What a sad, sad day for the soul.
I’m struggling to digest the news of Seamus Heaney’s death. I’m surprised by my reaction to it: I find myself welling up on hearing him reading some of his own works – from the grave now – and being moved, yet again, by the power of his words.
Thanks to a friend, I had the joy of seeing and hearing one of his last public ‘performances’, at the Poet and the Piper event at the Millennium Forum, just over a fortnight ago. With today’s sad news, I recognise what a privilege it was to have been there. You knew you were in the presence of greatness – although you would never have guessed it from his humble, genial demeanour.
Like most current or former St Columb’s College students, I took a vicarious, almost selfish, pride in his achievements: first of all in his brilliance as a poet; then in his ascent to the very heights of his art; and ultimately in the recognition that his genius brought him. I was often chuffed to hear him described as the world’s greatest English language poet. What an honour for a County Derry man, a Bellaghy man; what an honour for Mossbawn.
Naturally I studied Heaney at school although my introduction to him came not at my alma mater, but earlier, by the hearth in our home in the Bogside. My late mother – an ordinary but extraordinary woman – identified the poet’s brilliance early in his ‘career’. I have fond memories of her going to hear him perform public readings of his work, at small, intimate venues in Derry in the late 60s and early 70s. I recall, too, the opened, well-thumbed Faber & Faber collections lying about the house, amid the clutter of a home with five young boys.
I would say that between them, my mother and Heaney did more to foster my love of language than anyone or anything else in my life. Straight after the formality of his appointment with St Peter, I can see him being prevailed upon – by hers truly – to perform a reading or two.
Heaney’s way with the pen is universally acknowledged and widely recognised. The breadth of that appreciation – from Bellaghy and the Bogside, to Oxford and Harvard – is a testimony to his skill. He took arguably the most esoteric art form, and made it accessible to us all, like his fiddler in The Given Note:
“So whether he calls it spirit music
Or not, I don’t care. He took it
Out of wind off mid-Atlantic.
Still he maintains, from nowhere.
It comes off the bow gravely,
Rephrases itself into the air.”
While we mourn Heaney’s passing, we have the enormous consolation of his poetic legacy. He is one of Kavanagh’s “true gods of sound and stone and word and tint”. He has earned his rest, just as he has earned his place among the greats of Irish – indeed world – literature. Heaney plucked inspiration from the wind, rephrasing it into the air, inspiring minds and touching souls.