The tour that brought Heaney Country to life
By Eimear Kearney, September 2014
No better place to spend the day than Heaney Country.
Having lived on the shores of Lough Neagh most of my life, and driving through ‘Heaney Country’ almost on a daily basis, I wanted to find out what was so magical about the places Heaney spoke so fondly of. I arranged some colleagues with a similar interest to join me, in the hope that they will spread the word about Heaney Country.
We started at Laurel Villa with a very warm welcome from the hosts, Gerardine & Eugene. The table was laid with the most beautiful vintage tea-set I have every set eyes on, and served with homemade scones (sweet & savoury) to die for. I know from visiting Gerardine & Eugene before that the attention to detail is part of their everyday routine. Guests at Laurel Villa really do get spoilt with warm hospitality and top quality homemade treats!
Eugene’s tour was delivered with a unique emotion and passion for Nobel Laureate, Seamus Heaney. His personal relationship with Heaney and stories of readings Heaney gave at Laurel Villa give this tour authenticity, an experience that can be enjoyed by keen enthusiasts and those (like myself) who are simply curious to find out more about the life and work of the iconic Seamus Heaney.
Heaney Country Tour
After tea and a short talk from Gerardine & Eugene about the hugely successful festival they had hosted the weekend before, On Home Ground, (with Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody as one of the performers!) we hopped on board our mini coach with Eugene to explore Heaney Country.
The tour’s first stop was Broad Street in Magherafelt, the scene of a bomb which inspired the poem Two Lorries, then on to Castledawson where we listened to Eugene talk about Heaney’s grandmother and recite Electric Light. Eugene really brought the landscape and the poems to life with his insightful interpretations and even played some recordings of Heaney reciting poems himself.
We travelled to Hillhead where we met Barney Devlin (RIP) at The Forge, we saw the Midnight Anvil, before travelling a short distance down the road to Mossbawn, where Seamus was born. We heard about the death of his brother in Mid-Term Break; the words of this poem now have a whole new meaning for me, I don’t think I will ever drive past this area again without hearing the words of Heaney reciting in my head.
Eugene gave his emotional recollection of the funeral as it passed Mossbawn en route to Bellaghy Graveyard; he recalled the silence as the cortege paused at the end of the lane and then the spontaneous applause from the mourners as it began to move on. “It just seemed like the right thing to do. People wanted to show their appreciation for all that Seamus had done.” said Eugene. We then passed the original site of Anahorish School (which my son currently attends) where we heard about his childhood days with the Gribbin boys (my husband’s uncles); we visited Lough Beg, overlooking Church Island listening to The Strand at Lough Beg. This beautiful landscape is a National Nature Reserve and in low water levels, Church Island can be accessed by foot.
Being the wife of a Bellaghy man, I have passed through many times hearing about the Bawn, built on behalf of the Vinter’s Company of London following the Plantation of Ulster in 1610. Gerry Darby, my colleague at Lough Neagh Partnership, and Heaney enthusiast, came along to guide us through the property, explaining the significance of the buildings’ design to defend potential attacks from the native Irish. The Bawn is also home to a Heaney exhibition, featuring a video of the local area, presented by Heaney himself.
After watching the video, Gerry gave a fascinating interpretation of Heaneys poem, “Terminus” (his personal favourite from Heaney’s collection) the theme of the poem was about balance, and how Heaney’s life balanced between the two cultures in Northern Ireland. For me this particular interpretation was one of the highlights of the day, it really helped me understand Heaney’s thinking at the time of writing and resonated with my perception of the conflict in Northern Ireland.
The Crosskeys Inn
This is a place I love to bring visitors to (my husband boasts they serve the best Guinness this side of Dublin), it has a very warm (blazing turf fire) and welcoming atmosphere. If you are lucky enough to hit an old fashioned music session, you will be transported back a few decades, when this pub was one of Irelands’ most famous music venues. It was thought to be built in 1740, which makes it one of Ireland’s oldest thatched pubs!
This was the venue for our lunch stop, and although they don’t have a restaurant on site, group catering can be booked in advance. In-keeping with our Heaney theme, I requested a Lough Neagh Eel supper, it was so tasty, I have been craving another ever since!
Vincent, his wife Melanie & Lawrence did all but roll out the red carpet for our arrival, they put on a buffet that is typical of the local eel suppers, apart from the vegans, everybody tried the eels and thought they were delicious, they were a bit hesitant about trying them (mainly because they look like snakes), but most came back for a second helping!
Any trip to Heaney Country and Lough Neagh & Its Waterways isn’t complete without a boat trip, it allows you to appreciate this unique landscape form a completely different perspective. I arranged with Tim to take us out on his Rib from Toome Canal, through Lough Beg, past Church Island to Portglenone & back.
Tim, is a real character and loves to share stories about the history of the local area and group outings around Lough Neagh & beyond, he also has the inside track on the recent filming that took place for Game of Thrones at Toome! You won’t get off his boat without a few laughs – it’s good for the soul!
This vessel can hold 10 passengers in total and has waterproof suits & life jackets for every passenger; it was such a nice day we just opted for the life jackets!
Whether you are after adrenaline fueled fun or a tranquil afternoon on the waterways, Abhainn cruises can deliver the ultimate on-water experience. For those in our group who were thrill-seekers, Tim treated them to a short ‘high speed rip’ up the river, the screams of laughter indicated thorough enjoyment, despite the windswept hair-styles Tim joked about on the way back!