Belfast Telegraph

Don't be afraid: Seamus Heaney's final poignant words

By Lise Hand

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 Seamus Heaney, his son Michael, with heartbreaking 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 "Noli 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.

Mourners gathered in the mild air, filing slowly into the church. Political leaders from north and south were joined by the four members of U2, 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 Prize winner Paul Muldoon, Theo Dorgan, Micheal O'Siadhail 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 Ann.

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, 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 Muldoon stood on the altar and paid warm tribute to his friend.

"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".

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", as laughter rose.

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness recalled how when Ian Paisley stood down as First Minister, he 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 Mr McGuinness, who framed it and presented it to Rev Paisley – along with a framed copy of one of his own poems – "such a grandiose thing to do," he laughed.

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."

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