Poet’s code of kindness, generosity and courage was theme of his last farewell
Emotion and love for an artist and ordinary man were at the heart of Heaney’s funeral
The remains of Seamus Heaney at the Church of Sacred Heart Donnybrook. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
A line of priests walk slowly up the central aisle; these men, dressed in white, are solemn; most of them look older than Seamus Heaney did, some of them probably are. The church is large and full; most of the pews had already been filled almost an hour before the service began. The mood is sombre but there is also a sense of profound disbelief that this could really be happening.
Seamus Heaney the poet with the gift of the universality of poetry, has been attracting capacity audiences for a very long time. But this was not a reading, it was a farewell. It is difficult to accept his passing and it will continue to be.
Many of the congregation have their own favourite Seamus Heaney story, the personal anecdote to keep stored along with the beloved poems. This will be a difficult leave-taking, it will continue to resonate. Yet there is a comfort found in numbers and the themes of the service are of kindness, generosity and courage, the code by which this great poet lived, reflected even in what were to be his final words to his wife Marie, “Noli timere” – don’t be afraid.
There is no doubt that Seamus Heaney was loved, but he was also, far more importantly, liked with a warmth that brings out the best in humankind. This brilliant, funny, disciplined, kind, inspired and inspiring man leaves a void so immense only his words are capable of filling it.
The chief celebrant, Msgr Brendan Devlin, made clear that he was attempting to keep his own emotions in check while performing his official task, that of leading a service for someone as at ease when speaking to the king of Sweden as he was when addressing a Co Derry farmer. Msgr Devlin’s tones were that of Co Tyrone, a slightly heavier sound than Heaney’s distinctive lilting voice with its blend of purpose and humility.
Reverence and lamentation
We revere the artist but had gathered to lament the brother, the husband, the father, the great teacher, the wonderful unaffected presence. The haunting magic of the uilleann pipes, played by another master, Liam O’Flynn, the poet’s friend and collaborator, were brilliantly served by the barest whisper of Neil Martin’s ethereal cello.
Poet Paul Muldoon, who recalled having been shoulder-charged by Seamus Heaney during a game of football, was playful and affectionate, understated and succinct, when expressing the shared sorrow in an address that evoked the gracious and robust beauty of Heaney the man. He mentioned a comment made to him on arrival at Belfast International Airport by an official on hearing that Muldoon taught poetry: “You must be devastated.” Devastation, a word used to describe disasters, almost catches the measure of it, if not quite.