In Donnybrook’s Sacred Heart Church yesterday evening, there was a deep sense of disbelief that the rectangular wooden coffin in the nave of the church could contain Ireland’s cultural backbone.
For many decades, Seamus Heaney has been at the tiller guiding Irish culture, shaping it and shaping its place in the world.
But the nation's most beloved poet passed away unexpectedly on Friday after a short illness at the age of 74.
The coffin was carried in by Seamus’s two sons, Michael and Christopher, by his brother-in-law Barry Devlin and by two of Seamus’s five brothers who were all in attendance, Colm, Charlie, Pat, Dan and Hugh.
Co-celebrant Archbishop Diarmuid Martin placed a copy of the bible on top of the coffin, saying it was fitting for Seamus to have these words with him now, “his life was built around words”.
Seamus Heaney was the most generous of men, he was prepared to talk readily about his work, often with a winking self-deprecation. Heaney liked people. He was interested in their ideas, regardless of whether they related to poetry or not, he encouraged freely and often practically, making introductions, connecting people. And many of those connections stood united in grief in the Sacred Heart Church.
There were many familiar faces amongst the crowd, but this was not a celebrity gathering, the raw emotion very real, the distraught palpable. The connections Heaney built crossed all cultural divisions. There were poets and more poets, close friends Peter Fallon, Theo Dorgan, Pat Boran, Brendan Kennelly, Michael O’Loughlin, and Paul Muldoon, and from afar Thomas Lynch who had worked with Heaney in Michigan and flown over when he heard the news. Director of the Abbey Theatre Fiach Mac Conghail was there with his family, chairman of the arts council Pat Moylan, musician Micheal O’Suilleabhan, Riverdance’s John McColgan, politician and fellow Sandymount resident Ruairi Quinn, the lord mayor Oisin Quinn, Joe and Emer Costello, the pianist John O’Conor and his son, the actor Hugh. Commandant Michael Treacy was there as special envoy of the Taoiseach.
Father Kevin Doran, who gave the homily, remembered the first time he met Heaney seven years ago at Glendalough when Heaney came to read his poem St Kevin and the Blackbird. Fr Doran recited the first section of the poem, the legend of how a blackbird built its nest in St Kevin’s hand and then St Kevin had to keep his arm outstretched until the eggs were hatched. Fr Doran remembered Heaney’s bold humour, how in the second part of the poem Heaney questioned if any of this really happened, but being Heaney also made universal points about suffering, enduring and nurturing.
Heaney created such a sense of belonging, that he seemed to belong to this land, to belong to all of us, our Seamus, and that sense of a devastated community coming together was most powerful at his removal.
Of course, in truth he belonged not to us all but to his incredibly close loving family, to his wife Marie, his sons Michael and Christopher and his daughter Catherine Ann. For as much as this was a public mourning, it was also the most private personal grief.
By Sophie Gorman