Writer & Righter by Seamus Heaney

As one of Ireland’s most distinguished poets and prominent advocates for human rights, we invited Seamus Heaney to give our fourth Annual Human Rights Lecture. We considered it an honour when he accepted our invitation.

The theme Seamus Heaney chose was the relevance of poetry in times of societal upheaval and unrest. Was it ethical to create poetry when a country or people were in turmoil? Was it ‘right on’ to ‘write on’? He particularly highlighted the differences between the sedentary w-r-i-t-e-r-s and the pro-active r-i-g-h-t-e-r-s, the former whose job it is to reflect and the latter whose role it is to take action.

The literary traditions of this country illustrate to us that writers have always ‘written on’ in times of turmoil. They have, as so eloquently described in his lecture, suffered with the sufferers. Those of us who work every day for human rights know the inspiration which writers can give us. Their powerful observations allow us to reflect in ways which would otherwise not be possible. Seamus Heaney has, throughout his career, shown us how a w-r-i-t-e-r can be a r-i-g-h-t-e-r. One of the clearest examples is From the Republic of Conscience, which is one of the most inspirational poems in support of human rights ever written. The simplicity and power of the poem; the idea that the visitor to this Republic became a dual-citizen and representative to speak on behalf of the Republic, which has embassies everywhere, operating independently, and from which no ambassador can be relieved.

When thinking about this poem, it brought home to me the sense of responsibility that stirs all of us to act to uphold human rights. It represents the idea that once you become aware of your rights, and the rights of others, you cannot but be a representative for them. You cannot sit idly by and let the rights of others be eroded or abused. It is in this way that writers both inspire righters, and are righters themselves.

Seamus Heaney’s work rouses us to press forward with renewed energy. Indeed, we were so moved by his words that night in December we wanted to share the insight of this writer and righter by publishing it. His lecture, given on the eve of Human Rights Day 2009, is a unique contribution to the canon of literature on human rights. We wish to thank him for this inspirational and visceral piece of work which spurs all of us on to take action in the defence of human rights.

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