Tears as Seamus Heaney laid to rest in native Derry
"For every one of us, living in this world means waiting for our end. Let whoever can win glory before death. When a warrior is gone, that will be his best and only bulwark".
(Beowulf: A New Verse Translation by Seamus Heaney).
IN the beginning was the word, and right at the very end too, just before his mighty flame was suddenly snuffed out. At the close of the funeral mass for our Ard File, Seamus Heaney, his son Michael with heart-breaking poignancy told the packed church how his father's final act was to send words of comfort and courage from the hospital to his wife Marie.
"His last few words in a text message he wrote to my mother minutes before he passed away were in his beloved Latin and they read – 'nolle timere' ('don't be afraid')," he said.
And so Seamus quit the world with a compassionate coda filled with simplicity and grace. As always with his written word.
And his final farewell in the Church of the Sacred Heart was both simple and graceful too, a low-key but deeply moving ceremony which brought together faces from all walks of life – old and dear friends, fellow wordsmiths, heads of State and Government, politicians and diplomats, rock stars and actors and artists. But citizens too, unfamous folk who had shook his hand once, or had a book signed by him or maybe paused for a quick chat as he ambled on his unhurried way through this place or that.
Or those who had never met him at all, but who were caught by his magical weave of words.
It should've been a dismal, rain-sodden morning, but it wasn't.
Mourners gathered in the mild air, filing slowly into the church. The Taoiseach was there, as was President Michael D and his predecessor in the Aras, Mary McAleese and her husband Martin.
The four members of U2 arrived together, each of them holding the hand of their respective partners.
Storied playwrights and poets shook hands and shook their heads. He was only 74 years old – or 74 years young, for the creative spark hadn't dimmed in him.
His lifelong friend and fellow poet Michael Longley was in attendance, as were Pulizer Prizewinner Paul Muldoon, Theo Dorgan, Micheal O'Sidhail, and Carol Ann Duffy, the first woman to hold the position of British Poet Laureate.
Playwrights Frank McGuinness and Brian Friel and Tom Murphy and Bernard Farrell all slipped in quietly, with no fanfare, no fuss.
The family of Seamus Heaney walked up the aisle in a close-knit group, his beloved wife of five decades surrounded by their three children, Michael, Christopher and Catherine.
There was no pomp in this ceremony. The modest, near-intimate tone was set by the chief celebrant, a friend of the family, Monsignor Brendan Devlin from Derry, who began by describing the Nobel prizewinner as "a man who could speak to the King of Sweden, an Oxford Don and a neighbour from south Derry with the directness of a common and shared humanity".
As a country, "we are keenly aware of our deprivation at the disappearance from among us of Seamus Heaney", he said, before wryly remarking, "I think he might have liked his funeral Mass to be celebrated in a Northern Ireland accent."
The readings and prayers were delivered by family and friends, his brother Pat, niece Sarah, friends such as musician Barry Devlin, poet Theo Dorgan.
The Offertory gifts included a book of his poems and a small posy of fresh flowers picked in the garden of his home on Sandymount Strand – the haven which enclosed the attic eyrie where he sat and thought and wrote and watched the sea. The co-celebrants were Auxiliary Bishop of Dublin Eamonn Walsh, Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin Michael Jackson and Mark Patrick Hederman from Glenstal Abbey.
There was some gentle laughter in the church when Paul Muldoon stood on the altar and paid warm tribute to his friend.
He spoke of how some years ago he rang the Heaney house looking to speak to Seamus, and his then-teenage son answered the phone, and said: "I suppose you want to speak to head-the-ball".
He said: "Seamus Heaney, a man renowned the world over, was never a man who took himself too seriously, certainly not with his family and friends. He had that ability to make each of us feel connected – not only to him, but to one another", adding that the poet had done everything "con brio – with vigour".
Paul looked for words to describe Seamus – "bounteous, maybe even bouncy" and "benign is somewhat inadequate, big-hearted comes closer".
He told how when Seamus was fitted with a monitored electronic device a few years ago, he took an almost unseemly delight in announcing 'Blessed are the pacemakers," he added, as laughter rose.
But as the simple coffin of Seamus, unadorned except for one spray of flowers as white as his cotton-wool hair, was wheeled from the church to the beautiful sound of Brahms's 'Lullaby' played by Neil Martin, there were tears from many as he passed by.
Outside, people stood around and talked about Seamus. Actor Dominic West from US hit drama 'The Wire' was there with his wife Catherine Fitzgerald, and one-month old baby daughter Christabel.
Dominic is friends with Catherine Heaney, and had read poetry with him.
"He was amazing, a wonderful man," he said, adding he had first seen him giving a poetry reading in America.
"He was the most wonderful poetry speaker as well as writer."
The North's Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness recalled how when Ian Paisley stood down as First Minister, Martin had asked Seamus if he would handwrite the speech from his play 'The Cure at Troy' ("where hope and history rhyme") as he wished to give it as a gift to Big Ian.
"He wrote on beautiful parchment paper," said Martin, who framed it and presented it to Dr. Paisley – along with a framed copy of one of his own poems – "such a grandiose thing to do," he laughed.
Months later, he spotted the two framed poems side by side on Ian's wall in Stormont. "Seamus loved that story," he added.
But with Seamus gone to rest in Derry, the world seems a little gloomier now.
As this journalist directed a taxi-driver to the church for the funeral, the cabbie sighed. "It's a sad day for us all. Do you know what he was? He was an extraordinary ordinary man."
Perhaps that's the gift Seamus Heaney gave us. When news of his death rippled out across the country, for a brief, shining, sorrowful moment he made poets of us all.