Seamus Heaney, President Obama, Syria

Sometimes we don’t fully appreciate the moment when we’re in it…. It was January 1998, three months before the Northern Ireland peace agreement was achieved, that I accompanied Senator Ted Kennedy on his first trip to Northern Ireland. St. John’s Country House, ‘in the remote northwest corner of Ireland, situated by the shores of Lough Swilly, on the Inishowen Peninusla’ in Donegal, was the setting of a sort of dream dinner party. Guests included Seamus Heaney, John Hume, Brian Friel, Jennifer Johnston, Senator Ted Kennedy and Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith. The dinner stands out to me now, in part, because of the complete lack of pretension that surrounded it. When I heard about the death of Seamus Heaney, I pulled out a photo from the evening and found his expression encapsulated his personality — warm, kind, accessible, joyous, encouraging and gentle. He wore his genius lightly.

In a time when banal celebrity often trumps the truly newsworthy, it was uplifting to see the New York Times give Seamus Heaney’s death the prominence in deserved — page one, center, above the fold. The photo of Seamus makes it appear as if he is looking at the story to his left, that of President Obama’s “faltering support in foreign capitals and Congress for a strike against Syria.”

After President Obama’s 2008 election win, Bill Shipsey, the founder of Art for Amnesty, a friend of mine and of Seamus, asked if I might shepherd some gifts from Seamus to the new President. One was a parchment scroll of his poem ‘From the Republic of Conscience’.

In discussing the poem six years earlier, Seamus spoke of Dante’s Inferno: “And Ulysses goes on to tell Dante of the courage that was required to initiate and pursue his adventure; I set forth then upon the open sea with just one vessel from my fleet’s remains and those few men who had not deserted me.” Words in Seamus’ 1995 Nobel Prize acceptance speech evoke the reaction to the horrific chemical attacks in Syria: ‘we channel-surf over so much live coverage of contemporary savagery, highly informed but nevertheless in danger of growing immune.’

Perhaps in these moments, when the President must feel he is going it alone, he might take down that poem and heed Seamus’ admonition that, “We must not forget the call of conscience and we must endeavour to keep others awake to it.”

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