Belfast Telegraph

Seamus Heaney: Poets, writers, old friends and fans celebrate life of laureate they all adored

BY AMANDA FERGUSON

They came as friends, contemporaries or simply admirers.

The Lyric Theatre in south Belfast was packed to capacity on Saturday night as the life of Seamus Heaney was celebrated at a special tribute event.

The 74-year-old Nobel laureate, who died on Friday following a short illness, had a long relationship with the arts venue.

Poets Michael Longley, Frank Ormsby, Damian Gorman and Sinead Morrison were among the art world figures to gather at the Lyric to share reflections and read the Bellaghy man's poetry to a captivated capacity audience.

Tickets for the free event had been snapped up by Heaney's friends, admirers and literary enthusiasts within hours of being released by the theatre on Friday.

Actress Stella McCusker and novelist Glenn Patterson, who works at The Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queen's University Belfast, Heaney's alma mater, spoke at the event, as did Arts Council NI chairman Bob Collins.

Composer Neil Martin also paid tribute to his late friend by performing two pieces of music.

Lyric chairman Mark Carruthers quoted literary critic Karl Miller, who had described Heaney as "a poet to be grateful for", a compliment Heaney himself had endorsed.

The BBC broadcaster also spoke of the connection Heaney had with the Lyric, dating back to the 1960s.

He told the Belfast Telegraph the event had been organised to create a space for people to "reflect on the enormous contribution" he had made, not dissimilar to an event at the theatre in the 1980s when Belfast poet John Hewitt died.

Mr Carruthers said it would be impossible to pick his favourite Seamus Heaney poem, likening it to trying to select your favourite Beatles song.

"How do you do it?" he said.

"I remember being given a copy of Death of a Naturalist by my dad, who was an English teacher at the time, and I remember the impact it had on me.

"I got it off the bookshelf today, Seamus had signed it; that early poetry meant something to me.

"As Seamus developed his poetry moved into new territory, I was growing up, and reading it, I couldn't pick a favourite.

"I think tonight is an opportunity to have some of those iconic pieces of poetry talked about and celebrated again."

A bust of Heaney, created by sculptor Phil Flanagan in the 1990s, is a permanent feature in the foyer of the Lyric and there also is a Louis le Brocquy painting at the entrance steps.

For the first time the Colin Davidson portrait of the writer, described by many as the finest Irish poet since WB Yeats, was on public display too.

It will move from the Lyric to the Naughton Gallery at Queen's to form part of an exhibition there tomorrow.

Artist Colin Davidson attended the weekend Lyric event.

He told the Belfast Telegraph he discovered Heaney's works as a teenager and first met him in 1989 while he was studying at Art College.

"I was in my late teens, early 20s and knew his work very well at that stage," the artist said.

"Meeting him first, his work came first in my mind and my knowledge of his work and the Irishness and the sense of landscape about that, so whenever I came to meet him again 24 years on, at the beginning of this year to paint him, I carried that with me.

"I was immediately welcomed to his house; he was such a humble, generous, kind, encouraging man.

"But I still, whenever I was making the painting of him, I wanted to reflect that sense of other-worldliness that I observed 24 years before, reflect a bit of the landscape that's in his work.

"We ended up corresponding quite a bit through that process.

"I would love to be able to put it this way and I feel it was this way, but I don't know that I can even dare to say a sort of a friendship was formed."

Davidson said he was honoured to know Heaney, spend time with him and have him respond to the painting – From Everywhere and Nowhere – in such a generous way.

"Seamus was very moved and touched about it at the time," he said.

"He felt undoubtedly it was him, he was looking back at himself and for me I leave room in my paintings for something of the spirit of the person coming through and I think he felt and Marie, his wife, felt that there was something of Seamus' spirit that came through in the finished painting."

A book of condolence has been opened at the Guildhall in Derry, where the Nobel Laureate went to school and another will be opened at Belfast City Hall today.

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