Think of Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney and you mightn’t automatically think of Australia. What the name invokes for most readers, I would hazard, are the vivid landscapes of Ireland (‘The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap / of soggy peat’). Heaney (1939–2013) might have been a man of the world, but he was rooted half a world away.
As I embarked on a research project, ‘Seamus Heaney in Australia’, earlier in the year, I wondered if there might be an element of folly to the endeavour. I’d applied to undertake the annual O’Donnell Fellowship in Irish Studies, offered by the University of Melbourne, on the basis of the limited archival research it was possible to do from Ireland (the country I’m from, where I recently finished a PhD on the Northern Irish poetry of the 1960s and 1970s). To my surprise, the application was successful. So there I was in a taxi to Belfast airport (the city in which Heaney remains beloved, where he’d been to university and taught briefly); queuing for a sandwich at London Gatwick; running for a connection in Dubai; and, finally, touching down in Melbourne, the furthest I’d ever been from home.