Bellaghy 'walking on air' in anticipation of today's Heaney HomePlace opening

Prior to this evening's official opening of the Heaney HomePlace in Bellaghy, Noel Russell had a sneak preview of the £4.25 million arts centre and found a village excited by and proud of the changes this celebration of its most famous son heralds

Centre manager Brian McCormick at the new Seamus Heaney Centre in Bellaghy Co Derry
Centre manager Brian McCormick at the new Seamus Heaney Centre in Bellaghy Co Derry Centre manager Brian McCormick at the new Seamus Heaney Centre in Bellaghy Co Derry

OUTSIDE the striking new Seamus Heaney HomePlace in Bellaghy a workman is carefully raking new soil around the freshly planted young trees. Inside, the spacious building is filled with the sounds of joiners sawing, electricians drilling and painters adding the last coats of satin stain to the rich woodwork. Foremen tick off each job as it is finished for tonight's official opening of the £4.25 million visitors centre.

“It’s been hectic, but in a good way. Busy, but exciting,” says centre manager Brian McCormick.

The building, formerly a heavily-fortified RUC station, goes live tomorrow with a full weekend of music, theatre, poetry, song readings and talks. The opening marks the start of ambitious plans to celebrate the life and work of the late Nobel-prize winning poet Seamus Heaney, brought up on a farm just outside the village. He died in August 2013, aged 74.

For Brian McCormick, there was never any doubt that Bellaghy was the only place for the centre.

“Seamus’s widow Marie said this area was his Eden. It’s the area he came back to, time and time again, for his inspiration. It provided him with so much material, because of the people and the places that meant so much to him.”

Marie Heaney has donated part of the poet’s library to the centre. It will also house a permanent exhibition of rare family photographs, and a replica of part of the poet’s study, complete with his busy fax machine and typewriter, as well as a duffel coat featured on the cover of one of his books.

Visitors will be able to follow a journey through Heaney’s life and work, to find out more about the experiences which inspired his poetry and hear him read his poems.

Each month for the next year one of Seamus Heaney’s 12 collections will be the focus of events at the HomePlace, a journey through his creative achievement.

He thinks Seamus Heaney would be very proud of the “total transformation” of the site from fortified police station into a creative and education centre.

Fr Andy Dolan, parish priest of Bellaghy, ministering to 1,100 families for the past 21 years, agrees. The “barracks” was a symbol of the Troubles in an area which had its own share of conflict, he says.

“Suddenly the reality is that place is no longer here, just as the terrible days are no longer here. It is as the prophet Isaiah says:’A light has shone upon us.’ A light that was always there but will burn even more brightly in terms of the Seamus Heaney Home Place.”

Fr Dolan speaks of Seamus Heaney with great warmth and affection. “He was a man totally at ease in his own skin, who had a very hearty laugh. He enjoyed talking about characters from around here. There was nothing aloof or high-brow about him and he wore his learning very easily. I think the best thing to say about that is that he didn’t disappoint me.”

Seamus Heaney lent his support to a major appeal called Project 2000 to renovate and extend St Mary’s church in Bellaghy, where he is now buried. He and Marie went to New York to take part in a fundraising dinner in 1999 and Seamus also spoke after the rededication of the church in 2002.

“There was one word in the English language that Seamus had great difficulty with and that was the word 'no'; that one he didn’t master and I’m glad,” Fr Dolan says.

Five visitors books in the church have been filled with message of condolences from visitors to the Heaney grave. But the heartfelt tributes from local visitors have impressed him most.

“What amazes me is that the local people signed their name to it and they talked about what Seamus and his life and work meant to them. We don’t wear our hearts on our sleeves normally about here but people didn’t mind when it came to Seamus Heaney, to say how sorry they were at his death and how they appreciated his life and his work and how much he was one of them.”

Out on the quiet streets of Bellaghy on the Monday morning before the centre's opening, there aren’t a lot of visitors. But that could soon change, local people believe. Two Portglenone women out for a run are highly enthusiastic.

“It’s brilliant, really really good. The children are all doing the poetry in school and this will encourage them," says Anne-Marie Convery.

“It’s very important for the younger generation in the area to have something to aspire to. This will be great for their self esteem, “ says Jackie McKee.

Local people hope the HomePlace will improve the village economy, which they believe suffered deliberate neglect for decades at the hands of officialdom. Pat Brennan, a close friend and bibliographer of the poet, says the state-of-the-art building is very impressive.

“It’s a great boost for the area, and its’s going to change Bellaghy. The economy is already seeing a lift and people are very enthusiastic."

He said he had attended a recent meeting of the local community development association and had had never seen a crowd like it before.

“Like a lot of places in the north in the past 40 years, Bellaghy was neglected, but there’s a feeling a huge change is under way.”

The gable wall of Bellaghy Primary School carries a line from Digging, “the squat pen rests”, a sign of the work being done with children at local schools.

Judith Torrrens, a teacher there for 26 years, says the close co-operation with one local school St John Bosco’s has already produced two short films about the poet’s work.

“He is not just a name they will meet in secondary school, it’s somebody they will know more intimately because they have looked into his life. It’s great for the children to know somebody so famous came from their own community.”

At a local chemist’s shop Valerie Cross is proud of the Heaney presentation, complete with turf, spade, poems and commentary, she has created in the shop window

“The centre will be good for cross community work, and getting young people to take pride in their village. Small steps can lead to bigger things. I hope it could inspire them.”

Up the street at the HomePlace the workmen are packing away their tools, but Brian McCormick is still busy fielding media inquiries.

He is confident the centre will attract its target of 35,000 visitors a year. He doesn’t rule out a Seamus Heaney Summer School, or Writing Fellowship in the future. But that’s for another day and nothing has been decided. This weekend is about celebrating the work of Bellaghy’s best known son. It could be the start of something marvellous, “walking on air against your better judgement,” as the poet’s headstone declares.

:: The Heaney HomePlace, Bellaghy, Co Derry, is open to the public from tomorrow, Friday September 30. For information see www.seamusheaneyhome.com