“One Wild Song is a terrific adventure into wild and distant waters, and a strong tribute to a son’s memory.” Ranulph Fiennes
Paul Heaney’s son Nicholas took his own life at the age of twenty three. Nicholas was a competent sailor having traversed both the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific under square sail aboard tall ships by the time of his twenty first birthday.
Nicholas was also a poet and his work was published after his death under the title The Silence at the Song’s End. Heaney recognised that to gain a fuller understanding of his son Nicholas would demand that he find the key to his poetry unlocking the door into his world.
Paul Heaney, a writer and broadcaster, admits that he has never been a great reader of verse and often feels frustrated at his own lack of understanding. He wonders whether the reference to ‘song’s end’ was an admission that his son saw the end of his life coming.
Heaney reflects on his son’s passage through school. He says that during his teenage years literature became a plank in his life and inspired him to create his own. But there was also another side to his character. Heaney explains. “He spent long times alone, outside the crowd, often wearing a troubled brow. His imagination, which was his most powerful possession, was also his burden. He would worry and never share it so his troubles were rarely halved; only multiplied by self-containment.”
Parents are quick to analyse the impact of inherited behaviours. Heaney says, “I realise that the same could be said of me, for I was a lonely child at school; the one who always stood at the edge of the playground…. It is never far from my mind that his desire to be apart from others and not one of the gang might be the unlucky result of the fall of the paternal genetic dice.”
Heaney summarises the factors that brought about his son’s death. He says, “In Nicholas’s case there were signs of growing mental disorder – withdrawing, self-harming, compulsive exercise – his brain was taking its own path and was running out of his control.” The coroner concluded that Nicholas killed himself ‘while the balance of his mind was disturbed’. Perhaps that was his greatest fear: that his well controlled mind would soon lead him to places he had no wish to be as mental ill-health turned it inside out.
Heaney attempts to capture the essence of suicide grief. He says, “To travel this road is to suffer desolation that no earthly place can inflict upon you.” Heaney embarked on a long trek under sail, to one of the most profoundly remote parts of the world, the infamous Cape Horn. The voyage was to be one of high adventure and discovery, a way of finding courage to face the future.
Heaney says of the past, “We must reserve the past as a fond memory and not something you should cling to like a drowning soul. Your strength must come from what lies ahead. That is true voyaging.”