Denis Stewart suggests we apply Seamus Heaney’s ‘moral and imaginative quickening’ to the 21st Century.

Often, when I step away from the bustle of Belfast city centre into the historic stairway that leads up to the relative calm of the Linen Hall Library, I recall what Seamus Heaney wrote in the 1980s: “…the moral and imaginative quickening that took place in the late eighteenth century always revives for me when I go up those stairs”.

How much our early 21st Century world needs such ‘quickening’. Not in the sense of rushing around like crazy. But quickening in that older sense of awakening (or re-awakening), of being refreshed and renewed, inspired and invigorated. And the quickening that’s missing from so much of our politics, and essential to the health of our civic life – our being together as local and global citizens – is both moral and imaginative. We humans need to be imagining together not only for newness but also for wellness. A moral imagining is inspired to create more than novelty for its own sake. Its motivation is to innovate for the common good – for the benefit of people, other living things and our precious planet.

Prompting and encouraging Heaney’s ‘moral and imaginative quickening’ is, for me, an important part of what our annual Imagine! Festival of Ideas and Politics is about. A few examples from this year’s impressively varied programme illustrate the point.

A gathering hosted by members of Collaboration for Change will focus on the variety of ways in which citizens across the island of Ireland are addressing issues of justice in relation to the social, the economic, the environmental and the cultural. A talk and discussion led by No Small Talk, a group of writers, invites us to challenge the debasement of language and perversions of truth that have come to characterise much of our public discourse. A different challenge for us as citizens is the need to respond urgently and justly to the planetary climate emergency, the theme of a talk by John Barry, QUB Professor of Green Political Economy. In another session, a civic conversation about Universal (Unconditional) Basic Income – as one practical and ethical response to growing socio-economic inequalities and the emerging challenges of climate change – continues. Elsewhere, we can anticipate that a talk about The Life and Times of Mary Ann McCracken and the legacy of this remarkable Belfast woman will be illustrative of the moral and imaginative quickening that was happening in and around the city two centuries ago.

Finally (and not least!), a few of us from the International Futures Forum (IFF) will be convening a conversation about Humanising Healthcare. Where are the ‘patterns of hope’ in an NHS where healthcare staff are working under very stressful conditions and the time and humanity for good care and quality relationships between carers and those in need of healthcare are being squeezed? What are the ways of seeing and doing things differently that could benefit everyone? Our choice of the Linen Hall Library as a venue for this important civic conversation is related intentionally to Seamus Heaney’s musings on mounting those historic stairs.

Denis Stewart, IFF Converger

We’ll be in touch.