Heaney showed us the risks we had to take for better future
We really do live in a special place. Everywhere has its sports stars, opera singers and rock icons, its 'celebrities' and movie actors. But only here do they acquire the national status of a symbol, touchstone or measure, let alone marvel, that we confer on ours as a society and with ease and unanimity, in spite of the often savage divisions we nurture too.
That's a general observation, of course, and we can all fill in the names of candidates to whom it applies.
But none of it even gets close to capturing what we have witnessed in connection with the death, life and work of Seamus Heaney.
And this was a poet, someone whose natural genius and carefully constructed imagination flourished, however amazingly in a zone without mass attention, stadium-appeal, TV opportunity or Hollywood exposure.
He was intrinsically the quietest of all beings; his medium meditative, reflective, observant, his eloquence beyond the rhetoric or declamation of common politics.
And yet was ever an artist more loved? Did ever a writer find in the very people whose temperaments and climates he sought so brilliantly to reflect, evoke, narrate and forgive such a response of listening, devotion and gratitude coming back towards him in the quietness of his writing?
It was incredible. It remains incredible. Of course, one of the tasks of art is to achieve such a connection and artists do by and large keep faith with that mission, even when the public – us – stay baffled and confused, even hostile or, worse, indifferent.
Heaney's art, though, in its glorious success, its immediacy, its direct broad avenue opened straight to the human heart, does remind us of the strange power of artistic vision to name, charm in the old sense, heal in some sense and bless in every sense. We recall his address in Stockholm on receiving the Nobel Prize in 1995, his unbearably moving account of the handholding during the Kingsmills massacre: a handclasp of support and protection which only Heaney really could identify as a symbol of how we should live, the risks we should take, to secure our humanity among our neighbours. He opened a language there and then which others, politicians as well, have begun tentatively to speak. And all that before even the legacy of his work settles into the historical record.
But what is real and tangible is how his achievement reminds us too of how much we actually do value artistic vision, after all, as a people.
And people like us, all around the globe, today are feeling that same bizarre fog of close loss and immense gratitude because this poet, this wee boy with the friendly eyes whose school photograph was in this paper on Saturday, managed to name, charm, heal and bless across cultures, nations, languages, allegiances.
Soon some will ask about an appropriate monument, a memorial, a marker to fix his massive contribution to our world in a place, for posterity, as a sign of our love – some Ozymandias-like structure. We need first to become aware of what has been lost. A spotlight shining outwards from this island has gone out. Yes, he has become suddenly completely that thing he had grown into over the decades and we were only dimly aware of the transfiguration: like Picasso, Shostakovich, Pele, Balzac, Olivier, and beyond our time he had joined the table talk of the greatest figures of history.
But at the same time, the spotlight of the world on our island and this corner of it, has gone out also. That was a light which lit up only the great and the good things we could muster, much of which the dead poet represented and with which he associated himself.
That friendly international attention which his art and his genial person commanded will never be replaced. But there are others whose quiet vision is working away still in our society, even yesterday, in hospitals, schools, galleries, prisons, community centres, and perhaps even in some attic rooms, at the work of naming, charming, healing and blessing. Perhaps all the joy will never again coalesce in the person of one individual, prodigious and gargantuan in genius and eloquence, but as a whole, as a culture, we can see to it that the urgency to create, enlighten, refresh and articulate is met with a civic public generosity which, at the very least, keeps it 'at work'.
So if we are looking for a monument to Seamus Heaney, there could be none better than making sure formally through direct legislation linked to the spirit of the poet himself that the arts of all kinds are adequately protected, secured, resourced.
It would cost us little, in truth. But perhaps, in a thousand years or so, we might have begun to repay our debt to the wee boy from Bellaghy.