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Thursday 30 March 2023 Dublin: 10°C
“Don’t be afraid”: Seamus Heaney’s final words remembered at poignant goodbye
Hundreds of people turned out to pay tribute to the renowned poet.

Updated 23:20

imageA mourners lays his hands on the coffin of Nobel Laureate poet Seamus Heaney before his funeral. Pic: Liam McBurney/PA Wire/Press Association Images

AS A LIGHT wind whispered around them and the late summer sun shone above, hundreds of mourners gathered this morning to pay tribute to poet Seamus Heaney at the Church of the Sacred Heart in Donnybrook, Dublin.

Among them were many whose works are woven together in Ireland’s cultural tapestry, including members of the Chieftains and U2, President and poet Michael D Higgins, musician Paul Brady, poet Theo Dorgan, singer Bronagh Gallagher, actor Stephen Rea, and broadcaster John Kelly.

Heaney, a Derry native, had called Dublin his home for the past number of decades, and his family – wife Marie, daughter Catherine, sons Michael and Christopher, daughters-in-law Emer and Jenny – were surrounded by people from all over the island of Ireland for the funeral mass.

Heaney was a man of peace, and it was a sense of peace that seemed to be felt in the church, with mourners exchanging small smiles between the moments of silent contemplation.

imagePresident Michael D Higgins embraces Seamus Heaney’s widow, Marie, as her son Michael Heaney, right, looks on. Still via RTÉ livestream.

The strains of the uileann pipes played by Heaney’s friend and collaborator Liam O’Flynn opened the ceremony. He was soon joined by the deep tones of Neil Martin’s cello playing.
Chief celebrant of the funeral mass was Monsignor Brendan Devlin, who spoke of the sense of taking some of the burden from the shoulders of Heaney’s family. He said:

All of us in this country are keenly aware of our deprivation at the disappearance from among us of Seamus Heaney.

Heaney was, said Devlin, a “public figure, private friend”. A man whose exploration of his life through poetry made us feel as though we knew him intimately; a man who we felt would be around forever.

When President Higgins embraced each member of Heaney family, he gently hugged Seamus’ widow, Maire, the longest.

The news of Heaney’s death at the age of 74 filtered through on Friday, followed by an outpouring of tributes from around the world.

Though he left behind him an enormous, weighty legacy of work, Heaney will be remembered for the small things. This was no more reflected than in the offertory.

Heaney’s grandchildren, Aoibheann Heaney (5) and Anna Rose Heaney (6), brought simple gifts to their grandfather’s coffin; bread and wine, a copy of Seamus’s work; a small posey of flowers from his garden on Strand Road, the stems held together with tinfoil.

Like in his own poetry, it was the domestic details that that made the most impact.

imageFamily flowers on the coffin of Nobel Laureate poet Seamus Heaney. Pic: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

Friends such as John Kelly and Theo Dorgan offered up small prayers, speaking of the poet’s spirit of inclusiveness, and it inspiring us to strive for peace. They also paid tribute to the other poets and artists, teachers, educators and scholars, who have shared their insights and inspirations with us all.

Heaney’s friend, fellow poet Paul Muldoon, brought humour to his tribute to Heaney, recalling a time when Michael Heaney called his father ‘head-the-ball’. That, said Muldoon, “suggested a wonderfully relaxed attitude between father and teenage son”. Heaney was renowned the world over, but was “never a man who took himself too seriously”.

When fitted with a pacemaker, he delighted in announcing “blessed are the pacemakers”.

But he “had that single ability to make each of us feel connected, not only to him but to one another”, said Muldoon.

He said Heaney did everything ‘con brio’, with vigour; that he was a man who was not brazen, not ostentatious. Instead, words that come to mind when Muldoon thinks of Heaney are ‘bounteous’, ‘benign’, bighearted’

Seamus had an “unparalled capacity to sweep us all of us up in his arms”, concluded Muldoon.

The final tribute was left to Heaney’s son, Michael.

In true Heaney style, he told the church that his speech would be “nothing fancy”. Yet, like his father before him, his simple words cut through the grief and right to the heart of the loss.

imagePic: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

He thanked the staff of Blackrock Clinic and St Vincent’s hospital, all those who looked after his father over the past few years, everyone who provided “such incredible support” to the family.

He also thanked everyone at Faber and Faber, Heaney’s publisher for almost 50 years.

His father had “generosity of spirit,” said Michael, and everyone who met him was lucky to have known him. But his family were the luckiest of all.

Heaney’s last words were sent by text message to Maire, just minutes before he passed away, said his son.

They were in Latin, and devastating in their simplicity: “Don’t be afraid”.

As Michael sat back down, his family gathered around him. “Brilliant,” mouthed his sister to him, her eyes wet with tears.

Before Seamus Heaney’s body was brought from the church, by special request, Brahms’ Lullaby was played. And then, on the shoulders of men and garnished by flowers, his coffin was brought out of the church, to be blessed with water and incense.

Back out to the sun it went, for him to take the final leg of his journey. He was going back home.

Seamus Heaney will be buried in his native Bellaghy, returned to the fertile soil where he – squat pen between finger and thumb – first dug for the words that made him one of Ireland’s greatest poets.

Originally published 15:51

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