IT was a catastrophe that fell upon us all, the day Seamus Heaney died. I attended his removal at Donnybrook church that Sunday night and the funeral Mass the next day. I didn’t travel north to Co Derry, but a huge contingent of Southern poets did make the journey across the border behind the Presidential cavalcade. A long line of poets, journalists, politicians and rock stars crowded round his coffin and hospitality was shown to all strangers by his beloved Bellaghy GAA club. The quality of the huge crowd at his funeral mass in Donnybrook — the grandeur of the audience, as Micheál Mac Liammóir used to say, was proof that something prodigious in Irish life had passed away. It had the atmosphere of a state funeral, but with Seamus as a kind of matinee idol, the Valentino, the John MacCormack or Jack Doyle; as well as a man of the people, always a Bellaghy GAA man.
What a beautiful life he had, and what a beautiful adventure in poetry he and his beloved Marie had together; an adventure from which we all received postcards and were made to feel included. It is too early, yet, to think about the literary meaning of his sudden passing nearly a year ago. It may take decades for the full force of his work to be absorbed. Slowly, it dawns upon us what a giant passed by. A Yeats has died, certainly. Each generation seems to need a true adventurer, a knight who will ride out and slay all the dragons of the literary world, while we stay at home in Eire and do little chores about the house. Heaney was the dragon-slayer, bringing entire poetry scenes from Oxford to Harvard within his dominion.
Nearly ten years ago he came up to me after a reading, full of praise for my book Merchant Prince: “The whole enterprise, the whole imagined achievement, deserves great attention,” he said. Then we went off together to the bar and chatted about poetry and politics. His plate was full from the beginning so that he grew up with the habit of encouragement. Later that year, Nuala Ní Dhómhnaill and Seamus and I were drinking in the Stag’s Head, in central Dublin after an Ireland Funds meeting, staying about one and a half hours, chatting about his new manuscript District and Circle. In a TV interview upon the book’s publication, he credited both Nuala and I with giving him the title. I don’t think we did, but he would say it just to name-check younger poets; to give them a boost.
“Yeats has died, already having the rating of a major poet,” wrote John Crowe Ransom in The Southern Review of Winter (1942). It had taken over two years from the death of Yeats to consider the meaning of that death — to place it, somehow, in the context of world literature. Ransom in his great essay also tried to define ‘greatness’ in a poet. He praised Yeats for his personality, his useful as well as unprofitable journeys, his themes and metrics, and his magnificence. Heaney is remembered for all those qualities as well, especially ‘magnificence’. And ‘magnificence’ it is accepted, can only be achieved in an artistic life that contains a religious quest. Each of his collections was another layer in an archaeology of belief; each poem sets the darkness echoing.
With his death the Irish cultural economy has certainly deflated and Irish Studies internationally has suffered a terrible blow. There are grand talents still among us, one thinks of the great poet Montague, or Mahon, Muldoon and Boland. But these are poets’ poets, rare earth creatures, with no interest in swimming into that rich bazaar of public relations and august American foundations. Heaney was a political person, a public teacher in the manner of John Hume or Bill Clinton. Abroad, and especially in America, where our current government urgently needs to butter some Washington bridges, Heaney will be sorely missed. So who can replace him? The answer: nobody. When a great poet dies the tide goes out a very long way. Even a year after his death, the light from Heaney’s prodigious star still illuminates our Irish tides.