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

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.

The wooden coffin was not draped in a flag, only a bouquet of white lilies and roses. Heaney traversed cultures, all tribal divides, grasped the meaning, the nuance of living.

He carried his learning lightly, looked to art, archaeology, history, the stories in stones, the mythology contained in a leaf. Lines from Shakespeare drift into one’s mind: “Come let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings.” Heaney was not a king; he was a warrior, far greater than Shakespeare’s Richard II. He fought a moral battle, summoning the collective classical spirits of Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Horace and Dante.

Heaney had foreseen the menace undermining society, the global as well as the local. Kavanagh had taught him well and Heaney detected the significance of place, while also shouldering the poet’s responsibility to his art and his time.

Seamus Heaney’s family stood in turns and read; his brother Pat, composed and able, read from The Book of Ecclesiasticus: “The Lord has created an abundance of glory, and displayed his greatness from earliest times. Some wielded authority . . . others composed musical melodies, and set down ballads . . . But here is a list of generous men whose good deeds have not been forgotten . . . ” It is true: Seamus Heaney composed his songs and he shared them with us, he also taught us, giving us subtle insights into the mysteries of the poetic impulse. Pat Heaney radiated a quiet strength, but then his brother-in-law, Barry Devlin, reading The Lord is My Shepherd, revealed the other face of grief. I have been at many funerals by now; the loss of dear ones, killed in accidents or by fear and despair, but few have been as affecting as this calmly dignified, heartfelt celebration of a rare individual.

The final words from the First Letter from St Paul to the Corinthians, were read by Heaney’s niece, Sarah, “And now there remain faith, hope and charity, these three: but the greatest of these is charity.” It made one think of the kindness of Seamus Heaney, who loved trees and flowers and collected postcards from galleries and historic sites.

“Anything can happen” warned Heaney in the poem of the same name – and it had. Seamus Heaney’s death was sudden and we were not prepared, and are still unprepared and will stumble in trying to accept this. “Anything can happen. You know/how Jupiter/Will mostly wait for the clouds to/ gather head/Before he hurls the lightning? Well,/just now/He galloped his thunder cart and/his horses/Across a clear blue sky. It shook the/earth . . .” Our earth has been shook.

Poetry and posy
In that Catholic church in Donnybrook yesterday as a volume of Heaney’s poetry and a small posy of flowers from his Sandymount garden were brought to the altar as offerings, I remembered Heaney’s response on the eve before it was announced on June 3rd, 1989, to how he felt about being named professor of poetry at Oxford University. “I’m a teacher,” he had said, “my professional life has been about teaching and the pleasure I have got from opening poems to people.” Even in a country with as formidable a poetic tradition as Ireland, Heaney stands tall as he does throughout the world. He “opened” poetry to millions; Opened Ground was indeed an apt name for the 1998 collected poems that spanned the first 30 years of his career.

Poet Peter Fallon read Heaney’s astonishingly revelatory early poem The Given Note, from his second collection, Door into the Dark (1969). In it a poet discovers “this air out of the night”. It is a quest poem that explains how art is won: “For he had gone alone into the island/And brought back the whole thing./The house throbbed like his full violin . . . He took it/Out of wind off mid-Atlantic.”

It is almost six years since Heaney and his friend, fellow Ulster poet Michael Longley, stood in Carrowdore churchyard, on the Ards Peninsula, at the grave of their shared mentor Louis MacNeice, honouring his centenary. In 1963, they had also been there as much younger men, with Derek Mahon. The three were aspiring poets, wondering who would write the elegy. Mahon did and Heaney, recalling that day, had said: “I was the one with the car.”

End of earthly journey
But yesterday, after his family carried his coffin from the Dublin church, it was at another churchyard, at Bellaghy, Co Derry, where Seamus Heaney’s earthly journey was to end.

“ . . . I park, pause, take heed./Breathe. Just breathe and sit/And lines I once translated/ Come back: ‘I want away/ To the house of death, to my father/Under the low clay roof.’/And I think of one gone to him,/A little stillness dancer –/ Haunter-son, lost brother –/Cavorting through the yard,/So glad to see me home,/My homesick first term over . . . for a second/I’ve a bird’s eye view of myself,/A shadow on raked gravel . . .” (From The Blackbird of Glanmore in District and Circle, 2006)