This month marks fifty years since a tour undertaken in May 1968 by the poets Michael Longley and Seamus Heaney and the folk singer David Hammond, as they travelled around towns in Northern Ireland presenting evenings of poetry and song. The tour was called Room to Rhyme, its name taken from a traditional Mummers’ play, and it had been arranged by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. There was an accompanying booklet of poems and songs (now, inevitably, a collectors’ item) which included poems such as Longley’s ‘Remembrance Day’ and Heaney’s ‘Requiem for the Croppies’. Publicity photos for the event show three serious young men – with just a hint of a grin playing around the mouth of the famously mirthful Hammond – posed around a guitar in their Sixties’ tweed jackets.
The tour is now usually remembered in the context of what came afterwards, and the decades of violence and conflict that would soon engulf Northern Ireland. But at that moment, the three young men – who between them represented both traditions in Northern Ireland – felt they were participating in something more indicative of a new confidence and optimism, even if it was to be short-lived. In Stepping Stones, Heaney remembers it this way: “Because of the way things turned out… my recollection of that moment may be too rosy, too subject to political as well as personal nostalgia. But the content and conduct of our programme were symptomatic of a change for the better.”
The young Heaney and Longley knew each other through ‘The Group’, a group of poets who gathered around the Queen’s University lecturer Philip Hobsbaum to share and critique each other’s work; they came to know the singer Hammond through the Belfast folk scene, of which he was a driving force. And amid the tour’s serious cultural intent, there was also the camaraderie and high spirits of post-show sessions, remembered affectionately by a friend of the three, John Horgan, in his piece for RTE Radio’s Sunday Miscellany (you can hear it here – Horgan’s piece begins at 37:00 minutes).
Today, to mark the fiftieth anniversary, a one-day conference at Belfast’s Linen Hall Library revisits the tour, examining its literary and historical contexts and looking for fresh perspectives on the relationship between poetry and politics. It will include a plenary address by Edna Longley, and an evening reading by Michael Longley himself.
Looking back with half a century’s perspective, what is perhaps most memorable about about Room to Rhyme isn’t just the political and cultural moment it represented – but the fact that 45 years later, two of the three would still be sharing a stages, from London's Royal Festival Hall to their final appearance together in Lisdoonvarna in August 2013, remembered poignantly in Longley’s elegy for Heaney, ‘Room to Rhyme’. Today we remember and celebrate all three.