Seamus Heaney: So fitting he will be buried in soil of county he loved
Claire Harrison tells how, from early childhood, Heaney played a big role in her life
There is one photograph on the busy mantelpiece of my childhood home that stands out from the rest. Among the usual family snaps of weddings, babies, First Holy Communion and first days at school, there is just one face who is not one of us.
The image was captured at a house party in the 1990s and shows my mum and dad relaxed and chatting to a man who may not be family but who is instantly recognisable to everyone who visits their Maghera home.
Their company that night was Seamus Heaney, not long after he won his Nobel prize, and the gathering was at the home of his sister Sheena, a much-loved friend of our family.
Although they had met him many times before, such was their pride in his achievement the moment was framed and included on the Regan mantelpiece. It's impossible to write about Seamus Heaney's legacy without mentioning the deep inspiration he drew from south Derry. Although we grew up 40 years and a few miles apart, the rural landscape of Heaney's childhood was the landscape of my own. And that made his poetry – and its references to such familiar names and places – all the more special to me.
Studying it at school in Magherafelt – sitting beside pupils who came from Broagh or Anahorish Primary, or who were a Heaney themselves – should have felt surreal but didn't. It felt deserving to have his poetry sitting in our schoolbags alongside Yeats, Shakespeare, Arthur Miller and F Scott Fitzgerald.
The eldest of nine, many of Heaney's siblings still live in south Derry. In Maghera, I grew up around the corner and across the street from his many nieces and nephews.
It was the same at school, where there was a Heaney in my class, as well as the year above and the year below.
Of course we all knew who their uncle was but, like the writer himself, they were all remarkably modest about it.
Although he had lived in Dublin, or elsewhere, for many years, Heaney's imagination was always firmly rooted in the community he came from. Back in 1993, my mother, a primary school teacher in Straw, just outside Draperstown, got her Primary Seven pupils to write a batch of letters to their favourite authors. On their list was Heaney who wrote back immediately, sending a signed picture of himself as he had been asked to do. The children were delighted to also find a hand-written letter from the poet, reminiscing about his days playing Gaelic football at a well-known pitch beside the school.
In a distinctive brown ink, he wrote: "Years ago I had a trial for the County Derry minor team at the GAA pitch in Straw, so I have good memories of your part of the world, and am happy that you appreciate your good luck in living in such a scenic spot.
"And thank you for all your encouraging words about my poems. I wish I could hear Mrs Regan teaching them myself!"
The letter is signed off with a P.S.
"I didn't make it to the county team," he confessed.
The photo and a copy of the letter still hang proudly in the school 20 years later. My mother had cause to write to Heaney again just last year to thank him for helping her efforts to raise money for a stroke charity. My father suffered a stroke not long after that happy moment was captured at the party in the 1990s. Then Heaney himself had one in 2006
My parents met him at another family occasion after that and they were both left deeply affected by the conversation about their strikingly similar experiences of stroke.
In his reply last year, Heaney hadn't forgotten and included a personal message asking after my father's health. That's the kind of touch he had.
It is fitting that Heaney will be buried in the soil of a county that inspired some of the most beautiful poetry ever written down. He was always as proud of the people and places of south Derry as we are of him.