Marie Heaney: ‘I had a very public grief’

Three years after her husband’s death, the writer is ‘beginning to feel like myself again’


With anyone else this meeting in a Dublin hotel would be no more than the usual cat-and-mouse game between author and journalist. The author gives away something of herself. The interviewer presses for more.

But the interviewee is Marie Heaney. With anyone else the interviewer would probably be unaware that we are meeting in the week of her husband’s anniversary. But such was the national heart lurch when the news of Seamus Heaney’s sudden death broke, on August 30th, 2013, that many of us remember exactly where we were and what we were doing at that moment.

In this light even the book we are here to discuss is anxiety inducing.

On night-time: ‘With darkness can come sadness, anxiety, guilt’
In a carefree world night is a time for lullabies, to dream, to make love, a time of peace and “to embrace blessed sleep”, as she describes it in her introduction to All Through the Night, the book of night poems and lullabies that she has just edited.

“But night can bring with it other, less benign experiences,” she writes. “With darkness can come sleeplessness and its attendant sadness, anxiety and guilt . . . a time when ‘conscience burrows like a mole’ and we are haunted by fears and regrets.”

Her selection of night poems opens with Bill Caddick’s lullaby John O’Dreams, moves on to Edna St Vincent Millay’s sharply funny Grown-Up, and closes with Horatio’s ageless tribute to Hamlet: “Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince: And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!” Was this also her farewell? She had to include that, she says. For her it was “valedictory”.

Despite the pathos of So, We’ll Go No More a Roving or Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night, she says she was able to apply herself to the selection with professional detachment.

“Those old poems had been in my head all the time. I could say every word of Crossing the Bar to you, and a good bit of Dover Beach – one of the greatest poems in the English language, I think – and a good bit of Keats, so I’m actually quite detached.”

Ten years ago, she recalls, she recited Crossing the Bar in full while standing at Tennyson’s house on the Isle of Wight with Seamus and the critic Helen Vendler. “Twilight and evening bell, / And after that the dark! / And may there be no sadness of farewell, / When I embark.”

It was meant to be a book of lullabies, an idea that stemmed partly from Seamus’s request to have Brahms’s Lullaby played at his funeral. “It was one of the most moving parts of the funeral. He’d asked me many, many years ago, long before mortality was on any of our minds . . . He said that when he went to school as an infant and he heard the big boys sing Brahms’s Lullaby, that that was his first intimation of the beauty of art – music in that case – that he ever had as a small child.”

He had also asked for a traditional requiem Mass, to the surprise of some. “For him it gave to people a sense of transcendence, a sense of something beyond us even though you may not believe in it.”

The funeral, which she expected to be a quiet Mass, evolved into something close to a State affair, minus the military. “I felt in the end it was a great tribute to Seamus.”

But the suddenness of his death is still palpable. She smiles now at the notion that Seamus Heaney might have had a quiet funeral, “but you have to remember what a shock it was for us”.

She had said goodbye to him earlier that night because his heart surgery was at 7am. “They’d sedated him, and he was on the trolley on the way to theatre . . . and he knew I was worried.”

And so, as the world knows, 15 minutes before his death Seamus Heaney sent a text to his wife: “Noli timere.” The Latin usage was normal for him. “He used Latin all the time. He was saying, ‘Don’t be afraid, I’ll be all right’ – and he wasn’t. He just died on the way to theatre . . . just stopped talking. But what a way to go. Extraordinary.”

On Seamus and Marie: ‘We clicked. And it lasted’
They had been a couple for more than 50 years. They met the day they graduated from teacher-training college, in 1962, when he came over to speak to her. She describes it as “more or less as a coup de foudre”.

They had heard of each other. “I had heard of him, of course, because he was extremely brilliant – and I only lived 15 miles away”. She was just 24 when they married, two years later.

“It was uncharacteristic for both of us, because we were both fairly cautious people. But we did click. And it lasted.”

