Belfast Telegraph

The moment that Seamus Heaney and I knew we'd be together for the rest of our lives, by his widow Marie

Marie Heaney who appears in the documentary about her late husband
Marie Heaney who appears in the documentary about her late husband
Seamus Heaney
Marie with husband Seamus in their younger days
Sarah Tulloch

By Sarah Tulloch

A new feature-length film exploring the life of Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney will air on BBC Two later this week.

Seamus Heaney and the Music of What Happens gives a poignant insight into his life and work.

It traces the story from his birth in April 1939 to his death in 2013 with the help of archive footage, Seamus's wife Marie and his three children - Michael, Christopher and Catherine.

And for the first time, his four surviving brothers - Hugh, Charlie, Colm and Dan - remember their childhood and the shared experiences that inspired many of his finest poems.

Seamus was the first of nine children born to Patrick Heaney, a cattle and dairy farmer, and Margaret McCann. He was raised on the family farm of Mossbawn, Co Londonderry.

Seamus Heaney

"At that time we had no milking machine. The cows were all hand-milked," his brother Charlie says.

"Seamus would have milked them but he was a one-hander. The experts used two hands."

While Seamus's farming skills left much to be desired, he did well enough in his school exams to study English Language and Literature at Queen's University.

Speaking on the programme, Marie says she met her late husband at a dinner at the university while they were studying in Belfast.

Both hailing from farming backgrounds and close-knit families, they had a lot in common and clicked immediately.

"We sat quite close to each other at the table and got on very well because, apart from anything else, we had the district in common," says Marie.

"He lent me a book and this was a Tuesday night. I said, 'When will I have it back to you?' and he said 'Thursday'. So I was going to have to read it fast.

"We met on the Thursday and though we're both fairly cautious people, I think we both knew then we would end up together and we did for over 50 years."

Marie with husband Seamus in their younger days

Her first impressions of the Bellaghy man were that he was "very handsome, unusual looking and very charming".

"It wasn't hard to fall for him," admits Marie.

After their first date, Heaney wrote Twice Shy for her, detailing their afternoon stroll on Ormeau Embankment on "locked-park Sunday Belfast".

"I'd have known a bad poet if I'd got it," laughs Marie, who says she was the poet's first reader. "But I wasn't getting a bad poem. I was getting a wonderful poem."

The couple married in August 1965 in Ardboe, a small parish on the shores of Lough Neagh where Marie grew up.

Heaney recounts the union in his poem Wedding Day, which tells of Marie's father's "wild grief" as he watched his first-born daughter fly the nest.

While he went on to write many more love poems for Marie, contrastingly, many of his major works were written during the Troubles and carry powerful imagery and themes of violence and conflict.

Having been raised practising Catholicism, Irish literary critic and friend of Seamus, Edna Longley, said the poet felt there was an enormous pressure on him to make his work overtly political and speak for the "insurgent" Catholic community.

She explains in the programme: "Seamus had to tread a very difficult tightrope of indeed speaking for the people but at the same time remaining true to the poetry and the complexities of a poem."

The BBC documentary hears Seamus's family and friends tell of their heartbreak at the death of their much-loved father, brother, husband and friend in August 2013.

Speaking about the text Seamus sent to Marie minutes before his unexpected death aged 74, their daughter Catherine says: "He signed off the text with two words in Latin, Noli timere, which translates as 'Don't be afraid'."

The following Sunday, 80,000 people gathered in Croke Park for the All-Ireland GAA football final. A picture of the poet was projected and the crowd observed a minute's silence before erupting into an applause.

"I can think of no other country where a football crowd will have a minute's silence and cheer a poet," Marie says.

Seamus Heaney and the Music of What Happens is a DoubleBand Films production in association with Lone Star Productions for BBC Arts, BBC Two and BBC NI. It airs on BBC Two at 9.45pm on Saturday

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