Seamus Heaney at the site of St. Kevin's church in Glendalough

With all eyes fixed on retail sales at this time of year, you may want to take a break by having a quick look at the poem “St. Kevin and the Blackbird,” composed by Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

A fable about St. Kevin describes how he held out his hand through an aperture in his monastic cell in the 6th century while a blackbird builds a nest in it, lays eggs as he keeps his arm outstretched until the eggs hatch and the baby birds fly away.

The poem challenges the reader to “imagine being Kevin,” and to consider how much he suffers from this unusual commitment and what its meaning may be.

The performers at the Southern Celtic Christmas Concert
The performers at the Southern Celtic Christmas Concert

Why would this poem be included in the Southern Celtic Christmas Concert to be broadcast on Georgia Public Broadcasting on Christmas Eve at 7 p.m.?

James Flannery, the Winship professor emeritus of the arts and humanities at Emory University in Atlanta who produced the acclaimed Atlanta Celtic Christmas Concert for many years, told Global Atlanta that the poem’s message of universality has seasonal significance as well as political connotations in the face of today’s global challenges.

So powerful, according to Dr. Flannery, is St. Kevin’s identification with the “network of eternal life” symbolized by the little bird that he attains a spiritual communion without boundaries.  “Is that not the intended message of Christmas?” he asked rhetorically.

The program includes a rare television appearance by Mr. Heaney filmed in the monastic community of Glendalough, which was founded by St. Kevin.

During his on camera interview, Mr Heaney discusses the reverence for nature at the heart of medieval Celtic spirituality. At one point, he playfully climbs into the very cell occupied by St. Kevin to demonstrate how the miracle with the little bird and its offspring might actually have occurred.

The poem even has meaning for the very young, Dr. Flannery added, citing his 3-year-old grandson who wonders how long it would take for the birds to grow up.

James Flannery
Dr. James Flannery recites Seamus Heaney’s poem “St. Kevin and the Blackbird” at the concert.

He also pointed to the connections between the theme of his poem and the message of Pope Francis concerning “the miracle of love” as a force capable of breaking down barriers among people throughout the world. “For many viewers, this mystical theme permeates the entire program and has had a powerful effect on their own approach to the Christmas season,” he added.

Mr. Heaney had ties to Emory from 1981 until his death in 2003. The university’s Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library has a Heaney collection including manuscript drafts, illustrated books, photographs and the surface of a desk where he wrote some of his poems.

For an Atlanta university to hold an Irish poet’s papers may seem odd on first consideration, but Emory has an important and extensive connection of Irish literature and holds many original works including published texts and letters by William Butler Yeats, often considered the outstanding poet of the 20th century, and other Irish literary greats including Samuel Beckett.

Dr. Flannery first filmed the concert, which had been performed annually for 18 years as the Atlanta Celtic Christmas Concert, in 2010. At the behest of the public broadcasters, its name was changed to the Southern Celtic Christmas Concert to accentuate its importance as a regional event.

A short two years later it received the 2012 Southeast Emmy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Arts and Entertainment for underscoring the strong links between Ireland and the Southeast through music, poetry and dance. It also has been well received by the Public Broadcasting Service, which will carry it this year nationally for the third year in a row.

Dr. Flannery, who is the director of the W.B. Yeats Foundation, explained the long standing vibrancy of Irish culture by linking its significance to a sustained sense of community, especially in rural communities.

The rural South, which attracted a large number of immigrants from Ireland including many Scots-Irish, proved fertile ground for Irish songs, dance and tales because of the communal ways in which folk arts draw people together on both side of the Atlantic.

Breakin' Up Christmas
Breakin’ Up Christmas

Dr. Flannery also said that he thinks the climate change negotiations in Paris and their focus on the environment make the  concert particularly relevant today since it celebrates the natural world in a highly festive manner and provides a perspective unencumbered by political boundaries.

“One of the most exciting aspects of the program is the way in which the Irish, Scottish and Southern musicians and dancers combine their talents in a number of pieces, thereby demonstrating in a dynamic way how closely connected these traditions really are,” he said.

The concert’s popularity is a reflection of the performers’ talents, he added, including Grammy Award winners Moya Brennan, Alison Brown and Bill Whelan. He also cited the performances of John Doyle, Cormac De Barra and Joe Craven.

Besides appearing on GPB Christmas Eve, the concert also is to be performed on GPB on Monday, Dec. 21, at 11 p.m. In addition, the Rialto Theater for the Arts will present live performances of the Celtic Company’s Christmas performance on Dec. 19 at 8 p.m. and Dec. 20 at 3 p.m.

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