Irish President Michael D Higgins paid a warm tribute to his friend Seamus Heaney yesterday as he visited the centre built in the celebrated poet's memory.
Accompanied by his wife Sabina for his first visit to the Seamus Heaney HomePlace in Bellaghy's former RUC station, President Higgins was guided around the exhibition by the poet's widow Marie and son Michael.
The Irish head of state, who has himself published collections of poetry, told invited guests: "Ireland as a country is indebted to the words and achievements of Seamus Heaney, a man I'm proud to have called my friend.
"The themes of change and remembering run throughout his most famous works.
"His art and his human remembrance will live on in his words, and here, at Seamus Heaney HomePlace, we see the finest example of that - we can remember how this place once was and we can now see how it has changed, to be enjoyed for generations to come.
"Change, optimism, hope, creation and how to craft a better society were all passions of Seamus, and the fact that his sudden death in August 2013 reverberated around the world is testament to the power he could wield with his words."
The centre, opened in September 2016, chronicles the life and influences of the world-renowned poet who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995. It has been visited by almost 50,000 people from 27 different countries since then.
President Higgins said: "I'm delighted to be able to pay a personal tribute to Ireland's greatest poet of the 20th century.
"It's uplifting for so many people to be able to come here and share in his life and legacy.
"It's my first visit here and I'm struck by the sense of place and habitation and the shared culture of creativity. The opportunity to see the world that influences Seamus Heaney is extraordinary.
"He was, first and foremost, a son of Bellaghy and right here is where he found the beat to which his poetry moved."
He added: "This is a place that belongs to Seamus, a place that echoes with his words and with the memories of those who knew and were influenced by him."
Michael Heaney said the family was delighted at the President's visit "not just in his official capacity, but as a personal friend and as a poet".
President Higgins was presented with a carving made from 8,000-year-old bogwood to celebrate his visit and was treated to a performance from local musicians and a reading of three of Heaney's most famous poems by Belfast actor Ian McElhinney.
The Game of Thrones and Derry Girls star said it was a privilege to be asked to perform on such a special occasion.
"I've been here to perform before and it's a lovely, intimate setting," he said.
"Simplicity was one of Heaney's greatest qualities. Simplicity in life, simplicity in language, warm and touching.
"This HomePlace is a perfect reflection of all Heaney was in life."
Councillor Dominic Molloy said the visit was "a truly historic occasion" for HomePlace and for Mid Ulster.
"Here in Bellaghy, we not only have the privilege of helping to preserve the legacy of Seamus Heaney, but also to contribute to the development of the 'creative communities' of which the President is a passionate advocate," he commented.