Most likely, she does not say, he had heard of her because she was one of the six lovely, clever Devlin sisters from the ancient parish of Ardboe, plus Barry, their only brother (who has a sitcom coming up on BBC One called My Mother and Other Strangers). She lists off their accomplishments. “Yes, they all made a mark to some degree. My mark was by marrying Seamus.”

She is not unaccomplished herself. Having loved poetry as a child, she taught English, did some broadcasting and worked as a journalist – including for The Irish Times – and with the help of her master’s degree in Anglo-Irish literature and folklore was equipped to render legends written in Old Irish into accessible speech.

Among her books and anthologies is the highly successful book of Irish legends Over Nine Waves, published by Faber and still in print 22 years later.

“Good scholars have said to me it’s fine. There was a Harvard scholar of Old Irish who I was always afraid to meet, because she had done one of the crucial stories, and when we did meet she said she loved what I did. The book was out about three years then, and I lifted my head again.”

On family: ‘Women are not allowed to play second fiddle, and I never did’
As might be gleaned from those remarks, she has few notions about herself, which probably explains why public information about her is scarce. “This is not random. I am a private person and have tried to remain so.”

Has that been difficult? “No. They’re not beating the door to talk to me, but I never traded on Seamus’s work – he would have hated it and I would have hated it. I haven’t exactly shone a meteor across the sky. I’m a very ordinary person.”

For four months a year, for 18 years, Seamus was away teaching at Harvard while she reared their three children – Michael, this newspaper’s radio critic; Christopher; and Catherine – alone. Her sister Clare’s willingness to mind the children for two weeks a year allowed her to visit him. “But he couldn’t have done it if I’d had troublesome children. They were great. So I stayed with them, and that put a halt to my gallop.”

Was that difficult to accept? There’s a momentary pause. “Of course you’re into very tricky waters here, because women are not allowed to play second fiddle, and I never felt I did.

“I felt what I did was utterly legitimate, but I have to say, especially in America when that book” – Over Nine Waves – “came out they looked at me with new eyes. You have to do something like that to prove yourself – which I don’t agree with, by the way, and I think you don’t have to.

“I suppose in some way, yes, I was supportive. I essentially believe that the family is by far the most important thing you have, so I had no difficulty at all giving time to that. I would rather give time to my family than give it to some multinational.

“I remember one woman saying to me in America: ‘What would your life have been . . . ?’ I nearly hit her. What an insulting question, as if somehow the life I lived wasn’t a legitimate one because of him.”

And what was her reply to that woman? “I said, ‘You have one life. I have lived my life as I wanted to do, perfectly adequately.’ In many ways she wanted me to divorce Seamus so I could live a full life and not be in the shadow of his success. That’s a very common attitude. The logic of that is you get rid of anybody who stands in your way of becoming this shining light that you are yourself – which I was not and I am not.”

Meanwhile, she is efficiently sweeping croissant crumbs off the hotel’s ornate coffee table. She smiles, recalling that her grandmother – “a beautiful woman who came from Portlaw to the North to teach in about 1890” – had volumes of Edwardian home-help books, one of which featured a photograph of people sitting at a table with the caption: “Before I knew what I was doing, I was brushing up the crumbs that she had dropped.”

“It was quoted in our family forever. I think my crumb sweeping is early conditioning from that book.”

On domestic life: ‘We argued in public. It was quieter at home’
Heaney domestic life was “very harmonious”. “Seamus was a very good person . . . We had arguments in public because I had my ideas and he had his.” What kind of arguments ? “I can’t even remember what they were about – he would say things that we would never have mentioned before. They were very mild disagreements. I think people who knew us felt we had quite a robust relationship, but actually it was much quieter at home than they would know. I interrupted him, and it used to drive him mad.

“He was a gentle person, he genuinely was, but, like anybody who is very gentle, when he did lose his temper you ran for cover. But we lived a very harmonious life.”

