“So, er, do you like poetry?

Trinity College, Dublin: seat of learning, apparently

My children refuse to believe that there was a time before mobile phones and the internet. “Was it all in black and white?” they ask rather sarcastically. I explain that when I was their age we had things called books. With words. And occasionally, but not always, pictures.

That was where we went to find things out. We had television as well but only three channels, so hardly the celeb-stuffed custard pie of today.

I mention this simply as a precursor, an explanation if you will, of how it came to pass that I made the biggest faux pas of my life, a faux pas that just maybe inspired one of the finest long poems of recent years.

The year was 1984. I was an undergrad at Trinity College, Dublin reading English Literature, specialising in Medieval and Renaissance English. In among Chaucer, Langland, Shakespeare, Marlowe and Johnson the even more daunting Anglo-Saxon poems  The Wanderer, The Seafarer, The Dream of the Rood and, of course, the greatest of all – Beowulf.

Magnificent but, as I say, daunting because to study these gems, we had to learn Anglo-Saxon.

In spite of the close attention of the testy Dr Gerald Morgan and his constant cries of “parse!”, the translation, I regret, was not the strongest part of my degree. I made up for it a little on my final thesis by likening Beowulf to Rambo (First Blood was the big hit movie at the time) and even juxtaposing some of the imagery used by Beowulf with the grunts of Sly Stallone.

It was the year I turned 21 – that day in April marked by a boozy afternoon with the likes of Anne Enright, Declan Hughes and Martin Murphy in O’Neill’s of Suffolk Street followed by a couple of bottles of Jameson’s back in Declan’s rooms in Front Square, just above the Players Theatre where we all spent so much time.

It was the year many of my friends also earned the key to the door. Some of them, like that of Peter who drank Martinis and bowled a mean away-swinger, were slightly grander affairs.

Peter’s family lived in a mighty house in Foxrock, a wealthy suburb of Dublin close to the sea. The party was a big one, all dinner jackets, cocktail dresses and champagne. A free bar. Imagine.

And it was a party not just for Peter’s college mates; it was like a big family gathering, a social affair with the great and the not so good. If the web had existed then, or even Hello! magazine, it would have been splashed across the society pages.

My dinner jacket trousers were made to measure for Danny de Vito

Not sure I would have been in the mugshot line-up, if only because my DJ wasn’t the best fit. I had picked it up for a fiver in an RNLI charity shop. The jacket was fine but the trousers were made to measure for Danny de Vito.

The local tailor did his best but they still didn’t sit comfortably and meant that I had to keep one hand in my pocket at all times to push down the trousers so that they didn’t ride up and expose a flash of white skin above the sock. Hard work when you are trying to nurse a glass of champagne, a plate of Savoy-class savouries and shake hands.

It was as they say in all the best American novels of between the wars – at least in my imagination – “a swell party”.

At one point, and this is where it all went slightly wrong, I came over all thirsty. Champagne does that to me. The more I drink the more I need to drink. It inspires rather than slakes the old thirst. And so I bundled up towards the bar area where the crisp white shirts were freely dispensing the Moet.

As I stood quietly minding my own business waiting for my turn for a refill I was joined by what appeared to be an elderly, warm-faced gentleman with a shock of white hair. We smiled at each other and after some opening gambit about the champagne and the party which I forget stumbled into a short conversation which went along these lines:

He: “So you’re a friend of Peter, are you, at Trinity?

I: “That’s right, he’s a great lad.”

He: “Lovely fellow. So what are you studying?”

I: “English Literature.”

He: “You came all the way from England to study English in Ireland?”

I: “Ah well, why not, the Irish have some great writers. Three Nobel Prize winners in fact, Yeats, Shaw and Beckett…besides my mother’s side is Irish and lots of her family went there so it seemed to be the thing to do.”

The Beowulf manuscript

He: “Is that what you like best, Yeats and Beckett and Shaw?”

I: “Well I certainly like them but I am specialising in Old English actually, the Anglo-Saxon poems are astonishing. I love Beowulf.”

He: “Beowulf?”

I: “Yes brilliant. The first real Superhero I suppose in English literature. Superman, Batman, Iron Man, Rambo these guys all come from Beowulf.”

He: “And you read all of this in Anglo-Saxon?”

I: “Well yes. We do have a translation on hand but it isn’t great. We could do with a really decent one.”

At this point I recall a lull in the conversation as the champagne was poured. When I turned back the man was still there. Realising that he had been asking all the questions, I attempted to pick up where we left off.

I: “So, er, do you like poetry yourself?” I asked.

The look on his face was a mix of pain, surprise and amusement. He blinked and opened his mouth to speak but then closed it again. I sipped and raised my eyebrows in expectation. He opened his mouth again and was about to answer when Peter’s mother tugged him by the shoulder and ended the silence.

“There you are,” she said to my new friend and then turned to me. “I am afraid I am going to have to drag him away, I am so sorry. I must introduce you (him) to Dermot O’Malley, he has been dying to say hello.”

And with that Peter’s mother steered my new friend into another corner of the room to talk to Dermot O’Malley, whoever he was.

I sipped again and turned away to rejoin my friends where I had left them. They looked at me expectantly.

“What?” I said

“Well come on then, what were you talking to him about?”

I must have given them a blank stare back.

“Who?” I asked.

“Barney you do know who that was don’t you that you were talking to?”

I shook my head.

“No idea, just some old guy. Seems to like poetry.”

“Barney, you fekkin eejit…that was only Seamus fekkin’ Heaney.”

Seamus Heaney with Beowulf

It is true. I had asked Ireland’s greatest poet, a man who would go on to become the fourth Irish Nobel prize winner for Literature, if he liked poetry.

Oh, the shame, oh the humiliation.

Three years later, I saw Heaney on stage at the National Theatre in London, reading from his new work The Haw Lantern. I lined up for a signature and toyed with the idea of asking him if he remembered our conversation. In the end, with the line curling many yards behind me, I let it rest.

So how did this brief exchange inspire a poem, you may well be asking?

Well, in 1999, I went to see Heaney again, for the last time as it turned out, at the Barbican in London. He was reading from his new work, a most wonderful translation of that university favourite, the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf. Here are the opening few lines:

So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns.

There was Shield Sheafson, scourge of many tribes,
a wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes.
This terror of the hall-troops had come far.
A foundling to start with, he would flourish later on
as his powers waxed and his worth was proved.
In the end each clan on the outlying coasts
beyond the whale-road had to yield to him
and begin to pay tribute. That was one good king.

At last a translation that brings the poem to life, one that is not hell-bent on faithful word for word but which follows the original strongly but imbues it with new life and new poetry from the hand of one of the masters.

So, in quiet moments when I realise I will never be an artist of any description and wonder about the meaning of life and my role on this planet, I like to comfort myself with the idea that perhaps, just perhaps, the germ for that masterpiece, a word not used lightly, sprang from a bizarre chat that Heaney had many, many  years ago with a slightly tipsy student at a birthday party in Foxrock.

Seamus Heaney 13 April 1935 – 30 August 2013

Barney Spender 2013

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