As Seamus Heaney HomePlace celebrates its second anniversary this weekend, we asked the team behind HomePlace to share their thoughts on the journey so far…
It has been two years since Seamus Heaney HomePlace opened its doors and changed the artistic and cultural landscape of Northern Ireland. The launch weekend – which saw us welcome visitors and performers from around the world – is now a distant memory, but the spirit of enthusiasm and excitement of those early days is still very much alive. Throughout the intervening period, the team have worked hard to build a strong structure for the future, keeping Seamus Heaney’s words at the heart of everything that goes on at HomePlace.
“What we bear in mind on a daily basis,” says Brian McCormick, Manager of HomePlace, “is why we are here – Seamus Heaney’s poetry. By keeping his words at the core of HomePlace we are provided with a constant and reassuring reference point. The past two years have been a whirlwind but what stands out is the overwhelmingly positive reaction we receive from visitors. Smiles, laughs and indeed tears are a daily reminder of how Seamus Heaney’s work touches people, and this is something I am honoured to be a part of.”
Visitors are the lifeblood of HomePlace – they are the ones who continue to support, sustain and champion the work that we are honoured to do. Throughout the past two years, HomePlace has seen people from all walks of life pass through the doors and be greeted by Seamus Heaney’s ‘Man and Boy’ portraits in the foyer – among them, President of Ireland Michael D. Higgins; His Royal Highness, The Prince of Wales; and Hollywood actor, Liam Neeson, each one illustrating the impact of Seamus Heaney’s words in a global context.
Each day, we hear stories from people around the world who met the poet. Tales from his college friends, students who had the pleasure of being taught by him, teachers and colleagues who worked alongside him, family and local people who grew up with him and are proud to call him one of their own. The team here has a real sense of pride in knowing that Seamus Heaney was a man who gave generously of his time to all those around him. As Davy Gibson, a Visitor Experience Guide at HomePlace, says: “Coming into work each day I’m eager to see what the day ahead holds. Visitors to HomePlace love to tell me their personal experience with Seamus Heaney himself, or how his poems have touched their lives in one way or another.”
The team at HomePlace is a tight-knit, enthusiastic collection of people and has welcomed a number of staff to the team since opening, including the most recent new member Roisín Convery, Education Officer, who describes the job as “a dream come true”. “As an English teacher and coming from the local area, Seamus Heaney has always been an inspirational character to me,” she says, “and I’m excited to help educate a new generation of children with Seamus Heaney’s poetry.”
The HomePlace building itself has become a hub for local people since its opening. From the HomePlace Café, to the conference facilities, to the Exhibition and Arts Programme, visitors from Bellaghy, Magherafelt, Cookstown, Maghera and the surrounding areas use the building as a place to socialise, relax, be inspired and experience new things. Among local organisations to avail of the space is Bellaghy Women’s Group, who have used it for meetings, wellbeing classes and fundraisers. “It’s great to have a facility like HomePlace, especially one with such deep connections to the village and the local community,” says member Maureen Doyle. “And,” she added, “I would also like to say how much the HomePlace has changed the perception of Bellaghy in the past two years, and how proud we all are to have it in the village.”
At the heart of the HomePlace experience is our theatre space, The Helicon, where we take inspiration from the words of Seamus Heaney and ‘set the darkness echoing’ with words, music, ideas and experiences. For us, The Helicon is a space in which to be challenged and inspired, entertained and moved. It is at the heart of what we do.
One of the first events in The Helicon was The Given Note: A LifeCycle, a unique event that brought together nine musicians from around the world. These musicians – from as far afield as Greece, Japan and America – came together to create a one-off occasion-piece which was performed at our launch. This event set out our stall for the programme that has followed, focusing on unique events that nourish the mind and the soul. Events that are international in scope but come back, like a ripple, to this place which is at the centre of Heaney’s work.
In the last 24 months, we have welcomed writers from as far away as India and America, and from as close to home as Bellaghy itself. Fiona Shaw performed ‘Mycenae Lookout’ as the dawn light rose over Church Island. A barn on the Heaney farm came alive with the words of Patrick Kavanagh’s The Great Hunger as a chorus of cows provided the soundtrack. Adrian Dunbar celebrated ‘District and Circle’ by delighting the audience with his fantastic singing voice. Michael Morpurgo received a rock-star’s welcome from his young fans, while Glen Hansard held the audience spellbound with his performance, including readings of Heaney’s poetry.
New work has been created specifically for HomePlace by dancer Jean Butler, artist Dorothy Cross, actor Stephen Rea, poet Paul Muldoon and the Abbey Theatre. And figures from across Seamus Heaney’s own life – including Peter Fallon, Helen Vendler, Tom Paulin and Bernard O’Donoghue – have come to express their admiration and their love for their friend and colleague.
As we look forward to the coming year, our hope is that we continue to inspire with events that capture the imagination. This autumn, Paul Muldoon is returning to read in The Helicon once again and we will be celebrating the publication of 100 Poems – a new selection of Seamus Heaney’s poems, chosen by his family – with readings from three of the finest poets working today, Don Paterson, Jo Shapcott and Zaffar Kunial. Next year sees visits from UK Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy and Irish Laureate for Fiction Laureate Sebastian Barry.
Cathy Brown, Arts Programmer says: “For us, The Helicon is a space in which to be challenged and inspired, entertained and moved. It is at the heart of what we do. It has been a challenge, an honour and a privilege to work at Seamus Heaney HomePlace over this past two years, but in some ways I feel we are just beginning, and – to quote the man himself – that ‘a further shore is reachable from here’.”
Here at Seamus Heaney HomePlace, we continue to look forward to that further shore.
For more information on Seamus Heaney HomePlace, including tickets for events, visit www.seamusheaneyhome.com.