Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 5 May 2015

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

Seamus Heaney, pictured in 1995
Seamus Heaney, pictured in 1995
21/12/2011: Irish Nobel laureate Dr Seamus Heaney with Taoiseach Enda Kenny, today handed over his literary papers to the National Library of Ireland
21/12/2011 Dr Seamus Heaney literary papers to National Library. Irish Nobel laureate Dr Seamus Heaney today handed over his literary papers to the National Library of Ireland
21/12/2011: Irish Nobel laureate Dr Seamus Heaney with Taoiseach Enda Kenny, today handed over his literary papers to the National Library of Ireland
22/06/2013. Kennedy homecoming. Seamus Heaney pictured as a bust of the late Senator Edward Kennedy is unveiled at the Kennedy homestead in Dunganstown Co Wexford
Seamus Heaney - poet / writer
Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley
Seamus Heaney
Seamus Heaney
16/06/2011. Seamus Heaney receives Ulysses medal. Playwright Brian Friel (left) and poet Seamus Heaney prior to the Bloomsday conferral ceremony where Mr Heaney was awarded an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Literature
16/06/2011. Seamus Heaney receives Ulysses medal. Nobel Laureate, Poet, Seamus Heaney with poet Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill in the grounds of University College Dublin (UCD) where he was presented with the Ulysses medal
Seamus Heaney pictured on his 70th birthday at the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham
File photo dated 20/06/06 of Seamus Heaney who has died aged 74
Queen Elizabeth II shakes hands with Irish poet, Seamus Heaney as Irish President Mary McAleese, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh and Dr. Martin McAleese look on before a State Dinner at Dublin Castle, on May 18, 2011 in Dublin
File photo dated 22/06/13 of Seamus Heaney reading a poem in front of a bust of Senator Ted Kennedy
Seamus Heaney (L) talks with Sir Ian McKellen after attending a memorial service for actor Paul Scofield on March 19, 2009 in London
Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney
PACEMAKER Poet Laureate Seamus Heaney guest speaker at the Holocaust Memorial event in the Waterfront Hall. 27/01/04
Seamus Heaney was a past pupil at Annahorish Primary School in Toome
Seamus Heaney Pic: Mark Condren 4/4/08
The University College Dublin Ulysses Medal was awarded to Seamus Heaney in 2011. This is the highest honour that the university can bestow
Seamus Heaney at Sandymount in Dublin, 1995
Seamus Heaney at Sandymount in Dublin, 1995
File Pics Seamus Heaney Had Died Today. Irish Poet Seamus Heaney(M) with Dunnes Stores Workers at a anti apartheid demo. 19/10/1985 Photo: Eamonn Farrell Photocall Ireland
Pacemaker: 10/09/09 Poet Seamus Heaney unveils the key stone on the site of the new Lyric Theatre in Belfast
Pacemaker: Field Day Theatre Company performing "The Cure at Troy" by Seamus Heaney, directed by Stephen Rea
A sculpture, which marks the completion of the Bellaghy Community Regeneration Improvement Special Programme, was unveiled Thursday 2nd April 2009 by the Nobel Prize winning poet Seamus Heaney
A sculpture, which marks the completion of the Bellaghy Community Regeneration Improvement Special Programme, was unveiled Thursday 2nd April 2009 by the Nobel Prize winning poet Seamus Heaney
A sculpture, which marks the completion of the Bellaghy Community Regeneration Improvement Special Programme, was unveiled Thursday 2nd April 2009 by the Nobel Prize winning poet Seamus Heaney
6-07-2010: A new £50m library at Queen's University was officially opened by Seamus Heaney (right), picutred with Vice Chancellor of Queen's, Professor Peter Gregson.
6-07-2010: A new £50m library at Queen's University was officially opened by Seamus Heaney
6-07-2010: A new £50m library at Queen's University was officially opened by Seamus Heaney
10/09/2009: Poet Seamus Heaney at Lyric Threshold Stone unveiling at the widely recognised Lyric Theatre as the unveiling of the threshold stone highlights the progress that has been made with the construction of the new theatre

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.

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