Seamus Heaney (1939 – 2013)

Lee Henry recalls spending time with the poet in his Dublin home, and learning of a Mournes connection

Seamus Heaney passed away on Friday, August 30, 2013.

One of his final public appearances, only a couple of weeks prior, was in Derry~Londonderry to perform from The Poet and the Piper, an album of poetry and music that he originally recorded with his friend, the piper Liam O'Flynn, in 2003.

In the Millennium Forum, Heaney read poems and shared anecdotes as part of the Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann, 'clearly moved throughout, but always at ease', his presence adding weight to the historic festival of Irish culture, taking place in the North of Ireland for the first time in the inaugural UK City of Culture.

Heaney laid roots south of the border in Dublin with his wife Marie in the 1970s, but as a boy he spent his formative years in Derry~Londonderry, boarding at St Columb's College, having made the journey north-west from his home village of Bellaghy, where he will be buried.

In three week's time, the school was set to welcome Heaney back as part of a celebration of his life and work. The news of his passing came on the day that new Year 8 pupils signed the attendance sheet for the first time, apprehensive and excited, as they no doubt would have felt on meeting the former pupil turned Nobel Prize winner.

'From the many poems typed by him on his old-fashioned typewriter and presented to the school, to the images of him surrounded by both staff and pupils on his many return visits, one cannot help but feel an immense sense of pride in the achievements of one of our most famous sons,' wrote FJM McFadden, principle of St Columb's, on the school's website.

Heaney's next public appearance would have been at the Linen Hall Library in Belfast on Tuesday, September 3, to mark the opening of a new exhibition of paintings by Helen Heron, entitled Field Work 1979, An Interpretation, inspired by Heaney's book, which featured much-loved poems such as 'The Skunk'.

In Belfast, Heaney enrolled at Queen's University in 1957, critiqued the work of his friends Michael Longley, Derek Mahon and others at their regular Belfast Group meetings, and was in turn critiqued by them – his voice developing into the strongest of them all.

His standing as one of the Ireland's greatest living poets was acknowledged in 1995 when he received the Nobel Prize in Literature 'for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past'.

I saw Heaney reading at a number of literary festivals and other events, including at the threshold ceremony of the new Lyric Theatre on Belfast's Ridgeway Street in 2010. He was honoured that part of his poem, 'Peter Street at Bankside' – written to mark the opening of Mary O'Malley's fledgling theatre in 1965 – would be inscribed on the threshold stone itself:

'I dedicate to speech, to pomp and show,
This playhouse re-erected for the players.
I set my saw and chisel in the wood,
to joint and panel, solid metaphors.
The walls a circle, the stage under a hood.
Here all the world's an act, a word, an echo.'

But the most memorable appearance was when he welcomed cameraman Will McConnell, my wife Mairéad, a keen photographer, and I by name into his home in 2012, at the behest of the John Hewitt Society, that year celebrating their 25th anniversary.

Heaney had consented to be filmed reading his favourite Hewitt poem, 'The Watchers', which he admired for its 'not-suredness' – and I subsquently wondered if the phrase had perhaps stayed with him, whether he regretted using it, or, conversely, delighted in its spontaneous creation.

After filming was done, he invited us into the kitchen – hung with many pots and cups, as homely as could be – for tea and biscuits, the table strewn with letters newly arrived or penned: Seamus Heaney did not use email. He poured the tea, divvied out the biscuits, and asked each of us where we were from.

He seemed frail, moving slowly and deliberately, but he conversed with humility, inquisitiveness and wit, listening as Mairéad described her home in Derry – and her five brothers who also attended St Columb's – and recalling his work with Frank Ormsby after Will mentioned that the poet had been his tutor at Belfast Inst.

I alone lacked a connection. Heaney did not feature in the curriculum at school in Newcastle, County Down, nor was he an option at university; I came to his work later in life.

Yet he had a story for me: of working in a little café on Newcastle's Main Street during one summer holiday as a young man, of falling in love with the contours of the Mourne Mountains, and reciting Percy French's famous lyrics while strolling along the promenade. 'Where the Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea...'

I was entirely unaware that Heaney had spent time living in Newcaste. I had never read about it in the Mourne Observer, nor been told about it in conversation. Yet here I was suddenly able to claim the great poet as my own, as so many others around the world have.

His portrait, taken that day in his lounge with bookshelves in the background, hangs on our living room wall in pride of place: it is our greatest treasure. His face is impassive, the only time during our brief meeting that it was not cracked by a smile. There was a sad poetry in his eyes that will remain with us forever.