Students of Seamus Heaney should visit bawn in Bellaghy, writes Isobel Durrant
Nobel prize-winner of international stature, Seamus Heaney has been hailed as the most important Irish poet since Yeats. He was born near Bellaghy, a small town in Co Derry, where for the past two and a half years the bawn has housed a permanent exhibition on Heaney and a history and poetry centre.
The bawn is a fortified dwelling built by the Vintners' Company in 1619 to protect the family and livestock of the planter. It's a striking building, its white-washed wall and round tower recently restored by the Department of the Environment. Inside, displays explain the history of the area from the Stone Age to the present. The plantation is dealt with in some detail.
There are archaeological finds from the area and an odd little collection of Heaney memorabilia; his school satchel, a desk from his primary school.
But this is no ersatz Heaney Homeland. The staff already have tales of scholars who've spent hours in university libraries only to discover they should have come to Bellaghy first.
Heaney, who still lives nearby, takes a close interest in the bawn. He has supplied original manuscripts, books and artwork. Visitors can see his handwritten poems, with their many crossings out and corrections, in the library and display room. His broadcasts have been collected and Heaney has also made a video especially for the bawn. In it he talks of his poetry and the surrounding countryside. It's an invaluable resource for understanding the love of the local landscape, traditions and people that colours his writing. In the room at the top of the tower, groups can take part in poetry workshops and other activities. This room has a special atmosphere. The carpet is a compass and windows look out in all directions and framed poems by Heaney adorn the walls.
Beyond the bawn, students can visit local places featured in the poems. Lough Neagh's western shore, a frequently mentioned landscape, is only a mile away. And of course Lough Beg, and the solitary tower of Church Island. Lough Beg is a shallow lake on the Lower Bann. It's a wetland of world importance which has been designated an Area of Special Interest. The bawn provides a guide and worksheets for students to study this environment, home to a wide variety of wildlife and one of the best bird watching sites in Northern Ireland.
Church Island looks romantic enough to inspire any amount of poetry. It may have been the site of a pre-Viking monastery. But even before the Vikings came there were settlements in the area. Thousands of ancient flint tools dating back some 7,000 years to the Mesolithic era of stone age hunters and gatherers have been found. The Sense of Time exhibition covers both these periods and continues through the Bronze and Iron Ages to early Christian clerics, supporting key stage 2 pupils studying Life in Early Times.
With Heaney's increasing presence on poetry syllabuses the Bellaghy Bawn may become as much a staple of the literary visit as Wordsworth's cottage. With good reason: like Wordsworth's, much of Heaney's poetry is rooted in his native countryside and alludes to people and places in the area.
Bellaghy Bawn, Castle Street, Bellaghy, Magherafelt BT45 8LA. Contact James McKee, education officer, tel: 01648 386812.