Remembering Seamus Heaney

I attended a reading by Seamus Heaney 25 years ago in New York City and I brought along my copy of Poems: 1965–1975, hoping to have him sign it. At the end of the reading he was greeting people in a charming and friendly way. Yet he was stubbornly refusing to sign books.

“Are you in the book trade?” he kept asking people. I remember reading stories about scheming baseball card dealers who would send people into hotel lobbies to get autographs of famous players. And Heaney was apparently thinking a similar sort of thing was happening with rare book dealers and poets.

Though he wouldn’t sign any books, he was happy to casually talk with people and answer questions. At the time I had been searching for a book titled Songs Ascribed to Raftery. It was a collection of poems by the blind 19th century Irish poet, peculiarly printed so pages in English were faced with pages in the original Irish. I’d seen the book once in the New York Public Library, but hadn’t been able to find a copy for sale.

I asked Heaney a question about Raftery, and he seemed intrigued. Perhaps he was just surprised that an American would be interested. We talked a bit and I asked him about the book I’d been trying to find. Before the internet, that’s how you tracked down books, you’d ask someone if they knew where a copy could be found.

Heaney reached out for the copy of his own book in my hand, and to my surprise, and the surprise of others standing around, he signed it for me. By expressing interest in Raftery I must have cleared a hurdle, or at least established I wasn’t shilling for autograph dealers.

He recommended that I visit a bookstore in Dublin and talk to someone he knew. He then wrote a hidden inscription inside the dustjacket of the book: the name and address of his bookseller friend and his store, on Parliament Street in Dublin.

I finally got to Dublin years later and one of the first things I did was take his advice. By that time the bookstore was gone. An old man running a neighboring bookstore told me the owner had moved out to the suburbs. But, while talking with the man in the shop, I found some other wonderful books, so I was happy to have sought out Parliament Street.

There are many remembrances of Seamus Heaney being written today, and this is my own modest tribute: he was a smart and funny and friendly man who would take the time to recommend a bookstore. May he rest in peace.

I wrote and published this originally on Google+ on the morning of August 30, 2013, the day Seamus Heaney died.

Like what you read? Give Robert McNamara a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.