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Tributes to Bellaghy blacksmith Barney Devlin whose legend was forged by Seamus Heaney poems

By Cate McCurry

Published 20/02/2016

Barney Devlin at the forge near Castledawson that inspired the poet Seamus Heaney
Barney Devlin at the forge near Castledawson that inspired the poet Seamus Heaney
Barney Devlin with a painting of him and Seamus Heaney
Seamus Heaney

The blacksmith who inspired two of Seamus Heaney's most memorable poems has died peacefully at his home at the age of 96.

Barney Devlin, from Hillhead near Bellaghy in Co Londonderry, was the inspiration for late Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney's famous poem The Forge.

Heaney first wrote about his metal-hammering hero craftsman in the poem that was part of his 1969 collection A Door Into The Dark, which takes its title from the poem's first line: "All I know is a door into the dark."

The world-renowned bard again penned verse about the romance of the forge in The Midnight Anvil from his 2006 collection District And Circle, in which Devlin rings in the millennial New Year by striking his anvil 12 times, while someone holds up a phone so his nephew in Canada can hear the clangs.

Mr Devlin was described as a "much-loved" grandfather and great-grandfather and husband of the late Margaret (Peg) and dear father of Clare McCusker, Joe, Anne Scott, Kieran, Barry, Patricia Kelly, Teresa, Gerard and the late Hugh.

The Poetry House, an arts group in Derry that promotes Heaney's legacy, posted on its Facebook page on Thursday night: "It is with regret this evening that we announce the passing of our wonderful friend Barney Devlin.

"A character in his own right, Barney achieved fame in the latter half of his long life as Seamus Heaney's unlikely muse in the eponymous poem that brought fame to Barney's tiny forge at Hillhead.

"I'm sure you will join us in 'tapping the anvil' in memory of another great man who this evening has left this place of ours that little bit darker."

Devlin's forge has become an essential stop-off on the Seamus Heaney tourist trail in Co Derry.

In Mr Devlin's living room, a painting of him and the poet at the "dark door" of the old forge hangs above a handwritten copy of the poem, signed off with the note "Hammer on Barney".

He previously said: "Taking visitors from across the world through the dark door is like a second pension to me in my old age.

"It's busy and it's a real honour. People don't realise it, but he actually wrote the poem before he even crossed the dark door. When he arrived he laughed because everything was in place as he wrote it."

It is understood Barney kept a visitors' book at his forge, in which Heaney left the note: "For Barney, old friend and good example of how to do good work and stay true. I'll maybe write a poem."

When the poet died in August 2013 the retired blacksmith said: "I was shocked to hear of Seamus's death.

"He was only a young man - compared to me anyway. It's certainly a big loss for the area. He would always have called to see me if he was in Bellaghy, but he hadn't been about for a couple of years.

"It is a very sad day indeed."

Yvonne Watterson, a writer from Co Antrim, was among those paying tribute to the blacksmith.

She said: "When I found out that Barney Devlin had died, I was immediately transported back to that forge, to the other side of a Door Into The Dark, to a lovely conversation with him on a rainy afternoon last June.

"Barney lived for almost a century, with heart and craft and good humour, bringing into his tiny forge thousands of visitors from all over the world. He loved the craic.

"He loved it when people would stop and give him the time of day. Tonight, I think only Heaney would know what to say about Barney's passing. He would have the right words."

Laurel Villa, a guesthouse that promotes the work of Heaney, tweeted from its account: "Rest in Peace Barney Devlin. You gave so much to your community around Castledawson and to many people the world over."

Barney was at the centre of a row in 2014 when an interview with him on BBC's Countryfile was subtitled because of his rural accent.

This prompted criticism from local Sinn Fein and DUP MLAs, however the BBC confirmed Barney had no objection.

Barney will be buried alongside his late wife tomorrow following funeral Mass at St John's Church, Milltown.

The Forge

All I know is a door into the dark.

Outside, old axles and iron hoops rusting;

Inside, the hammered anvil's short-pitched ring,

The unpredictable fantail of sparks

Or hiss when a new shoe toughens in water.

The anvil must be somewhere in the centre,

Horned as a unicorn, at one end and square,

Set there immoveable: an altar

Where he expends himself in shape and music.

Sometimes, leather-aproned, hairs in his nose,

He leans out on the jamb, recalls a clatter

Of hoofs where traffic is flashing in rows;

Then grunts and goes in, with a slam and flick

To beat real iron out, to work the bellows.

By Seamus Heaney

Belfast Telegraph

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