The depth of people’s shock following his death was astounding to her. “Not just here but on the front page of the New York Times, the Observer . . . I was astonished, because he was such an unassuming man and we really did live a quiet life. You didn’t hear about us. But I was astonished at the effect he had on people.

“My sisters were saying he was recognised as a good person as well as being a good poet, and almost every obituary said that; the good art and the good artist don’t always coincide.

“I wouldn’t want to make a saint out of Seamus; he was a perfectly ordinary human being. But he was a good person, a genuinely thoughtful person. He never ranted – and he has a family of ranters,” she says with a smile. “He was good.”

After his death she got about 800 letters plus many poems – “and everyone said, ‘I want to tell you something Seamus did for me.’ I knew nothing of this, because he was an extraordinarily kind person who used to spend his life doing things for people.

“In Tintern Abbey Wordsworth says: ‘ . . . that best portion of a good man’s life / His little, nameless, unremembered acts / Of kindness and of love.’ And what I was thinking was, They were not unremembered, and they weren’t nameless. People remembered and wrote them down and sent them to me.”

She recalls a letter to The Irish Times at the time “that was one of the nicest things ever said about Seamus”. It read : “Sir, I am saddened. As a nation we are a man down,” and was signed by a Co Kildare man, Frank Munnelly. “I thought that was a wonderful, wonderful testament to Seamus.”

On grieving: ‘I will never get over it’
She roots out her little pink phone with the multicoloured cover – chosen because the colours make it easy to find in her bag – to scroll down to a photograph of a giant mural on a bleak south-city wall, placed there a fortnight after Seamus’s death. It says, “Don’t Be Afraid.” In the picture Marie is standing below it, beside some waste bins.

Even in the depths of her shock and grief these tributes left a mark. “I had a very public grief, don’t forget. I closed down. You’re numb for a while, on autopilot. I was able to get through. I was in Tokyo for a service for Seamus in the Embassy. I was in New York, Harvard, the big one in the National Concert Hall that Paul Simon came to . . . So it was very public, and every time you turned on a television or opened a paper there was something. For a long, long time.”

Would she have been better left to grieve privately?

“No. In an odd way I was used to the public Seamus, and so what upset me was suddenly finding the glasses that I knew he had lost and hadn’t been able to find, and I find now, and he’s gone . . . What I grieved was my husband, not Seamus Heaney the poet.”

Now in the third year of her loss, she finds her interest in old loves, such as gardening and cooking, beginning to revive. “I will never get over it, but I’m now beginning to feel like myself again.”

When sleep proves elusive now she does the 4-7-8 breathing exercise recommended by a Harvard doctor. And in February she applied herself to the night poems and lullabies for All Through the Night.

“As you can imagine, this is a woman who is not that fond of the night. The number of people aged from 50 on who will tell you they have trouble sleeping is huge . . . and it is a trouble. The fact that Wordsworth writes a poem [To Sleep] about it – ‘Come, blessed barrier between day and day’ – is a final testimony to how essential it is and how elusive it is.”

On Seamus’s anniversary the Heaneys were together as family. She didn’t visit Seamus’s grave, “because a lot of people go there then. But I go regularly, and I talk to Seamus all the time.”

On her phone she finds a photograph of his gravestone with its inscription: “Walk on air against your better judgement.” The quote is from his poem The Gravel Walks, and he also used it in his 1995 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, although they had forgotten that when they chose it.

Of her 76th birthday, which falls this month, she says: “I’m told I look younger than I am, but the truth of the matter is that you are that age. Your body has gone through that number of things” – cancer treatment eight years ago, in her case. “But the kids have been wonderful and are helping enormously with the work of the estate. I of course have a say in the matter, but, God, I don’t know what I would do without them.”

All Through the Night is dedicated to her three grandchildren. She fishes out her phone again to find a picture of one of them, dressed as a fancy pirate, and she marvels at the child’s eyes, identical to her grandfather’s.

All Through the Night: Night Poems & Lullabies is published by Poetry Ireland

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