Belfast Telegraph

How the world saluted a truly universal genius

Malachi O'Doherty looks at how the world's newspapers reacted to death of Seamus Heaney

There is a funny little correction noted at the bottom of the online article in the New York Times to mark the death of Seamus Heaney. It affirms that the Irish Prime Minister, Enda Kenny, whose tribute is quoted, is, in fact, a man.

What this suggests is that Heaney was better known in New York, even among those who produce its finest newspaper, than is the Taoiseach himself.

The poet's death is a global story.

Laying it on a bit thick, the New York Times said: "A Roman Catholic native of Northern Ireland, Mr Heaney was renowned for work that powerfully evoked the beauty and blood that together have come to define the modern Irish condition."

Paul Muldoon, poetry editor of the New Yorker and another poet from rural Ulster, said: "It was almost like he was indistinguishable from the country. He was like a rock star who also happened to be a poet."

Yet much of what has been said about Heaney in the past few days emphasises how little like a rock star he was.

John Carey, writing in the Sunday Times yesterday, said: "What I remember about him is his modesty and lack of pretension, qualities that audiences warmed to."

No-one will be saying that about Bono.

The Toronto Globe and Mail also lighted on his celebrity status as significant.

"Heaney was a rarity among poets, having won acclaim from critics while producing best-sellers. It once took him three hours to walk down Dublin's main street as autograph hunters pursued him."

One of the contentious questions many returned to is how Heaney responded to the Troubles.

CNN said that his "deeply felt descriptions of rural life in Ireland managed to carry larger echoes of the island's violent sectarian split".

Poet Brian Lynch's tribute in the Sunday Independent included this observation: "It was, and is, of huge significance that his nationalism never became Provoism. Martin McGuinness may rule in Derry but he does so without any direct sanction from Derry's greatest citizen."

A Times editorial described his "immunity to the quasi-mystical claims of national identity that have caused much destruction in modern times."

Joseph O'Connor, writing in the Irish Mail on Sunday, was one of many to describe Heaney's gift with language as an ability to make simple objects in front of us resonate with meaning about life and mortality.

"He took the realities of this tiny island on the western outpost of Europe and found in them truths that have touched people everywhere."

One of the most telling contributions at a commemoration of Heaney, organised at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast on Saturday night, was from the poet Frank Orsmby who as a teacher had taught Heaney's poetry to generations of schoolchildren.

Ormsby said that Heaney's poems revealed more and more as he went back to them and that his own fascination with them never waned, for coming back to teach them, yet again, he still found things in them he had not noticed before.

Jude Collins, on Sunday Sequence, suggested that Heaney had not stood out as one of the more brilliant pupils at St Columb's in Derry, partly because he wasn't a footballer.

Brian Lynch, in the Sunday Independent goes further, to say that Heaney was aware of his high intelligence and deliberately concealed it.

"The irony is that this clever lonely child, a Catholic nationalist by birth, living in a remote and neglected part of the British Empire, was the beneficiary of Rab Butler's 1944 Education Act."

Many commented on what a civil and contented person Heaney appeared to be. Maureen Coleman wrote in Sunday Life of how her mother met Seamus on the bus to Lough Derg and exchanged stories about their relationship difficulties. She says that her mum came back resolved to patch things up with her boyfriend, later Maureen's father.

"Growing up, we were always aware of Heaney's poetry and of his role as mum's relationship counsellor."

Gary Lightbody of Snow Patrol blogged that his songwriting grew out of efforts to write poetry at 14, when inspired by reading Seamus Heaney.

The Observer editorial reflects on how poets are supposed to be tortured souls "and at least a little demented".

Not Heaney. "He exuded sanity, on the page and in person. He was calm, restrained, centred... His gift, as an artist and as a public figure, was an immense, unwavering, implacable civility."

But he is revered for more than his personality. The Indian Express called him the defender of poetry in our times.

"The Irish poet, who died on August 30, was born on the eve of the Second World War and witnessed the turbulent years of the IRA struggle. But till the end of his life, he would believe in the healing powers of verse in a strife-torn world."

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