Seamus the Great

dsc02561Nobel Laureate, Seamus Heaney, has opened the new McClay Library at Queen’s University. It was a great evening for the university as it celebrated this wonderful new addition to its facilities. Named after Sir Alan McClay, the library provides fantastic resources for the students at Queen’s, not least the impressive CS Lewis Reading Room.

In his beautifully crafted speech, Seamus recalled how that words used to describe libraries, like “holdings” and “stacks”, were reminiscent of his rural Ulster upbringing, where one would gather an armful from the stack for fodder or bedding. In the same way, standing among these stacks, there was much to feed the mind and comfort the soul.

Language, literature, learning, the lure and indeed the lair of the library ¬†-in the course of my undergraduate years here, those were things that changed me for life, and they remain to this day essential to the pursuit of a liberal education. However much the technology may have changed in the meantime, however fast and flooded the information stream has become, however many electronic devices the undergraduate and the research student come provided with and ¬†attached to, the library remains at the intellectual and creative centre of any university. Many of the words associated with it have rich and primal associations. Just to speak of ‘holdings’ or ‘stacks’ is to be reminded how indispensable a library is to the garnering and guarding what is most treasured in the culture and most necessary in the pursuit of knowledge. How it remains, in the words of Louis MacNeice’s poem “The British Museum Reading Room’, a ‘hive-like dome’ where the scholars are like busy bees ‘tap[ping] the cells of knowledge -/Honey and wax, the accumulation of years.’ And the fact that the tapping is now done on the keyboard of a pc or by the insertion of a memory stick does not change the nature of the operation.

The first time I entered a library stack was at the beginning of my second year at Queen’s, when I became an honours student in the English Department and was entitled to that privilege. The dim outback of shelves and catwalks that I entered then was very different from the stacks I had grown up among, haystacks and cornstacks higher than the house, harvest holdings, you might say, garnerings of straw and grain. But the stacks in the library still performed a similar function to those in the haggard, for just as the farmer could withdraw hay or straw by the armful and carry it off for fodder or bedding, so the student could emerge with his or her armful of books, fill up the slips at the desk and keep them for a fortnight to extract whatever nurture that was stored In them for mind or imagination.

dsc02569Patricia and I were able to attend the event because the current moderator, Dr Hamilton, and his wife, were away, and we were first reserves. Patricia was particularly pleased to be there because she first met Seamus when she was at school in Cambridge House, Ballymena, and the great man came to a small Irish Literature Society to talk about his work. The teacher who looked after this group hailed from Derrygarve, and Seamus was recalling to us in conversation afterwards how that when he went home from meeting the girls and their teacher in Cambridge House, he put pen to paper: “I met a girl from Derrygarve” in a poem entitled “A New Song” that talks about Upperlands and Castledawson.

The Vice-Chancellor, Professor Peter Gregson, presented Seamus with a medal to recognise the fact that it was precisely 50 years ago since Seamus had first graduated from Queen’s. I wonder if any of this year’s graduates from Queen’s will go on to make as significant a contribution as Seamus the Great.

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