Tributes pour in across North for a man who was Ulster to the core
Sadness and sense of loss at Seamus Heaney’s death truly crossed the globe but it was deep too in Bellaghy
Seamus Heaney at a turf bog in Bellaghy, Co Derry, in 1986, wearing his father’s coat, hat and walking stick. Photograph: Bobbie Hanvey Photographic Archives/John J Burns Library/Boston College.
The sadness and sense of loss at his death truly crossed the globe but it was deep too in Bellaghy, where he will be buried this evening, and in Co Derry and throughout Northern Ireland and Ulster.
While skilful in eluding those who wanted to politically categorise him on the Northern conflict, Heaney’s dedication to human rights can’t be challenged and it placed him as a civil rights man during the 1960s and thereafter.
Fellow Derry man John Hume portrayed his friend accurately when he spoke of how Heaney’s “profound regard for humanity has made his poetry a special channel for repudiating violence, injustice and prejudice, and urging us all to the better side of our human nature”.
The tributes in Northern Ireland have been many and varied and have crossed the community, religious and political divide.
“Seamus made a significant contribution to literature not just in Northern Ireland but across the world,” said the First Minister Peter Robinson. “His legacy and love of literature is something that will inspire future generations.”
Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, a Derryman and occasional scribe, spent time in Heaney’s company only very recently. A “colossus of literature”, was how he described him.
The Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt recalled an Ulster Hall reading of Heaney and Michael Longley – two great friends but poetic competitors too, and how a woman in the audience had the chutzpah to ask Longley to get Heaney to sign a collection of Heaney’s poetry for her.
A celebration of his life and work was held in the Lyric Theatre in Belfast last night while books of condolence were opened in Derry and Belfast.
Tributes flooded in throughout the weekend in Northern Ireland with perhaps Ballymena actor Liam Neeson encapsulating the mood when he said that Ireland has lost “part of its soul” with Heaney’s death.
He was Ulster to the core, the eldest of nine children born in 1939 on a farm at Mossbawn near Toomebridge, Co Derry, his family moving to Bellaghy in the county when he was a child. He went to St Columb’s College in Derry, alma mater of the likes of Hume, and his great literary friends Seamus Deane and Brian Friel, moving on to Queen’s University, Belfast.
Heaney in his early work could take rueful cognisance of the Northern graffito, “Is there life before death?” and how “whatever you say, say nothing” was a useful, occasionally life-saving, axiom.
But as reflected in the much-quoted, The Cure at Troy, written in 1990, he held to believing “in miracles” and perhaps witnessing Northern Ireland emerging into a better time.
His background was nationalist and that was always part of his nature. Mostly he was nuanced when dealing with the subject but when he was included in The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry he felt compelled to declare his position: “Be advised my passport’s green./No glass of ours was ever raised/to toast the Queen.”
In Dennis O’Driscoll’s Stepping Stones he explained that while he was “at home, personally and poetically, in what you might call the British collective”, he wouldn’t go a British Council tour as a representative of British literature. “I didn’t want to fly Margaret Thatcher’s Union Jack for her. As far as I was concerned, there was a political as well as a cultural context to be taken into account.”
And neither would he be “owned” by the republican side. He once recalled that the writer and former Sinn Féin publicity director Danny Morrison met him on a train journey and queried when he was going to write for the republican cause.
Morrison disputes some of that encounter but Heaney dealt with it in the poem, The Flight Path: “When, for fuck’s sake, are you going to write / Something for us?” And the response, “If I do write something, / Whatever it is, I’ll be writing for myself.”
But equally Heaney in his writing could understand what motivated the hunger strikers. He said, “At that stage, the IRA’s self-image as liberators didn’t work much magic with me. But neither did the too-brutal simplicity of Margaret Thatcher’s ‘A crime is a crime is a crime. It is not political’.”
In many of his poems there is feeling for the victims and the bereaved, as also from The Cure at Troy: “A hunger-striker’s father/Stands in the graveyard dumb./The police widow in veils/Faints at the funeral home.”
And while striving to maintain the “disinterested gaze” of the poet neither was he afraid to confront the difficult. He believed the decision to limit the flying of the British union flag over Belfast City Hall was wrong and provocative. Loyalists should be allowed their flag and their “pageantry”, he said in January.
Sometimes he could be despairing, not an ignoble condition during the Troubles. In an ITV documentary he said: “We’re a society, if you like, that’s fallen from grace. This is limbo land at best, and at worst the country of the damned.”
But hope and trust in the affirmative and “in the better side of our human nature”, part of the essence of the man and his work, prevailed. The Cure at Troy, was aspirational in 1990 but eight years later he saw that “miracle” achieved of hope and history rhyming in the Belfast agreement.