In a poignant joining of a once broken circle, the Irish poet Seamus Heaney is to be buried tomorrow, 2nd September, at St Mary’s Parish Church in Bellaghy in County Derry, beside the three year old brother he lost sixty one years ago.
Christopher Heaney died at the age of three and a half. Seamus came home from boarding school for his wake. The loss found its expression in one of his best known poems, Mid Term Break.
Heaney was an Irish poet but he spoke for much of the Celtic fringe in his instinctive affinity with the natural world around him – but his was a muscular and not a fey connection. There was nothing of the Irish mist in Heaney. His intellect was far too sharp for that.
The power of his poetry sprang from his rare ability to receive the outer world newly, through no existing filter but from the engagement of every one of his own senses with that world and with his mind.
In a previous incarnation, I was the new kid in a small group of Irish academics who regularly, with colleagues in French universities, addressed small annual conferences in Anglo Irish Studies hosted at the University of Caen.
Sometimes these events brought writers and their critics together – a lively experiment; and sometimes they simply had writers and academics in the same programme.
On one of these, Seamus Heaney was, of course, the main attraction and, as everywhere, he captivated his audience with the language in which he drew the world he saw and with the expansiveness of his spirit.
Being in the vicinity of Heaney was what one imagines it is like to swim with dolphins – making a fleeting contact with something greater, freer, nimbler, more fluent and more graced than oneself.
I never saw anyone come away from any event in which he was involved who did not feel larger for it.
His fellow Northern Irish poet, Michael Longley, has said that he feels he has lost a brother.
The potency of this man is such that those who knew him much less than Longley did, will feel much the same.
In the warmth and openness with which he shared space, time and thought with others, Heaney had the capacity to make people feel they knew him.
The reality is that, however slender the connection, we will all have known something – but the poet also had the ability to hide the private man away.
It is possible that no one really knew him – those hooded eyes kept much within, which their twinkle disguised. Like all great keepers of the keys, there will have been secret places.
What we can never know teases the enduring power behind the richness he has left.
The photograph of Seamus Heaney above shows him in 2009 addressing the Law Society of University College Dublin [UCD]. It is by Sean O’Connor and is in the public domain.