Death of a Poet

by Chris McDonnell

Not many live lives that, in their passing, are so noticed and admired as that of Seamus Heaney (1), who died at the end of August last year. And even fewer poets are afforded spontaneous  recognition of their work, but then Heaney wasn’t just some passing wordsmith. The greatness of his poetry was recognised internationally and he was rewarded with the Nobel Prize in 1995, acclaimed as Ireland’s finest poet since Yeats.

He was, first and foremost, an Irishman from Derry and his background and inculturation came from the countryside where he grew up. A Northern Irishman, a Catholic and a Nationalist, he later moved to the South and spent much of his life living in the same house in Dublin. Copious words have been written about his poetry and academic life over the years. It is not my intention to make a poor effort at replicating that story. Rather, I would like to reflect on the personal impression he made on me and I am sure, countless others. In later years the narrowed, laughing eyes and the tousled white hair gave hint of a caring smile and a true generosity of heart.

His poetry was never religious in that pious sense, but his writing was always deeply spiritual. He was concerned with many issues, not least being the Troubles in the North during the 70s and 80s and although they figure in his work, he was never an apologist for either side. But he did write of the pain that arose from conflict.

The title of one poem in the collection “North” (2) became synonymous with the complex nature of the Troubles, “Whatever you say, say nothing.”  In his sermon at Heaney‘s funeral, Msgr. Devlin described the poet as a “brilliant critic and an articulator of the years of pain in his native North of Ireland (3).

In the poem, “Two Lorries,” Heaney contrasts Agnew, the coal delivery man, ‘sweet-talking’ Heaney’s mother about going to a film in Magherafelt, a country-side conversation with a man off-loading coal, with a different lorry  years on that would blow a bus station to bits. It is a poignant, pointed story of the ordinary day-to-day life in the North during those difficult, troubled times. The poem appears in the collection The Spirit Level (4).

He was a man, much in demand, who had time for people, time for the passing word, the autograph at a Reading or the card to someone who had written to him without introduction. I was fortunate enough to receive one such card, with a few words of encouragement, some four years ago. His ability to meet others on their own ground is clear in his poem “Casualty” (5) where he tells of meeting an eel fisherman in a pub bar.

In a pause after a slug,
He mentioned poetry.
We would be on our own
And, always polite
And shy of condescension,
I would manage by some trick
To stitch the talk to eels
Or lore of the horse and cart
Or the Provisionals

His drinking companion was killed in a pub explosion a few days after the funerals of those shot on Bloody Sunday in Derry.

Poetry is the use of language in a cared-for way, the story told through words and lines shaped and formed with a deliberate, spare intent. As such, poetry can be a time of prayer, for it leads us to a place apart where we can listen to the voice of the Lord through the gift of words that the poet uses.  What a pity that a man of Seamus Heaney’s quality and gift was not asked to help with the recent translation of the Mass. I am quite sure we would not have had the clunky, spiritless text that it has been our lot to receive. His sensitivity would have given us a prayerful text, but that is another story.

Heaney’s voice, through his written and spoken word has been concluded yet the resonance from his life’s work is far from lost. We are fortunate to have shared a time of passage with a great man, a poet and person of distinction. He spoke to us and for us in a language carefully crafted and finely tuned.

A passage from his translation of  Sophocles’ The Cure at Troy  (6) was quoted by President Bill Clinton during his visit to Derry in 1995 in the days of the peace process that were to lead to the Good Friday agreement signed in April, 1998. It has been quoted many times since.

History says don’t hope on this side of the grave,
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme

Clinton hung a hand-written copy, given to him by Heaney, on the wall of the Oval Office in the White House.

The last poem in his final collection, “Human Chain”, (7) is called “A kite for Aibhin”. It concludes with this line:

The kite takes off, itself alone, a windfall.”

May he now rest in peace.


Chris McDonnell is a regular reader and commenter at Pray Tell Blog.


(1)  Seamus Heaney, 13 April 1939 – 30 August 2013
(2)  North, Faber & Faber: 1975,  pg 51
(3)  BBC News Northern Ireland, 2 September 2013
(4)  The Spirit Level, Faber & Faber: 1996, pg 13
(5)  Field Work, Faber & Faber: 1979, pg 14
(6)  The Cure at Troy: A Version of Sophocles’ Philoctetes, Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 1991, pg 77
(7)  Human Chain, Faber & Faber: 2010, pg 85

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