Colm O’Gorman, Executive Director of Amnesty International Ireland, pays tribute to the late poet and true “ambassador of conscience”
When I first walked into the offices of Amnesty International’s global headquarters in London, the words of the son of a farmer from Derry were written on the wall.
Seamus Heaney, the greatest Irish poet of his generation, whose work was acknowledged with a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995, never lost his instinctive feel for the universal rhythms of rural life, his ability to see the extraordinary in the humblest of places, and to express it with an eloquence and beauty that could make your heart stand still.
But Seamus was also one who believed it was the role of the artist to give a voice to those who were oppressed and ignored, who never saw a boundary between art and compassion, but rather believed that art was fundamentally driven by empathy, by a bond that links every living person.
In 1985 Mary Lawlor, then the chairperson of a local Amnesty International group in Dublin who would go on to become Executive Director, approached Seamus and asked him to write a piece to mark International Human Rights Day.
Mary gave Seamus a dossier filled with the stories of Prisoners of Conscience, women and men who had suffered torture, imprisonment and silence, the kind of women and men on whose behalf our movement has worked for the past fifty-two years.
Seamus was inspired to write one of his best-known poems, “From the Republic of Conscience”.
On my first day with Amnesty International, I noticed the framed copy of the poem in the entrance to our global offices. Nervously waiting for my new role to begin, it steadied me and reminded me of something vital to the nature of the global movement I was privileged to be joining.
An activist, outraged and determined, seeks out a neighbour, a poet who might find ways to amplify our demand for respect for the human rights of all.
She tells him the stories of other people in faraway places and he responds with a passion equal to her own. They are each inspired to take injustice personally. And they act to inspire others.
Seamus’ poem ends with the narrator being told that he is now an ambassador of conscience – a person who has a duty to speak out against injustice – and is warned that this duty will not end, that he will never be relieved.
Today, Seamus Heaney died.
He was a great friend to Amnesty International. He was generous in giving us his time and his energy, and most especially gifting us the extraordinary beauty and power of his words.
Seamus was a magnificent man. He was a true ambassador of conscience, a man whose empathy for the powerless and the marginalized was matched by his magnificent capacity to construct language which demanded a deep reflection on what it means to be human.
His words will continue to inspire countless generations to come, and we will miss him. Our sympathies to Seamus’ wife Marie, and his children Christopher, Michael and Catherine Ann.
It is only fitting that we pay tribute to this legendary man of letters by remembering the words he wrote for us in 1985.
From the Republic of Conscience
When I landed in the republic of conscience
it was so noiseless when the engines stopped
I could hear a curlew high above the runway.
At immigration, the clerk was an old man
who produced a wallet from his homespun coat
and showed me a photograph of my grandfather.
The woman in customs asked me to declare
the words of our traditional cures and charms
to heal dumbness and avert the evil eye.
No porters. No interpreter. No taxi.
You carried your own burden and very soon
your symptoms of creeping privilege disappeared.
Fog is a dreaded omen there but lightning
spells universal good and parents
hang swaddled infants in trees during thunderstorms.
Salt is their precious mineral. And seashells
are held to the ear during births and funerals.
The base of all inks and pigments is seawater.
Their sacred symbol is a stylised boat.
The sail is an ear, the mast a sloping pen,
the hull a mouth-shape, the keel an open eye.
At their inauguration, public leaders
must swear to uphold unwritten law and weep
to atone for their presumption to hold office-
and to affirm their faith that all life sprang
from salt in tears which the sky god wept
after he dreamt his solitude was endless.
I came back from that frugal republic
with my two arms the one length, the customs woman
having insisted my allowance was myself.
The old man rose and gazed into my face
and said that was official recognition
that I was now a dual citizen.
He therefore desired me when I got home
to consider myself a representative
and to speak on their behalf in my own tongue.
Their embassies, he said, were everywhere
but operated independently
and no ambassador would ever be relieved.
“From the Republic of Conscience,” from Opened Ground: Selected Poems 1966-1996 by Seamus Heaney. Copyright © 1998 by Seamus Heaney.
April 13, 1939 – August 30, 2013
Photo: Seamus Heaney, the greatest Irish poet of his generation, was a friend and supporter of Amnesty International. © Mario Carlini – Iguana Press/Getty Images