Belfast Telegraph

Monday 24 November 2014

This quiet village will become a place of pilgrimage for the millions who loved his poems

Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney died unexpectedly in hospital on Friday after a short illness
Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney died unexpectedly in hospital on Friday after a short illness

BELLAGHY was the obvious place for Seamus Heaney to be buried. It places him back home among the sites he first wrote about, close to the dead he recalled in so many of his poems, his father and mother, his little brother Christopher and others.

Heaney's gift was for uniting the local and the global, making the small experiences of life in a country household familiar to metropolitan professionals and cloistered academics, and they were grateful to him for doing that. He opened the door on a reflective life so true they might almost have realised it themselves.

Seamus was aware of the perception that he had removed himself from the world he described. One obituary writer said he had moved to 'Ireland' in 1972, missing the point that from Heaney's perspective Bellaghy is as Irish as Clonmel.

Those who knew him say he was always the countryman civility, true to his roots in conduct and demeanour.

But one story by Bobbie Hanvey, the photographer who caught him best, shows how conscious Heaney was of the quibble that he had removed himself. (Incidentally, one surprise of the last few days is how few really good portraits there are of Heaney.)

Bobbie had been taking pictures of him on a turf bog among the cut bricks of peat out drying, and Heaney had gone into the house and donned his father's hat and coat. The resultant image connects Heaney to the land in a way that is true to the poetry but not strictly true to the man who was used to walking on soft leather shoes and dining at the best tables.

And Bobbie said that Heaney had told him he would not have given him that image at another time; he perhaps questioned the integrity of it himself.

But coming back to Bellaghy has meaning for more than Heaney and his family. It will establish that grave as a site of something close to pilgrimage for millions all over the world who have found relevance to their own lives in his poems.

He has been described as a humble man who was at ease in all company but he was clearly conscious also of the importance of his legacy, sending many of his papers, while alive, to an archive at Emory University's Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library.

There is an archive of his recordings at the Seamus Heaney Centre in Belfast and two years ago he donated his private papers to the National Library, not something you do if you don't anticipate a great deal of interest from posterity.

Others did the same, including Marina Carr, Roddy Doyle, Paul Durcan, Brian Friel, Hugo Hamilton, John Montague, Edna O'Brien and Colm Tóibín.

For Bellaghy to have some idea now of what to expect – and Heaney might have been amused to do this himself – they can go to the Tripadvisor website for reviews of the grave of WB Yeats. Those reviews are mixed. But then Yeats had urged us to pay little notice: 'Horseman Pass By'.

Yet many pause to consider the life and the words of the man lying under ground there, important to them because his lines made a difference to their feelings when they needed them.

And the same sense will draw many to Bellaghy in years to come who might otherwise not have turned off the road to Derry or come to Ireland at all.

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