herald

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Heaney was the soul of the nation, who made us all feel less alone

SEAMUS HEANEY: He helped his readers understand that they were not alone.
Seamus Heaney as a schoolkid in 1956 at St Columbs College in Derry

Yesterday was a black day for those concerned for the soul of the nation.

Yes, most knew that the great Irish poet had been ailing for some time but, even so, the news that Seamus Heaney had died came as a shock.

Ireland had lost a spiritual talisman. A voice that was understood around the world was stilled.

For 47 years and more, since publication of his debut collection Death of A Naturalist, Seamus Heaney had been speaking to us. Speaking directly.

Sharing snapshots of life's great journey. Confiding hopes and fears, his words sang. He made us smile. We shared grief. Seamus Heaney was our close companion. And more besides.

He helped his readers understand that they were not alone. For these gifts along we should be grateful. We will miss this generosity. As a wide-eyed schoolboy I sometimes daydreamed of what it might have been like to meet WB Yeats, Ireland's Nobel Prize laureate, magician and senator. It was impossible to imagine.

Yet, some years later, long before he'd been garlanded in 1995 with the same Nobel Prize in Literature, I knew that I was on speaking terms with the new Keeper of the Flame.

 

KINDLY

In the late 1960s, as a self-styled "pop poet", I wound up with my colleague Peter Fallon reading on the same platform as Seamus and some other heavyweights at an event for Amnesty.

Even then, he was a kindly man. And shortly afterwards as a friend of his wife Marie's brother Barry Devlin, I was extended every hospitality at his home in Belfast.

Attending a party in the Heaney household then, with pipers and fiddlers playing in the kitchen, surrounded by a phalanx of names I knew intimately from the great poetry anthologies, Longley, Montague, Hammond and the rest, I reeled in my line and said that henceforth I'd confine my efforts to scribbling songs.

As luck would have it, some of those songs with Horslips found an audience and a few years later I'd look out into an audience and spot an unmistakable halo of fizz-bag hair smiling at the surreal nature of a rock band singing about CuChulainn and his pals from the mythology.

Sometimes he'd have John Montague or Michael Longley in tow. A trinity of poetic genius on the lam like a cultured stag party. Maybe at the Galway races, maybe at some local festival, they always brought an extra sparkle to the occasion.

Unlike some of the more austere older poets, Heaney didn't write for or to the people. His work was, and will remain, of the people.

Seamus had an uncanny knack of writing lines we think we might have thought of or maybe dreamt at some time. Not just you or I, but statesmen, politicians, religious leaders, prisoners and those down on their luck.

And remembering considering how a meeting with Yeats might have gone, it was sure to be nothing like meeting in a Saturday supermarket aisle, surrounded by garish tins and packets, and discussing the implements of my noisy trade with Seamus Heaney.

With the same lyrical vocabulary as he described a plough, a spade or an anvil, Seamus engaged me in discussion about my drum-kit.

Probably just as well Twitter hadn't been invented as his warm tones made muscular music of words such as "hi-hat", "hanging tom" and "kick drum".

He was doing research, you see, on a gift for Christopher, his son.

Nothing WB Yeats could have said would have trumped that conversation.

But it's Christopher, Michael and Catherine Ann, his children, as well as their talented mother Marie that I thought of yesterday morning when I heard the awful news.

Luckily they already know how important they were to him and how proud he was of each of them.

Some memories I'll hold close for fear they might lose their lustre. Instead I'll turn to his poems and find there a Satnav to the heart's great song.

For master craftsman and cartographer was Seamus, mapping the leylines of our ancestral psyche, lines that bundled up the span of the planet into an understandable village. Shaman, spirit guide, his legacy is the vibrant living lexicon of hope that he has left us.

It's to the lines of poet Padraic Fallon, writing about a ploughman, I turn for consolation.

Who moved in the gravity

Of some big sign, and slowly on the plough

Came out anew in orbit

With birds and seasons circling him by habit...

Seamus Heaney will be missed.

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