Belfast Telegraph

Seamus Heaney was a real honour to know

By Hugh O'Flaherty

I was honoured to meet Seamus Heaney on a number of occasions through our mutual friendship with Des Kavanagh, a Galway orthodontist and Donegal native.

Seamus and Des had boarded in St Columba's in Derry. I had boarded in a similar diocesan secondary school, St Brendan's, Killarney, and at the same time -- the early 1950s. So we had that much in common.

Seamus Deane, a fellow poet, was a day boy in the school with Seamus. He describes well the regime that applied both in Derry and Kerry.

The fate of boarders seemed to us day boys a dismal one. They lodged in the college, ate lousy food and had to attend regular supervised homework sessions.

Seamus had played Gaelic football, as did those other poets, Patrick Kavanagh and Brendan Kennelly. I once confessed to him that when I got involved in a debate on who was the best poet, I stood back from that; but said I knew which poet was the best footballer -- and that was Brendan Kennelly.

Seamus wryly conceded the justice of that.

Brendan was one of the best Kerry minor footballers but was deprived of an All-Ireland medal in dubious circumstances in 1954. He did not progress to senior ranks, concentrating on his teaching and his poetry.

Another example of Seamus's self-effacement came about when he was hospitalised with a stroke some years ago. Former President Clinton came to visit him in hospital. Seamus took satisfaction in reporting that Clinton's visit had created more of a stir among the hospital staff than his confinement.

Another personal reminiscence: Des Kavanagh had a son, Rory, who was good friends with our son, also Rory. Rory Kavanagh, a most gifted youth, died young and here is the first verse of the lovely tribute Seamus Heaney paid him with a harking back to his own Derry schooldays:

Now that the rest of us have no weeping left

These things will do it for you:

Willows standing out on Leitrim Moss,

Wounds that "wept" in the talk of those before you,

Rained-on statues from Clonmany to Ahascragh,

Condensation on the big windows

And walls of a school corridor in Derry

Where I drew with warm fingers once upon a time

To make a face that wept itself away

Down cold black glass.

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