Posthumously, Heaney tells of Royal meetings

Mark Carruthers with his new book Alternative Ulsters pictured in Linen Hall Library Belfast. Picture: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker
Mark Carruthers with his new book Alternative Ulsters pictured in Linen Hall Library Belfast. Picture: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker

In the first Seamus Heaney interview to be published since his death in August, the famously nationalist poet has revealed how he “got on merrily” with Prince Philip.

Heaney, who was interviewed by Mark Carruthers in the months before his sudden death, features as the longest subject matter in the BBC political broadcaster’s book of 36 interviews on Ulster identity.

The book, Alternative Ulsters, published this week, features famous figures from Gerry Adams to Sir Kenneth Branagh to Lord Bannside.

But it is Heaney who gave one of the most revealing insights into his identity.

The poet explained one of his most well-known stanzas: “Be advised my passport’s green/No glass of ours was ever raised to toast the Queen.”

Written as an objection to being included in an anthology of British poetry in 1982, as he saw his identity as Irish, for some unionists the verse defined the great wordsmith as a bitter nationalist.

But he said in the Carruthers interview: “The Queen thing — green, Queen — it’s a rhyme. I mean, truly, there’s a bit of a ring to it. I didn’t want to sound like a bigot in the pamphlet. At the same time I wanted to address the breach in the community at that stage.”

Heaney said he understood why some saw it as “a bitter word”, but said it was “meant to have a bit of merriment in it too, coming as I say from the rhyme”.

He said the words had been meant to “characterise a culture”, not as an act of defiance to Her Majesty, adding: “I have always felt the courteous thing to do when you were at a formal event of dinner was certainly to stand to toast.”

The poet told how he had met the monarch on several occasions, one of which was when he was sat beside the Queen at a private lunch in Buckingham Palace.

Explaining his decision to accept that invitation, he said that the poet Ted Hughes had just died and the Good Friday Agreement signed “so at that time I thought — come on now, do the decent thing here”.

And Heaney said that during the Queen’s historic visit to the Republic in 2011 he was so shocked to find himself positioned between Prime Minister David Cameron and the Duke of Edinburgh at the Dublin Castle state dinner that he swore, explaining: “Nothing political in the worry, you understand — just sheer social anxiety...[but] I actually got on easily and merrily with the Duke.”

And Heaney said that when unionists like Terence O’Neill and Brian Faulkner used the term Ulster to denote the Province’s Britishness it “got the nationalists’ goat”, but added: “Now, as a concession or realisation of the new times, I call it Northern Ireland.”

* Alternative Ulsters is published by Liberties Press and costs £24.99.