Seamus Heaney: Even people who never met him feel a sense of personal loss at his passing
It was a radiant summer's evening, blue skies above him and the sun still warm on his back. With a glass of white wine in his hand and the conversation swirling round him, Seamus Heaney looked a picture of contentment among friends.
He didn't speak much but kept smiling away, as he usually did. From his perch at the top of the Joyce Tower in Dublin's Sandycove, he had a bird's eye view and he stood for a while, gazing out towards Howth.
Then it was time to descend a floor, down a spiral of narrow steps, for a music and poetry recital celebrating James Joyce. He was the last to arrive in the Round Room and at his entrance, the audience burst into spontaneous applause.
In response, his smile deepened and his sturdy countryman's face flushed a little. It was as if the genuine goodwill behind his reception moved the poet -- he never became blasé about it.
That was on a Sunday less than three months ago in early June -- the last time I saw Seamus Heaney. It must have been one of his final semi-public appearances. He wasn't on the bill. Typically, he turned up to support a friend, his fellow poet and former student Paul Muldoon.
Seamus had a benign presence: a compelling combination of warmth and simplicity underscored with wry humour. But that night he looked frail and had aged greatly.
Under other circumstances, members of the public might have approached for a few words, or to shake his hand. People knew instinctively to give him space, however. Respectful, they held back.
I was a volunteer there and exchanged a few pleasantries with him as he walked slowly by me. There was nothing memorable about what we said: just some sociable nodding and smiling and being mannerly. He was "a civil being", as people would put it in his own part of the country.
Of course, he was also a poetic genius: coupled in the same breath as Yeats and garlanded with honours.
Several generations of schoolchildren have memorised his poem 'Digging' for English homework: "Between my finger and my thumb/The squat pen rests; snug as a gun." It is many people's favourite Heaney poem.
That analogy between pen and gun was his way of directing the reader to which of the two he regarded as mightier. But it is also a reminder that he was on familiar terms with the Troubles.
Where I grew up in Tyrone, neighbouring his home county of Derry, we were more quickened by his statement of national identity in 'An Open Letter', which resonated with our own: "Be advised my passport's green./No glass of ours was ever raised/to toast the Queen." It expressed how we felt, more pithily than we could. And it was poetry too.
But back to that unique evening of 'JoyceSong in the Tower'. Throughout the event, I noticed how Seamus's wife Marie watched over him carefully. It was the second most telling sign that his health was not sound.
The only time they were parted was when she paused to buy a CD by Fran O'Rourke's co-performer John Feeley, a classical guitarist who borrowed Joyce's own guitar from its glass case in the Tower to play it.
Seamus went ahead to rest against the sea wall outside. Later, as I walked home, his taxi passed by and he and Marie waved merrily.
A year earlier, I heard Seamus read at the Dalkey Book Festival, where he pleased the packed house by sprinkling old favourites though the fare. Bono, Ali Hewson and their children sat there, beguiled by his word-weaving -- as all of us were.
He was due to speak at a Poetry Now evening at the Mountains to Sea literary festival in Dun Laoghaire next Thursday, another sell-out event. Almost until the end, his message to the organisers was that he'd get there if he possibly could.
But my favourite memory is of him laughing self-deprecatingly, embarrassed by all the fuss, in the aftermath of winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. How did he feel about it? I asked at the time. "That'll do," he protested gently and said he had to go.
He seemed overwhelmed at finding himself in the pantheon of Yeats, Shaw and Beckett. So he turned to an expression from the more northerly counties, "that'll do" -- which John McGahern used often in his novel, 'That They May Face The Rising Sun' -- it can mean anything from "goodbye" to "stop teasing me".
It's why people who never met him feel a personal sense of loss at the news of Seamus Heaney's death. He was a wordsmith who employed language we could recognise -- but hammered it into something finer than we could ever envisage.
Yet through it all, he remained one of us.
Belfast Telegraph Digital