Seamus Heaney left us last Friday. It is not natural for the human condition to say goodbye. To let go. And in this case it was proving even more difficult. Seamus Heaney was always going to be part of our lives. Our constant. Our poetic touchstone.
There was an air of mostly unrelenting sadness in The Church of the Sacred Heart in Dublin, and in the sunlit grounds outside where all lingered for more than an hour.
And then, home is the hero to Derry where he has just spent his first night in the soil of his beloved Bellaghy. Next to his brother Christopher Heaney who died in a road accident, aged four.
... A four foot box. A foot for every year.
The same soil which honed his poem, Digging.
Between my finger and thumb, the squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down...
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
Chief celebrant and family friend, Monsignor Brendan Devlin, opened by telling us that he felt that Seamus might “like the funeral Mass to be celebrated in an Ulster accent”. He added that “Heaney could speak to the King of Sweden or an Oxford don or a south Derry neighbour in the directness of a common and shared humanity."
Music can evoke a memory, a person, a place, an emotion, in seconds. And so it was yesterday for the congregation of friends and admirers whose presence included President Michael D. Higgins and his wife Sabina, both notable artists themselves, and so many other artists known and unknown. Even more so for Marie and family as they listened to Seamus’s favourite music whilst gracefully and publicly grappling with their individual private grief.
Táimse im’ Chodladh is ná Dúisfear mé (I Am Sleeping and Don't Awaken Me) played by fellow northerner friend Neil Martin on cello and another of Seamus’s great friends Liam O’ Flynn on uilleann pipes, serenaded the Service’s opening moments. As this gentle air rambled round the church, its lyrics which as we know are about routing unwelcome neighbours from our land, evoked quiet discerning smiles.
Musician and brother of Marie, Barry Devlin, read the Responsorial Psalm whose last lines were::
Surely goodness and kindness shall follow me
All the days of my life.
In the Lord’s own house shall I dwell
For ever and ever.
Slieve Gallon Braes followed. Slieve Gallon Braes of course, is his local landscape in South Derry where he played, before taking his leave.
...Oft times in the evenings and the sun in the west
I roamed hand in hand with the one I love best
But the dreams of youth have vanished and I am far away
So farewell unto ye bonny, bonny Slieve Gallon Braes...
Next, we left Dublin and headed to Tipperary and Seán Ó Duibhir a’ Ghleanna, whose theme is very similar to the first musical offering.
After that, on to Kerry and Liam’s uilleann pipes capturing the hauntingly beautiful Port na bPucaí, (The Music of the Fairies), from the Blasket Islands. It is said that islanders heard this mystical music, and they, thinking that it was the voices of troubled spirits in the body of water between Dún Chaoin and the Blasket Islands, (called The Blasket Sound), composed this air using the notes they had heard, in an attempt to placate the ghosts.
Tony MacMahon also, has a magnificent rendition of it which is available on utube. On closing our eyes and opening our ears, we’re transported back several Irish centuries.
Another personal choice of Seamus for the occasion was Brahm’s Lullaby, whose soothing notes and tonal beauty from Neil were comforting just then. Seamus of course would have selected it also because of the gaelic suaintrí which has the same air.
Suanmhar sítheach go lá
‘Measc na lilí ‘sna mbláth.
Go mbeir-se a stór
Gan tuirse gan brón.
May you have peaceful slumber till dawn
Among the lilies and the flowers.
Michael Quinn’s sympathic organ playing provided perfect sorbets for Neil and Liam’s soulful interpretations of Seamus’s favourite pieces.
Friend Peter Fallon recited The Given Note, thought to be Seamus’s response to Port na bPucaí, and written in full on the back of the very simple Mass Leaflet, titled: A Celebration of the life of Seamus Heaney.
Shortly after the final liturgical farewell “May flights of angels take thee to thy rest”, Seamus was facing Derry. Home.
Mo Ghile Mear, a rousing and poignant lament about leaving, accompanied him through the last earthly portal through which he would pass. Many of the congregration quietly joined in its chorus. As he was wheeled past the family I felt that this was his final tribute to Marie. Mo Ghile Mear, My Steadfast Hero. Mo Ghile Marie.
Seamus spoke at Ciarán MacMathúna’s funeral a few years ago. He described Ciarán’s weekly programme Mo Cheol Thú and alluded to that mellifluous voice which sent us to sleep several times between 8 and 9 each Sunday Morning for over 35years. Of Ciarán’s voice, Seamus said that “The quiet in it spoke to the quiet in you."
A similar quietude prevailed yesterday. Often, there is great dignity in silence. And all of the Service’s elements, in part because they came from, and went into, silence, were beautiful.
“I suppose you want to talk to head-the-ball”, said a teenage MIchael Heaney to Paul Muldoon when Paul rang the house some years ago. Poet and friend spoke of Heaney’s sense of humour. When fitted with a monitored, electronic timing device some years ago, Muldoon said that Heaney “took an almost unseemly delight in announcing ‘Blessed are the pacemakers’. ”
Son Michael added that “minutes before he died, Seamus texted Marie with these words:
“Noli timere”. No need to worry. Don’t be afraid.” Was he, I wonder, hearing the music and the words of “Be not afraid. I go before you always”?
A heartfelt homage to a wonderful and talented human being. So privileged to have been there.
May that soil rest lightly o’er you, Seamus, genial gentle man, gentleman.