Belfast Telegraph

Seamus Heaney: Farmer's son who talked like one... a real Bellaghy man through and through

By Una Brankin

There is a world of difference between Seamus Heaney's home town of Bellaghy and the genteel Strand Road in Dublin 4, where he lived since 1976 with his wife Marie and their two sons Michael and Christopher, and daughter Catherine Ann.

For 10 years I lived next door to him on that scenic Sandymount artery and would regularly see him walking past on the beach path, his big white cloud of hair standing out against the blue-grey seascape.

He would often get up in the middle of the night and write in the attic study of his red-brick Victorian home, books covering every inch of spare space under the eaves.

A night owl myself, I'd often see a light on upstairs in the Heaney house and think of him scribbling away by the narrow unadorned single bed he had in the study, where he would sometimes sleep so Marie would not be disturbed.

"The loss of Seamus will be awful for Marie – they did everything together," said Sallyanne Clarke, co-proprietor with her husband Derry of the Michelin star Dublin restaurant L'Ecrivain.

"They were regulars here and were in just a few weeks ago.

"Seamus was in great form and looking well.

"He had lost weight since his illness over the last few years but his appetite was as good as ever.

"He always took Derry's recommendation from the menu and he enjoyed a good claret.

"All the staff loved him – he was an absolute sweetheart and even took the time to send us a congratulations note on Harvard University notepaper when we won some award in the 1990s."

From the bedroom of the Mossbawn farmhouse where Heaney was born, and from the two-storey Bellaghy home he grew up in, he had a vast expanse of flat green fields rather than the Irish Sea to gaze upon, land from which his father famously cut turf and dug out potatoes.

The Mossbawn house is no longer there but his widowed brother Hugh and his nephew Owen (35) still live in the large white-walled Heaney homestead, up a lane off the Ballymacomb road, where Seamus's younger brother Christopher was killed when he was only four in a road accident in 1944.

As a child, Seamus would walk along the narrow country roads to nearby Anahorish Primary school – immortalised in the poem Anahorish – where the current headmaster Danny Quinn yesterday paid tribute to him.

"He came here for a fundraising gala in 2007 and spent all day before the dinner with the schoolchildren," recalled Mr Quinn, a local GAA hero.

"He was so at ease and full of chat, but I'll never forget having a cup of tea with him at one stage during the day on my own, and asking him how it was going, and him saying: 'Well I was very nervous coming in to talk to all those children – it's very different to speaking in front of adults, you know'.

"It's remarkable when you think of all the international renown he had. He was incredibly down to earth."

Heaney referred to Anahorish, in the eponymous poem, as 'My place of clear water', referring to its Irish translation.

He was also inspired by a stretch of water further into the Bellaghy countryside, Lough Beg, and its 'Church Island', where the top of a spire is just visible above the dense trees.

"Seamus spent a lot of time here as a child," said local man Peter Craig (74), who directed me and the Belfast Telegraph photographer to the shoreline facing the island.

"He was a very good fella, very helpful to everyone, and he always kept the home place and his father in mind, right through his life.

"They were very reserved people the Heaneys, very ordinary, and he had no airs or graces at all."

Peter and his wife Mary live next door to the Bellaghy Bawn centre where a room is devoted to Heaney memorabilia, including his school desk, satchel, coat and school books.

The couple also showed us the Sheephill fields, once bogland, where he helped his father cut turf, the setting for his famous poem Digging.

This early masterpiece trips easily off the tongue of William Cassidy (77), a neighbour of the Heaneys and former principal of Ballynease Primary School, who taught Heaney's poetry for 35 years.

"Our school was the first place he visited after he won the Nobel Prize in 1997," said Mr Cassidy, who was holding court in the town's Central Bar yesterday.

"His aunt Sarah taught for 40 years there and once when she was off for a week Seamus 'subbed' for her.

"I'll never forget him saying how terrified he was to be confronted by all these five and six year-olds. Imagine.

"As a teenager he seemed a bit aloof – he played for Castledawson football team whereas the rest of us would have played for Bellaghy – but when he came back to the town later on he would have sat up here laughing and joking, no airs or graces, and everybody loved him.

"He was a farmer's son above all and talked like one. A Bellaghy man through and through."

Everywhere you look in the Bellaghy countryside, from its fuchsia-lined laneways to its marshy fields, are reminders of Heaney's early poems, the ones in Death Of A Naturalist about hedges of blackberries, water diviners, thatched roofs and clay.

Everyone in the town seems to have a fond memory of him or his father Patrick, not least 92-year-old James Overend, who still works nine to five in his butcher's shop in the town, where Mrs Sarah Heaney bought her meat.

"Paddy was very proud of Seamus," he recalled.

"They were a nice, quiet family, very respectable. I would say Sarah was a good reader, more so than Paddy. He was too busy with the cattle dealing. Seamus looked like her – she had a big bushy head of hair like him."

The nine children of Paddy and Sarah Heaney are scattered now. Only Hugh and Colum still live locally. Another brother, Charlie, lives in Maghera, and another, Dan, in Draperstown.

Both sisters died of cancer.

Seamus will be buried in the family plot in Bellaghy on Monday. "The youngster who left the doorstep of his home crying and looking back was at the beginning of a life that would be more wonderful than he or his parents could ever have imagined," Heaney recalled of his first day at school, in his address to Anahorish Primary in 2007.

"When he entered the porch of the school he was taking the first of many steps that led him far from Mossbawn, but the memory of the years he spent in Mossbawn and at Anahorish School would never fade."

Belfast Telegraph


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