The former blacksmith, 95, was the inspiration for the poem ‘The Forge’, penned in 1969, and has welcomed hundreds of fans from across the globe into his modest bungalow a few miles outside Bellaghy in rural Co Derry, to hear tales of how the quiet schoolboy with an inquisitive nature and keen eye for detail became Ireland’s best-loved poet.
“I was shocked to hear of Seamus’ death,” said Mr Devlin. “He was only a young man — compared to me anyway. It’s certainly a big loss for the area. He would always have called to see me if he was in Bellaghy but he hadn’t been about for a couple of years. It is a very sad day indeed.”
In Mr Devlin’s living room, a painting of the poet and the pensioner at the “dark door” of the old forge made famous in the poem hangs above a handwritten copy of the highly-acclaimed work. It is signed off with the note ‘Hammer on Barney’.
His bulging visitors’ book also includes a message from the poet written in May 2007 which reads: “Barney, my old friend and good example of how to do good work and stay true — I’ll maybe write a poem.”
Mr Devlin, who spent a lifetime working in the forge, recalled how, as a schoolboy, Heaney used to walk past his front door every day. He added: “I knew him since he was a schoolboy. I used to watch him walk past as a cub on his way to get the bus to Bellaghy to meet friends and to go to school.
“He started the poem with the words ‘All I know is a door into the dark’, because he had never actually been inside the forge. He wrote that poem when he was a lot younger and at that time he had never been inside but he was able to describe the forge perfectly. I really enjoyed it.”
Although the forge, which has been well preserved, has become an essential stop-off on the Heaney tourist trail, his birthplace just a few hundred metres down the Hillhead Road has long since been knocked down.
Mr Devlin said: “It was a mistake to knock the Heaney home down because I get visitors from all over to the forge. They come from Japan, China, the USA, everywhere, and they would love to see his home but it’s not there now.”
Mr Devlin said he would treasure the books and messages from the poet even more dearly now.
In Bellaghy town, where a bronze sculpture to their most famous son was unveiled in 2009, there was a palpable sense of shock as news of Heaney’s death filtered through. On the streets, conversations turned from the changeable weather conditions or of children going back to school to the immense character the town had lost.
Retired school teacher Brendan Convery, 67, who was lectured by Heaney during the 1960s, said: “I am very sad to hear of his death. I would have known the family and Seamus very well.
“It’s a big loss for Ireland but particularly Bellaghy. I have all of his books and they have all been signed by him. I think my favourite poem is ‘Digging’ and that’s the one they have the statue of in the town.
“I think there should be some sort of memorial service here, and am sure there will be.”
Shop worker Alicia Steele said although she was not an avid reader of poetry, she was proud of Heaney. “His death is a big loss to the community here in Bellaghy. He was our most famous asset and put Bellaghy on the map for the right reasons.”
Valerie Cross said Heaney’s work had helped people recognise her home town, which has seen more than its fair share of violence during the North’s troubled past. “This was home for Seamus Heaney. He was inspired by Bellaghy and he never forgot his home town. His loss will be felt deeply,” she said.
Although Heaney had lived in Dublin for many years, he never forgot his Co Derry roots.
Local Sinn Féin councillor Sean McPeake said his contribution to the arts in the area could not be calculated.
“Nothing was too big or small for him,” said Mr McPeake. “He was always happy to help out, whether it was with creative writing competitions for children or attending an event, we could always rely on him.
“People are stunned and saddened by his untimely death.”
Peter Craig, 74, who lives in one of Bellaghy’s oldest houses, was also a good friend of the late poet. “Seamus was very down to earth despite all his awards and honours. He was a proper gentleman and very reserved,” he said.
Peter McKenna, waking close to the Heaney memorial, added: “Seamus Heaney and his family would be well-known round here. His poetry will live on. He may be gone but his words will stay around forever and that’s a good thing for Bellaghy.”
RIP Seamus Heaney, Bellaghy Bawn will be a sad place today!!!— Rachel Moore (@rachel_mmoore) August 30, 2013