the Czech capital:

SH:“I've found it an entrancing city. One of the highest praises I can give to anything now is it does not disappoint. Usually you hear some places praised and then you say 'oh well'. But Prague certainly does not disappoint. It's an extraordinary, beautiful place.”

But Seamus Heaney was not just interested in this country as a tourist. He was very familiar with contemporary Czech poetry, in particular the work of the poet and immunologist Miroslav Holub, whom he knew personally for many years and whom he acknowledged as an influence on his work. After winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995, Heaney also became well known among Czech readers. But perhaps his deepest link to this country was through music. To talk about this and other aspects of Seamus Heaney’s relationship to things Czech, I went to see Ondřej Pilný, head of the Charles University’s Centre for Irish Studies.

“I think Seamus Heaney was one of the greatest contemporary poets in the world. I discovered his poetry when I was a student in Ireland in the early ‘90s and I was really impressed. His poetry was deceptive by the relative simplicity of the language that he uses, but then you discover that, unless you actually know quite a bit about Irish history, you get lost here and there. And I have this experience with my students here at Charles University, most of whom are – obviously – not from Ireland and have to struggle at the start, the same way as I had to struggle, because they lack the context.”

You talk about the faculty here. Is there a lot of interest in Irish studies?

Ondřej Pilný,  photo: David Vaughan
“We have a small but rather thriving centre. It’s the only one in the Czech Republic. As for the motivation of the students – why people start studying Irish literature – there are some of the obvious reasons, like anywhere else, meaning that people would go to Ireland, fall in love with the country, with the people, and then want to learn more. Other people get to Irish literature through reading it Czech translation, the same way as I discovered James Joyce in my teens. There are quite a few people who are fans of traditional Irish music – there are quite a lot of traditional Irish bans in this country. So that’s another way into Irish culture. Irish dancing is fairly popular as well, but I have to say that anyone who comes to us as a student and is infatuated with any new-age Celticism is very swiftly cured, or just leaves!”

To return to Seamus Heaney, was his work already translated into Czech before the fall of communism?

“You could say that his work was translated relatively late, because the first selections of his poetry appeared in the mid-1980s, while in the English-speaking world he would have been quite an established presence already since the late 1960s. What you have to take into account is that to publish the work of an English-speaking author behind the Iron Curtain was never easy. But, having said all of this, he was greatly appreciated already in the late-80s, still before the fall of the Iron Curtain, particularly through Zdeněk Hron’s translations, because, not only did he produce a book-length selection of his work, but also, in 1989, he produced a ground-breaking anthology of contemporary British and Irish poetry, which introduced the likes of Thom Gunn, Paul Durcan and also Seamus Heaney to a much broader readership.”

And I suppose that before the fall of communism one reason for the interest was because it was forbidden fruit; it was writing from the other side of the Iron Curtain.

“Again, this would have been my case. This was a greatly cherished book, because you could not really come across these texts in the originals. So this was pretty much the only way you could actually read poets like Seamus Heaney.”

And I believe that the interest was mutual, that Seamus Heaney was very interested in Central Europe.

Seamus Heaney,  photo: CTK
“He was. This started in the early 1970s. A colleague of mine, Justin Quinn, has written recently on Seamus Heaney’s essays on the Polish poets, Czesław Miłosz who was a very big influence on Heaney’s work, and Zbigniew Herbert, and the Czech poet, Miroslav Holub. Heaney wrote an essay on Holub in the early 1980s, but he would have read Holub’s poetry already in 1970, when he was at UCLA at Berkeley in California. It seems he was doing all he could not to be influenced by the Beats – by the contemporary American poets – whose natural landscape would have been mostly the city. They were very modern in the kind of imagery they were using, while of course Heaney was fundamentally a rural poet.”

And Seamus Heaney was also interested in Czech and Moravian music. Most famously, he translated – or made a version of – Leoš Janáček’s famous song cycle, “Diary of One Who Vanished” that tells the age-old story of a young man’s infatuation with a beautiful Gypsy girl. Here he is, telling Radio Prague about that translation during his visit in 2002:

SH: “They were based on translations done into French and into English, which I could understand. Through listening to the songs being sung in Czech and through looking at the metre in the old, the previous English version and the French version, I tried to get a singable version.”

I startled this young gypsy girl
Lightfooted as a deer,
Black ringlets on her mushroom breast,
Her eyes like the night air,
Two eyes that cut deep into me
As she slipped behind a tree,
Two eyes that haunt and follow me
All the long
long day.

In the introduction to the translation [Faber and Faber, 1999], he wrote how, in translating some of the Moravian dialect, he chose the Ulster dialect that he knew from home.

“Seamus Heaney loved Janáček, to put it very simply. I’m not sure to what extent that was connected with his interest in Eastern European poetry, but I think this was a project that was long in gestation, as they say, and it’s quite an accomplished work. I remember when he was in Prague for the first time in 2002, he was greatly interested in Janáček’s music. As for the translation of the dialect, this is something that Heaney was rather famous for in some of his other translations, like Beowulf, for instance, the great Anglo-Saxon or Old-English epic, where here and there he takes liberties as well with the original language and just throws in a dialect word from Ulster, which fits perfectly.”

Top it up, my oxen team,
And plough it straight and take the strain.
Don’t look near the boor-tree hedge,
Just top it up and plough it down.
Ploughshare bumps off ground that’s hard
And everything is skid and kick.
Flutter of a headscarf frill,
Shadow-dapple, hide-and-seek. Who’s out there
haunting me I want her
turned to stone. Throbbing head.
Molten lead Is pouring through
my burning mind.

Seamus and Marie Heaney,  photo: Maire,  CC BY-SA 2.5)
Seamus Heaney made two quite high-profile visits to the Czech Republic in recent years, and he was welcomed here as a celebrity. What do you remember of those visits?

“The first visit was to our centre in 2002, and the Heaneys spent almost an entire week here and had a lovely time. He gave several interviews, appeared on the Czech television and was very much greeted as a celebrity, not just by the local Czech people, but I remember walking with him and his wife across the Charles Bridge and he’d be stopped by tourists and asked for an autograph, as if he were a rock star, which does not happen to every other poet these days. The second visit was by invitation of the Irish Ambassador to the Czech Republic and Seamus Heaney gave a memorable performance of his poetry together with Liam O’Flynn, who’s a very famous traditional Irish piper.

“The one thing that really struck me right from the start about Seamus Heaney was that he was an extremely warm-hearted and generous person, regardless of his international reputation and fame. He was just a very modest, very approachable kind of person. He was very generous with his time to all of us and our students, gave a fantastic seminar on contemporary Irish poetry for our undergraduates and graduates, again something quite rare in an international writer of that kind of status.”

SH: “These students, it seemed to me, were very well prepared. First of all, not only were they totally alert linguistically - their English was perfect - but they were prepared in a literary way, they had read Irish poetry. I think that there may be two things at work. First of all, there's a certain, I think, parallel between the cultural, political, religious, post-imperial history of the Czech Republic and Ireland. And the second thing is the quality of the teaching they're getting, people who are in the department have been to Dublin and so on, so there's a clued-in quality about the teaching. It isn't just 'off the page', there's a kind of vernacular sense of Ireland that they have from their teachers, too."

That was the great Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, in Prague in 2002, and his words of praise for the staff and students of the Centre for Irish Studies at Charles University are an apt way to end my interview with the department’s head, Ondřej Pilný. Seamus Heaney died in Dublin on August 30th at the age of 74.