Mourners told of Heaney’s ‘greatness and graciousness’

Archbishop says poet was always a man of kindness and humility


There were a few minutes last night outside the Sacred Heart Church in Donnybrook when it seemed time had gone backwards, and that the location of Seamus Heaney’s removal was not in a suburb of our capital city, but in a small rural town.

His wife Marie, daughter Catherine Ann and daughters-in-law Emer and Jenny stood at one side of the church door; a tight quartet of dignified grief. Heaney’s sons, Michael and Christopher, his brothers and brothers-in-law, stood shoulder to braced shoulder at the other side of the door, waiting for the coffin to be removed from the hearse.

It was briefly reminiscent of an era that Heaney would have witnessed; when in country parishes, men occupied one half of the church and women the other.

There was just one spray of flowers on top of the coffin; a cascade of bone-white roses and lilies.

Heaney’s sons, brothers and brother-in-law took up the coffin and bore it into the church like a boat bound on a final voyage. They guided it tenderly through the assembled crowds that even in death continued to follow the great poet, and laid it sorrowfully on the bier in front of the altar.

The prayers were led by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin. “Seamus Heaney was a great man, yet always a man of kindness and humility and a seeker of what is deepest in our common humanity,” he told the congregation. “Greatness and graciousness belonged together in him.”

The homily was given by Fr Kevin Doran. “It strikes me that the hermit and the poet probably have much in common: the need for solitude; the deep-down awareness of things and the self-discipline to spend hours in contemplation,” he said.

“The body of Seamus is at the heart of our gathering this evening and, in that sense, he is the focus of our gathering. In another sense, however, the funeral is all about the family. You have had your time for laughing and your time for embracing – and you will have them again. But this is your time for mourning. Our prayers this evening are for you Marie, Christopher, Michael and Catherine Ann.”

As he spoke, the family linked hands together in the front pew. Their linked hands briefly made a kind of human chain; that human chain that is the title of what we now know was to be Seamus Heaney’s final collection of poems, published in 2010.

“This evening we give thanks to God for the gift of poetry which was so rich in Seamus and which he richly shared with us,” Fr Doran said.

“‘As the hind longs for the streams’, he never ceased to contemplate the mystery of our humanity. My prayer for him is that, in the light of his own Easter, he might be overjoyed to find how rich that mystery is.”

Prior to the removal, there had been the usual 5.30pm Sunday Mass in the Sacred Heart Church. Many parishioners stayed on after that Mass, so they could also attend the removal prayer service; ordinary members of the local community who wished to pay tribute to one who had lived alongside them.

There were also many members from another kind of parish; from the community of arts and culture who revered their most famous member. Poets turned out in their scores, greeting one another with expressions of disbelief and palpable loss.

Among the many poets there were Paul Muldoon, Theo Dorgan, Paula Meehan, Joseph Woods, Gerard Dawe, Peter Fallon, Peter Sirr, Enda Wyley, Brendan Kennelly, Leland Bardwell, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Julie O’Callaghan, Maurice Harmon, Pat Boran, Philip Casey, Thomas Lynch, Tom McCarthy, Greg Delanty and Michael O’Loughlin.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny was represented by his aide-de-camp, Comdt Michael Treacy.

Also in attendance were the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Oisín Quinn, Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn, Minister for Health James Reilly, and Minister for Arts Jimmy Deenihan; broadcasters Gay Byrne, John Bowman, John Kelly, Mike Murphy; press ombudsman John Horgan, producer Noel Pearson, former director of the National Library Pat Donlon, Fr Brian D’Arcy, artist Anne Madden, composer Michael Houlihan, Fiach Mac Conghail, director of the Abbey Theatre, Garry Hynes, director of Druid Theatre, Orla McBride, director of the Arts Council, novelist Christine Dwyer Hickey, producer John McColgan and journalist Nell McCafferty.

The Irish Times was represented by editor Kevin O’Sullivan. Former editor Geraldine Kennedy was also in attendance.

Absence and loss were what everyone was talking of last night. Seamus Heaney wrote often of absences, and particularly of a chestnut tree in the garden of his first home, at Mossbawn.

When it was cut down, he wrote of the “kind of luminous emptiness” that had displaced it. His own absence yesterday was comparable to the disappearance of a landmark tree; not a chestnut, but a mighty felled oak, now replaced by luminous emptiness.

The funeral Mass for Seamus Heaney is this morning at 11.130am, in the Sacred Heart Church in Donnybrook.

Burial will be at Bellaghy Cemetery in Co Derry, at approximately 5pm.