I had the rare and sad privilege today of being part of history, as a packed cathedral in Donnybrook, Dublin, said goodbye to a great man.
Irish poet and Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney died Aug. 30 in a Dublin hospital, after a long battle with the effects of a stroke some years ago. He was 74.
I first learned about Heaney when Professor Fred Thompson at Peninsula College assigned his slim book of poems, “The Spirit Level,” as required reading for English comp 101. I remember discussing his classic poem, “Digging,” about how, while generations before him had used tools to dig for potatoes and turf, his “tool” was now the pen:
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
When I was trying to decide to come to Ireland last May, I took out that poem and read it for inspiration, and courage. Substitute “keyboard” for “pen,” but I thought, that’s my tool too. Where better to wield it than in the land that produced Seamus Heaney, and so many other great writers? I even named this blog after his inspiration.
But I was far humbled today. I took the bus from Wicklow Town and arrived an hour early for the 11:30 a.m. service at the Church of the Sacred Heart in Donnybrook, a posh suburb of Dublin where Heaney lived. The media was already thick outside, including live coverage on the RTE (Irish TV). Rather than mill about watching for celebrities, I went in and secured a seat, third pew from the rear, left side, best for people watching. In the next hour the church filled to capacity and then some. Many people lined the sidewalk outside, waiting for a glimpse of the poet’s last trip, and the many A-listers who came to pay their respects.
Heaney’s funeral drew hundreds of mourners, from all the major political figures including Irish president Michael D. Higgins, Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, to entertainers including Bono, The Edge, Shane McGowan and Paddy Moloney of the Chieftains. (Although truth be told I didn’t see the celebrities.)
Members of academia and the Irish literati made up the bulk of the attendees that filled the cavernous cathedral. Wild white hair, rumpled black suits and plaid mufflers were the order of the day, as well as more than a few tweed jackets with leather elbow patches. My seatmate pointed out one distinguished gentleman, with his white hair pulled back in a ponytail and tied with a black ribbon, as a member of the Guinness family. I wondered how many people had one of Heaney’s books in their pocket. They certainly had them in their hearts.
Master Uilleann piper Liam O’Flynn played during the ceremony, including a haunting version of the slow air, “Port na bPúcaí” (“Song of the Fairies”). Heaney collaborated with O’Flynn on an album, “The Poet and the Piper,” on which O’Flynn wove the tune with Heaney’s reading of “The Given Note,” which was also read at the service.
Seamus Heaney was born in Northern Ireland, but to his great credit he is known as a poet of all the people of Ireland, not just those in the north. As his coffin was carried out, headed for his final resting place in his hometown of Bellaghy in Co Derry, O’Flynn began softly playing the traditional Irish tune, “Óró, sé do bheatha abhaile,” (“Hurrah, Welcome Home”). The tune has a long history as a rebel song, and was a battle hymn sung by members of the Irish Volunteers during the 1916 Easter Rising rebellion.
Hairs rose on my arms and my eyes welled with tears as the entire congregation began singing along softly. These were a people united, saying goodbye to a close friend.
Rest in Peace, Seamus Heaney.