My decision to come to Durham in September 2018 was part of a broader discernment process in terms of Catholic vocation. I was ordained for the Catholic priesthood in the Diocese of Derry in 1997 and appointed to a large Catholic boarding school, where I was Head of Classical Studies and Chaplain. During that time, I completed a Masters in Theology at the University of St Thomas Aquinas in Rome. In 2008 I took the difficult decision to leave ministry, and I came to London where I completed a Masters in Classical Reception at UCL. After my Masters, I was appointed Acting Head of Classics at St John’s School in Leatherhead, Surrey, and later, Head of Divinity and housemaster of a boys’ house at St John’s. St John’s is an Anglican Foundation school. I had eight very happy years there.
During my eight years at St John’s I continued to be interested in the work of Seamus Heaney and, in particular, the role which a Catholic sensibility played in his formative years as a child and adolescent, and where this found expression in his work. In the spring of 2017, I came across an advertisement in The Tablet for the inaugural conference on ‘Catholicism, Literature and the Arts’. At the conference I was impressed by the aims of the Centre for Catholic Studies. Its aim to encourage interdisciplinary research projects was hugely appealing to me in terms of how I wanted to explore Heaney. I was also fortunate to have met Professor Paul Murray and Professor Stephen Regan, both of whom encouraged me to submit a proposal on the Catholic sensibility in Seamus Heaney (Professor Regan now acts as my primary supervisor).
When Seamus Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist was published in 1966, the critical reviews, almost exclusively, focused on the collection as the work of a nature poet. Such reviews set the terms for subsequent critical discussion of Heaney’s work. Consequently, other aspects of his work received insufficient critical attention, not least the formation of the poet’s imagination by a Catholic sensibility and a critical exploration of that sensibility as it found ongoing expression in the poet’s work. My research aims to redress this gap in scholarship and to argue that an exploration of a Catholic sensibility in the poems will not only make a valuable and distinctive contribution to contemporary poetics, but simultaneously open up new areas of investigation in religious studies and its interdisciplinary relations with the arts.
It will ask questions about what Heaney understood by a Catholic sensibility and to what extent his vocabulary reflects this? Is there a distinct sacramental/liturgical vocabulary which he uses which is not shared by other contemporary poets? What hermeneutical and theological challenges are to be found in exploring the sacramental in Heaney’s poetry detached from any creedal context? How do poetic form and language articulate questions of belief and disbelief?
The decision to leave full-time employment, for the duration of the PhD, has meant making a number of sacrifices, not least financial. For this reason, I am hugely grateful for the generosity of a Capuchin Franciscan Bursary and a St Jude Bursary, and to the respective donors, without which this project would have been almost certainly impossible. I am grateful to the Centre for Catholic Studies for the vision which has placed engagement between theology and the arts at its core, and for the wonderful community through which that vision is realised. It was the visionary aspect of Catholicism which most appealed to Heaney, where he said: ‘You conceive of yourself at the beginning as a sort of dewdrop, in the big web of things…’ After Durham, I hope that the same vision will continue to shape my career in and service to education, and will allow me to publish some work on the key role Catholicism played in the formation of Seamus Heaney as a poet.
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