The most public of burials for the most private of men
Countless hearts are blown open as local farmer’s son is laid to rest
About the time Seamus Heaney’s cortege was leaving Dublin yesterday, ordinary, well-worn farm tools could be seen propped up against an ivied stone wall in a shaded corner of St Mary’s churchyard in Bellaghy, Co Derry.
Spade. Rake. Shovel. They stood under the ash and sycamore trees, beside the plot Heaney had chosen for himself. These were the kind of tools Heaney celebrated in his poems, particularly in Digging, the first poem in his first book, Death of a Naturalist.
“They dug it deep enough anyway,” one Bellaghy man observed in the early afternoon of yesterday, looking down into the open grave with an approving, critical eye. It was the remark of one who recognised the skill in the most basic and yet most meaningful job of digging a man ever has to do.
At 5pm exactly, a solitary piper stepped out on to the main street of Bellaghy village, leading the funeral cortege of three cars – and the hundreds of people who followed. They were of every age. They came on foot, in buggies and on crutches. As the cortege came to the corner of Castle Street, the PSNI officer controlling traffic saluted sharply.
It was the most public of burials for the most private of men. Even in death, Seamus Heaney chose to be generous; his burial in St Mary’s Church was shared by his family with the thousands of others who lined the route from the village and silently filled the churchyard.
When Heaney won the Nobel Prize in 1995, the Farmers’ Journal headline was a marvel of understatement: “Bellaghy celebrates as farmer’s son wins top literary award.” Yesterday, Bellaghy was in mourning for its famous farmer’s son: the Nobel laureate who chose to come home to be buried with his people. In months and years and generations to come, people not yet born will seek out this small village to the east of Lough Neagh, with the sole purpose of visiting Heaney’s grave.
Yesterday, though, he belonged not to those future ghosts, but to the local people of south Derry who had known him longest. It could be seen in the messages left on flowers at the Turf Man sculpture, which he unveiled four years ago: “From Bellaghy Women’s Group, for leaving all of us with lots of lovely memories”; “From your friends at the Bellaghy Development Association”; and in a child’s pencil drawing of a Christian cross, carefully weighted down with pebbles and signed, “To Seamus from Niamh.” Most of all, it could be seen in the numbers of people who turned out, in Bellaghy and in towns and villages along the way, pulsing out of doorways to honour their own, one final time.
Orating at his grave, Fr Andy Dolan, parish priest of St Mary’s, said: “Seamus Heaney chose to lay here. The name Seamus Heaney and this place will be forever intertwined. Today we proudly and warmly welcome him back, back home to Derry. We are privileged to be able to fulfil through this rite of burial Seamus’ deepest wish, that he be buried here, in the place that he never really left, among the people who influenced him so much.”
He was buried beside several members of his family, including his mother Margaret, his father Patrick and his brother Christopher, whose death as a child was later marked by Heaney’s poem Mid-Term Break.
The incantation of Seamus Heaney’s poems have comforted many mourners at funerals in the past and will continue to do so. Earlier, as the cortege made its way towards the church, the breeze had suddenly got up on Bellaghy’s main street, buffeting hearse and mourners on foot alike. In those moments, there seemed no words more apposite for the pending burial of the great poet than his own, from Postscript.
“You are neither here nor there,/ A hurry through which known and strange things pass/ As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways/ And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.”
Countless hearts will have been blown open yesterday; both in Ireland, and wherever in the world literature is loved.