Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 24 September 2014

Seamus Heaney: A lighthouse who guided everyone safely home

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: Irish Nobel laureate Dr Seamus Heaney with Taoiseach Enda Kenny, today handed over his literary papers to the National Library of Ireland
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
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

It is difficult to know what to think with the death of Seamus Heaney, except to try to imagine what he might want us to think: that even in moments like these, there is still a great meaning and purpose.

The poet from Mossbawn brought a genuine joy to every small corner of the world. His poetry, and indeed his life, has been an expedition into the deep and proper value of our own lives and, indeed, others.

I can only imagine how many people reached up into their bookshelves yesterday morning and left a small gap, or a series of small gaps all around the house, in order to take the books down and read them aloud, a global chorus.

Very few people can only be known by just one name: Seamus brought us together in so many ways. He was first and foremost a poet of the highest order, and a father, husband, ambassador, intellectual, word-rascal, teacher, friend, a man who stood hard for what he believed in.

He caught our country in flight, north and south, and on many occasions he was able to bring it back down to Earth in the most necessary way.

He never shied away from the demanding question, or the false politics, or the awful Troubles that shook us for so many years. He was prepared to give voice to what others would not give voice to.

He wrote, indeed, from the Republic of Conscience. There was always a sense of hope pressed in upon his inner eye. I can't think of anybody who has been more important to our idea of Ireland, not only at home but abroad, and not just in the past but in our deep future too.

He stood on the Border and cast a deep shadow in both directions. He was key to the process of both a public and a private peace. He remained an outlaw to the idea of simplicity. His poetry embraced the necessity of contradiction. And, he fought for what he believed in, the power and grace of language.

The whole time along -- even and maybe especially after the 1995 Nobel Prize -- Seamus disobeyed the forces of fame. He didn't hide away. Didn't draw attention to himself. Didn't drop his eyes when he walked into a room. Nothing pleased him more than a young writer coming through the ranks. He adored his family. Looked after his friends. He had a giant soul.

Being around him brought out a great sense of being alive. He wasn't interested in special treatment or the glad-hand. With true grace, he deflected any compliment that came his way.

There was a rumple in his suit jackets and a slightly off-hand jaunt to the walk. The duffle coat will never be the same.

What he lived for was what he lived within: a sense that we all matter, and our lives have meaning. Seamus had a powerful instinct for what was good. He was a man of great humour and beneath all the gentleness was a toughness of vision.

He remained a spokesman for what might be called the extraordinary within the ordinary. There was an ethical depth to his vision.

And he showed us the circumference of our nation, our potential for wideness and decency and hope: he enjoyed his time here, and he left it, most certainly, a better place.

There's hardly a person without a Seamus story, about a poem, or a reading, or a late glass of whiskey somewhere. He reached way beyond himself. He was in many ways somebody who protected us.

All of us woke yesterday, heartbroken. Songwriter Lisa Hannigan wrote: "Heartbroken. He was our national lighthouse." Our lighthouse, indeed.

The true value of good literature is that it brings us back to ourselves safely and then guides the way for others. Seamus. Beannacht De lena anam.

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