Monday, 9 September 2013

A literary great is laid to rest



Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney's last words in a text message to his wife were 'Noli timere' - Latin for 'do not be afraid.' His recent passing has had a huge impact on the literary world which is so much poorer now he has gone.

His death has left a void which will never be filled by even the most talented of writers. But Heaney, the legend, still lives on in the hearts of many, as does his poetry with its lyrical beauty. A man who never let go of his roots, Seamus’ observations on life in my native Northern Ireland put the country on a world pedestal for scrutiny.

Heaney, a Catholic nationalist raised in an area called Mossbawn in South Derry (county) had views which clashed with the majority of pupils in my school. When our English teacher, ironically called Mrs Heaney (no relation!) introduced Digging to us, we read it as townie Protestant-like pariahs looking down on this poor rural nationalist world. We learned about his fervently Irish background and the fact he’d written the following shocking words: Be advised my passport's green. No glass of ours was ever raised to toast the Queen.

The life that we were reading about was a world away from ours: as middle class Protestants, none of us could identify in any way with potatoes, bogs, Mass, rosaries, or priests. Granted, he wrote at a time when Catholics felt marginalised, like second class citizens, but with his unkempt white hair and warm smile, there was something so endearing about him. We didn’t study any more of his poetry, so it’s fair to say, we only really skimmed the surface.

However, his poetry become more and more alive as I matured and studied at university, and I soon grew to identify with his sense of loss, his love of nature and his reflections on childhood. Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995 for what the committee described as "works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.”

He was universally loved around the world and no one could deny that. Often people don't get excited about a celebrity until that person has passed away. Then the bandwagon is filled and it's on its way. Like Kurt Cobain or Michael Jackson: suddenly, a slew of super fans come out of the closet. Thankfully, with Heaney, we have always loved and cherished him, as a fellow countryman, a patriot of poetry and a lover of language.

I must admit I only found Heaney’s poetry mildly interesting as a student at grammar school. Yes, shame on me. But his poetry grew on me the more I studied English Literature until I came to truly love his work. And when that alert came through from Press Association, while I was in Dublin, not only did I feel a sense of sadness and loss, but I started to sift through his poetry. Death of a Naturalist, Human Chain, Beowolf, North. The images lit up. I read slowly and I realised his work is stunningly beautful.

It gave me shivers up my spine as I read: Next morning I went up into the room. Snowdrops. And candles soothed the bedside; I saw him. For the first time in six weeks. Paler now.


I’m so disappointed I never the chance to meet him. It just wasn’t to be. Last Monday, he was laid to rest in the land which had inspired him. The cortege through the village of Bellaghy was headed by a lone piper, mourners snaking their way along the country roads. Earlier his friends and family bade farewell to him at a funeral service in Dublin.

This video, courtesy of my newspaper The Mid-Ulster Mail, shows the literary great being laid to rest…..

1 comment:

Derek Thompson said...

Perhaps the mark of a great writer, irrespective of the power and beauty of their words, is the gap they leave by their passing.