J. Poetry...next to first novels comes poetry. My favourite poet is Seamus Heaney. I have read most of his work, certainly not all, and of all I have read this is my favourite. I love it so much I have it framed in my home:
The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise
Were all at prayers inside the oratory
A ship appeared above them in the air.
The anchor dragged along behind so deep
It hooked itself into the altar rails
And then, as the big hull rocked to a standstill,
A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope
And struggled to release it. But in vain.
'This man can't bear our life here and will drown,'
The abbot said, 'unless we help him.' So
They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back
Out of the marvellous as he had known it.
He hands me a cup of tea, with the milk placed in a small jug next to it. Then he looks at the plate beside the cup, and notes its uncomfortable blankness.
'Would you like some … bread?' Heaney asks, tentatively. I tell him that I have already eaten. 'A monastic biscuit then!' he says, and goes off to dig out the tin of digestives from the cupboard.
It is, perhaps, the casual exactness of that word 'monastic' that might betray Heaney's profession to one who didn't know.
But then almost no one can be unaware, either, of Heaney's profession, or his stature within it. Irish wags refer to him as 'Famous Seamus' in a sly but proud acknowledgement of his international celebrity, crowned with his Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995.
Although Heaney was born into a Catholic, nationalist family in Northern Ireland - and once objected to inclusion in a book of British poets with the warning lines: 'Be advised, my passport's green/ No glass of ours was ever raised/ To toast the Queen' - British readers can't get enough of him: it is an oft-cited statistic that his books account for two-thirds of the sales of living poets in Britain.
All that might be expected, perhaps, to puff a man up and render him a little prickly with self-importance. With Heaney, quite the opposite has occurred: he only rests easy in the gentle understatement of his achievement.
That derives, I think, from the small, superstitious voice that echoes within the Northern Irish psyche, greeting success with the words: 'Be grateful: don't get cocky and blow it.'
The word 'lucky' thus chimes like a tiny warning-bell throughout his descriptions of past successes, be they his First Class honours degree from Queen's University, Belfast, or the rapturous critical reception for his debut book of poems, Death of a Naturalist, in 1966.
And yet it is evident that Heaney has been a powerhouse of literary labour throughout, regularly turning out poems and translations, essays and lectures, taking up professorships at Harvard and Oxford, and winning the Whitbread Prize twice.
I am reminded of that old quote from the movie mogul Sam Goldwyn: 'The harder I work, the luckier I get.' At the sound of my Belfast accent, he asks, as though regretful for some past imposition: 'Did you have to do the poems at school?' We did, I say, and then I heard him read when he was Professor of Poetry at Oxford. 'Ah, Oxford was wonderful,' he says.
'It was great that so many people came to the readings'. As I recall, the scramble for tickets was fierce.
You would be a fool, though, to mistake the 68-year-old Heaney's modesty for sleepiness: in the centre of the broad, calm plains of his face, beneath the poetic shock of white hair, his dark eyes glitter and dart.
They are the quick eyes of a man who notices everything: noticing, after all, is Heaney's profession.
A minor stroke last year compelled him to ease off on his public appearances, but beyond him the worldwide Heaney industry continues unabated.
He was born on a farm in Mossbawn, County Derry, the eldest of nine children, at a time when Catholics were conscious of being politically marginalised in a Unionist state.
'The completely solitary self: that's where poetry comes from, and it gets isolated by crisis, and those crises are often very intimate also.'
Indeed they are: some of Heaney's most powerful poems spring from exactly those intimate crises: in 'Mid-Term Break', recalling the death of his four-year-old brother when he was 14; or in 'Clearances', after his mother Margaret's death, tenderly remembering the time 'When all the others were away at Mass/ I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.'
In his 1995 Nobel address, Heaney related a story about the 1976 Kingsmills massacre, at which masked men stopped a bus full of workmen going home, lined them up outside, and asked each to declare their religion.
There was only one Catholic in the group, and it was presumed that the gunmen were loyalists. One Protestant worker squeezed the Catholic's hand, as if to say 'we'll not betray you' but he declared himself anyway.
He was promptly thrust aside, and the Protestants were gunned down: the gunmen were from the IRA. Heaney remarked that the future of Ireland lay, not in the gunfire, but the hand-squeeze.
Now that Heaney is at home more, in the house where he has lived for 30 years, one suspects that he is the frequent object of poetic pilgrimages from far-flung places: a Japanese academic writing a thesis on Heaney is arriving later that afternoon.
The place has the romance fitting to a poet's house, with a triangular garden blazing with summer flowers tended by Marie, and the walls either crammed with books or hung with paintings and drawings.
As I leave, he is offering advice on where in Dublin to eat good mackerel, and asking, 'Have you euros?' while preparing to rummage in his pockets, just in case I have stumbled up without the currency to make it back to the city centre.
A generous poet, then, and most generous of all is his parting benediction: 'Write whatever you like!'
There it is, a gift from the Irish poet whom the world watches: an exultant setting-free from the fetters of responsibility. Jenny McCartney