Aoife O’Neill was at the 2020 Toronto Irish Film Festival for Seamus Heaney and the Music of what happens, Adam Low’s portrait of the Nobel Prize-winning poet. Six years after his death, his family recalls the experiences that inspired his finest poems.

The final film to end the 2020 Toronto Irish Film Festival was the documentary Seamus Heaney and the Music of what happens. And what an icon to bring the festival to an end.

I must confess that living so far away from home in Toronto, I went to the screening of the documentary as Heaney always reminded me of my father growing up in Connemara and the summers we spent there. Heaney’s earlier poetry, that was predominantly inspired by growing up on a farm, seems to have the power to universally capture rural life in Ireland. 

Seamus Heaney and the Music of what happens’ is set after Heaney’s death in 2013. Through a series of interviews with the people closest to Heaney we are given an unique look into the life and times of the Nobel Prize winner. Heaney’s wife Marie and their children participate in the documentary as well as Heaney’s surviving brothers who maintain the family farm that inspired many of his poems. 

Throughout the documentary, Heaney’s work is placed in the forefront of the film. His writing is read aloud by his family, friends and colleagues giving the poems a second lease of life. Heaney’s voice throughout the documentary takes over from the speaker and usually ends the poetry, again giving the viewer the unique opportunity to connect with both poem and writer as one entity.

As many people who studied Heaney’s work in school will know that his career coincided with The Troubles that occurred in Ireland during the 1960s to 1990s. The documentary gives an insight into how this affected Heaney both personally and career wise, and how he was able to convey how he felt through his writing. From the Festival’s point of view, the documentary was well placed to end the programme during a day when many of the screenings focused on this aspect of Irish History.

Although we have sadly lost Heaney, we are lucky that the future generations have been handed his poetry and prose. Every great artist hopes that their work will outlive themselves and this is certainly true of Heaney. This documentary showed Seamus Heaney as a humble and extremely talented writer who was able to capture Ireland – the good, the bad and the ugly, but capture it nonetheless. 


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