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For Seamus Heaney

August 31, 2013


Following the death of the Irish poet, author and playwright Seamus Heaney (13.4.939–30.8.2013), we present the encomium he delivered during the presentation of Art for Amnesty’s 2003 Ambassador of Conscience Award to Václav Havel in Dublin.

Speech delivered by Seamus Heaney at the presentation of the inaugural Amnesty International ‘Ambassador of Conscience’ Award to Vaclav Havel, November 13th 2003, Dublin.

It is a singular honour to have been invited to make this presentation, and to be introduced here on the Abbey stage by one of the world’s great actors. After Vanessa Redgrave’s generous words, after her reading of the poem, I feel as if I’m a kind of changeling guest of honour, a cuckoo in the Abbey nest, somebody who has stepped into the limelight at the last minute and upstaged the fabled man we have come to praise and to see presented with this first Ambassador of Conscience Award.

But I realize I needn’t worry too much on that score since Vaclav Havel is one of the few people in the world who cannot possibly be upstaged, even when he is sitting in the stalls. Nobody can hope to checkmate this particular Czech master. Wherever he stands or sits, be it in a presidential palace or a state prison, that place is always going to be the place of honour, and it is he who shines the light on us. We are proud he is among us to-night. Our sense of occasion is high. Our admiration for him is unstinted and profound.

By all the ordinary rules, Vaclav Havel should now figure in our minds as an elder statesman. Here is someone who is part of the history of the avant-garde theatre in Europe, a hero of the age of dissidents, the former president of a great European republic, a writer and thinker who has attained the status of soul-guide to nations and individuals – by all the rules this kind of senior figure should already have stepped back into the tapestry. He should be part of that old group portrait of the eminent who have had their day, those who are commonly nominated as the ‘great and the good’ and are thereby subtly relegated. But this has not happened to Havel. He has not been subsumed into that particular circle. And the reason is that he belongs in the Tir na n-Og[1] of intellect and imagination, in the ever young land of art, the land of complete human awareness, a land which borders upon and embraces and is bound in permanent alliance with the republic of conscience.

What gives this evening its rare elevation is precisely this sense that good spirits from the republic of conscience and from the land of art have congregated for the right reasons in the right place. We are here not so much for a cause as for a credo. Art for Amnesty, who sponsor this event, represents a disposition rather than a party line. And the disposition is this: we are disposed to believe that the work of artists helps to create our future. We believe that the effort of creative individuals can promote a new order of understanding in the common mind, an understanding that precedes and prepares for the establishment of new social and indeed new legislative conditions.

That is our faith and our hope and that is why so many distinguished artists and actors and writers have travelled to the Abbey to be present at this defining moment in the already long and distinguished history of Amnesty International. And just being here in the Abbey Theatre should remind us that our faith and hope are not vain. The boundaries of Irish consciousness were extended in the Abbey playhouse before the shape of the Irish constitution and the frame of the Irish mind was changed in the houses of the Oireachtas[2]. John Millington Synge’s Playboy of the Western World and Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars gave offence in their day but they also gave promise of a future when minds would be opener and politics more humane.

Art that is fully alive to reality and fully truthful in its response is, after all, exactly what the Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeyva once called it, namely, art in the light of conscience. It is an art born from the same impulse that drove Vaclav Havel to write his open letter to the Secretary General of the Czech communist party in 1975, two years before the founding of the epoch-making Charter 77 in 1977. Asked why he wrote his challenge, Havel replied:

“I felt that if I said what I thought openly, I’d be contributing to the process of social self-awareness… I simply wrote it in the belief that it might have, lets say a certain ‘socio-hygienic’ significance. In general, I believe it’s better to tell the truth, in all circumstances.”

Art is born from a similar impulse. Art does not issue from a sense of duty. It is one of the rewards of inner and outer freedom, one of the symptoms of a well doing commonwealth. The writer’s quill and the minstrel’s harp are insignia of the liberated spirit and are recognised as such, instinctively. I always remember, for example, the advice I used to be given by older people when I was a youngster going to school along the roads in Co. Derry. “Stick to the books young Heaney,” they would say. “Learning’s easy carried. The pen’s a lot lighter than the spade.” And speaking literally, of course, that is the case. But speaking artistically, speaking conscientiously, the pen is not in the end all that light. It carries its own weight of responsibility, it puts us under pressure and it asks us to take the strain of standing our ground in the indicative mood of the truth.

No writer in our time has carried the weight more nobly or stood his ground more steadfastly than Vaclav Havel. His word was his bond, in more senses than one. It bound him to speak truth to power and it lead him into the bonds of his jailers. But even in prison, there was a Socratic calm about this man. He was as concerned with the reality of the soul as with the repressions of the regime. Like another greatly beloved dramatist of our own nation, another truth-teller who went to prison out of pride and integrity, Vaclav Havel wrote de profundis. He used his pen as a spade to tunnel into the light, to send out messages that had a powerful homeopathic effect on every person and every movement in the world engaged in the affirmation of human rights and human dignity. So what I said in a note written for to-night’s programme is what I would want to say again here:

‘Havel is the Athenian of our times, one for whom principles and

affections were sacrosanct, one who, like Antigone, refused to betray a personal sense of transcendent right and whose integrity thereby served the res publica more vitally and effectively than any plot or party.’

We in Ireland have a long tradition of respecting the prisoner who is jailed for not betraying his principles. We are long familiar with the conflict between the laws of the state and the inner rule of a person’s duchas[3], his or her sense of what is immemorially right. For that reason, we are natural sympathizers with the aims of Amnesty International. And for that reason we are proud, Mr. Havel, that you have done us the honour of coming to Ireland to accept this award.

What I am going to present to Mr. Havel is a framed written scroll, which I am proud to say contains a copy of my poem, ‘From the Republic of Conscience’. But just before I hand it over, I would like to read a couple of lines from a chorus in Sophocles’ Antigone, and then a few lines written by Mr. Havel himself. First the words of the Greek chorus speaking of the just man:

‘When he yields to his gods,

When truth is the treadle of his loom

And justice the shuttle, he’ll be shown respect –

The city will reward him.’

And second, the words of Vaclav Havel in 1990 when his city and his country rewarded him with the office of president:

‘You may ask what kind of a republic I dream of. Let me reply: I dream of a republic independent, free and democratic, of a republic economically prosperous yet socially just, in short of a human republic which serves the individual and therefore holds the hope that individual will serve it in turn.’

Mr. Havel, first you dreamt of the republic of conscience and then you went on to found it and preside over it. In recognition of your integrity and your high achievements, artistic, moral and political, please accept from Amnesty International, through the agency of Art for Amnesty, this first Ambassador of Conscience Award.

[1] Mythical ‘land of youth’ in Celtic folklore

[2] Irish Parliament

[3] conscience


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