MIND AND MATTER: Irish poets visit campus

Bryan Kerns

Thirty of the 31 Augustinians who have held the presidency of the University bear names that appear to be of Irish origin. 

That link notwithstanding, the first Augustinians to come to this country were from Ireland, and their confreres founded this institution. 

It is fitting, then, that an Irish Nobel laureate should appear at Villanova to give a poetry reading and honor a legend retiring from the directorship of the Irish Studies Program. 

With that in mind, Seamus Heaney, among the most significant men of letters in this century and the last, and Peter Fallon, the inaugural holder of the Heimbold Chair in Irish Studies, came together again to offer a sampling of their work on the 10th anniversary of the chair’s establishment and to honor James Murphy, director of Irish Studies and associate professor of English, who has been at Villanova for 47 years.

After a moving presentation in which Murphy was presented with a book containing notes and poems from all 10 of the Heimbold Chairs and other Irish literary luminaries such as Heaney, Paul Muldoon and Derek Mahon, Murphy took the microphone before a full-to-capacity crowd in the Villanova Room and used a line from William Butler Yeats, another Irish poet and Nobel laureate: “Think where man’s glory most begins and ends/And say my glory was I had such friends.”

It was a proper tribute to Heaney and to Fallon, as well as to the current holder of the Heimbold Chair, John McAuliffe and Charles Heimbold himself, a former U.S. Ambassador to Sweden and retired CEO of Bristol-Myers Squibb, who was also present. 

Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1995, at a time when peace in Northern Ireland was far from certain and the Troubles, as the dispute over the six counties that make up Northern Ireland is called in Ireland, were still a reality. 

Heaney’s Nobel lecture in Stockholm was entitled “Crediting Poetry,” and he set out to argue that poetry — and perhaps, by extension, literature as a whole — could work as a force in the political discourse as much as any other method, whether it was the negotiation of treaties or armed conflict.

In returning to Villanova with Fallon, one might construe the reading as something of a valedictory address on the credit due to poetry. 

That success is manifested at a place like Villanova, in the classrooms of professors like Murphy and with the examples of benefactors like Charles Heimbold. 

As the reading progressed, one could not help but notice a palpable change in the room’s energy — from, in the words of one student, a “rock star atmosphere,” to a series of what one might go so far as to call metaphysical moments in which the highest aspirations of both this institution and Heaney’s ideas regarding the power of poetry were intertwined and achieved. 

Perhaps Heaney said it best in 1995: “The form of the poem, in other words, is crucial to poetry’s power to do the thing which always is and always will be to poetry’s credit: the power to persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness in spite of the evidence of wrongness all around it, the power to remind us that we are hunters and gatherers of values, that our very solitudes and distresses are creditable, in so far as they, too, are an earnest of our veritable human being.”

To paraphrase Murphy borrowing from Yeats: Think where our glory most begins and ends, and say our glory was we had such friends.

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Bryan Kerns is a junior honors and humanities major from Drexel Hill, Pa. He can be reached at [email protected]