With just weeks before the National Library of Ireland's Listen Now Again exhibition opens in Dublin, Michael Heaney explains why one artefact in particular means so much to him
With the opening Listen Now Again drawing closer, it’s exciting to see the early plans becoming a reality. But one of the odder aspects of having my father honoured with such a show is the way objects that are part of our family life will be displayed alongside his manuscripts. While me and my siblings rarely saw his poems in their handwritten form, many of the artefacts to be included in the exhibition were part of the fabric of our home. So in a strange way, they seem even more personal to me than the manuscripts that chart the creation of my father’s poetry.
Of all the pieces that curator Geraldine Higgins has chosen for inclusion, Carolyn Mulholland’s portrait head of my father is the one that has the most resonance. It might seem an obvious choice – a bronze cast of the original sculpture occupies a plinth in Sandymount Green – but this artwork has always been part of the furniture, so to speak.
Carolyn has been a close family friend for many years: she sculpted this portrait in Belfast in the 1960s, when Dad was in his mid-twenties, before he had published his first book. So it is a portrait done by someone who knows him as a friend who happens to be a promising poet, rather as a public figure.
Yet it remains my favourite portrayal of Dad, even after so many other artists have painted, sculpted and photographed him. This is of course down to Carolyn’s brilliance as a sculptor. It is a wonderful likeness, instantly recognisable as Dad, even for those who are used to images of him as an older man.
But as well as its artistic merits, the sculpture has a special place as an ever-present element in my life. I don’t see it as a monumental piece, but rather a comforting family treasure, yet it’s also a piece that almost foretells his artistic achievements to come. Having been made before I was born, the sculpture captures Dad in time, but is timeless too. Even now, when I’m twice the age my father was when the portrait was sculpted, I see the young writer with his future ahead of him, as well as the father who I loved. It’s a sublime work of art that I was fortunate enough to see every day, and it still enchants me.