On his coffin lay a foil-wrapped posy of small lilies from his garden, their delicate beauty an easy equal for the big bought bouquets from acquaintances and admirers.
He may have been a celebrated scholar, a noble Nobel Laureate, a guest of kings and kingmakers, but the Seamus Heaney remembered at his funeral Mass was a family man and friend who happened to write poetry that spoke to millions.
The death of a wordsmith like Seamus was always going to pose problems for those left to speak of his loss for there was nothing that could be said that the poet himself wouldn’t have put better.
Chief celebrant Monsignor Brendan Devlin told the congregation that it would be “insufferably patronising” for him to use the occasion to audit the artist’s virtues and good works.
Paul Muldoon, fellow poet and protege of the big man from Bellaghy, told them: “Anything that smacks of ostentation would be quite inappropriate.”
And so it was a quiet, thoughtful ceremony that served as his send-off at the Church of the Sacred Heart in Donnybrook, Dublin, though if there were fears it would not say enough, they were unfounded.
For the small anecdotes, the homegrown flowers, the lone piper and solo whistle, the treasured traditional airs and simple, earnest prayers said as much about Seamus Heaney as the pews full of dignitaries and celebrities who came to say goodbye.
Monsignor Devlin recalled the Sermon on the Mount and the beatitudes that gave what he called the “the identikit portrait of the ideal Christian“.
“It cannot but strike us how many of them apply readily to our memories of Seamus Heaney. How blest are those of gentle spirit; those who hunger and thirst to see right prevail; those who show mercy to others; those who want to see peace established.”
Paul Muldoon described him as a bard who was a big-hearted and beautiful man with an “unparalleled capacity to sweep all of us up in his arms”.
The mourners were led by Seamus’s wife, Marie, their children, Michael, Christopher and Catherine Ann, and three granddaughters.
The readings were by Pat Heaney, one of his five surviving brothers, and one of his nieces, Sarah, while Marie’s brother, Barry Devlin, of the band Horslips, read the psalm.
Prayers of the faithful were by family and friends including poet Theo Dorgan and RTÉ arts host John Kelly, and Seamus’s granddaughters brought up the gifts, which included a copy of his last published works, his 2010 collection, Human Chain. Uileann piper Liam O’Flynn and cellist Neil Martin provided the music, and Seamus’s publisher, Peter Fallon, read one of the poet’s own works, The Given Note.
Among the dignitaries and politicians in attendance were President Michael D Higgins, Taoiseach Enda Kenny, former president Mary McAleese and her husband, Dr Martin McAleese, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore, Social Protection Minister Joan Burton, Attorney General Máire Whelan, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, the North’s deputy first minister Martin McGuinness, Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams and two former SDLP leaders, Mark Durkan and John Hume, also a Nobel prizewinner.
Figures from the world of arts and entertainment included all four members of U2; their manager, Paul McGuinness; singer-songwriters Paul Brady and Shane McGowan, playwrights Frank McGuinness, Brian Friel and Tom Murphy, writer Edna O’Brien, writer and former Beirut hostage Brian Keenan, actors Stephen Rae, Dominic West and Gerard McSorley; and artist Robert Ballagh.
Seamus Heaney filled the world with poetry and prose, but said his goodbye with the simplest of lullabies.
Tearful tributes from a lifelong friend and a loving son recalled the person behind the poet — a modest man who could “sweep us all into his arms”.
But the heavy sadness of the funeral service was pierced with sweetness and light when a string rendition of Brahms’s Lullaby rang out.
Mourners — a mix of family, rock stars, and the political elite — joined in a hushed and quiet humming of the dreamy children’s tune, chosen by Heaney as his own farewell to the world.
His contemporary and friend of more than 40 years, Paul Muldoon, gave the packed church a rare and true insight into the family man — playfully known among his children as “head the ball”.
“He was never a man who took himself too seriously. Certainly not with his family and friends,” he said.
He remembered Heaney joked “blessed are the pacemakers” after he was fitted with an electronic device to monitor his heart. And recalled how he repurposed WB Yeats’s description of a bronze chariot, referring to his own Mercedes as a “brazen car”.
A small posy of flowers from Heaney’s nearby garden and a copy of his last collection of poems — Human Chain — were offered as gifts in the service.
Heads hung low as musician Neil Martin played Brahms’s Lullaby and Liam O’Flynn performed Pórt na bPúcaí — music loved by Heaney, a man of simple pleasures.
As a youngster, Heaney’s son Michael was often responsible for the “head the ball” teasing. He also laughed at his father’s friends — the “movers and shakers”, and famous faces visiting the family home.
One of those friends in high places was President and poet Michael D Higgins, whose sadness during the service left none in doubt of Heaney’s impact.
Speaking on behalf of his mother Marie, his siblings Christopher and Catherine Ann, and the extended Heaney family, a grown-up Michael was solemn and dignified.
He praised his father’s “inspiration and generosity of spirit”, and revealed the last words he uttered. There was no poetry or prose, and no lengthy monologue. Just a simple text message containing two short words in Latin: “Noli timere”, meaning “do not be afraid”. The poet’s final remarks — words to encourage and comfort his widow Marie — were to be simple and plain.
Much like those he had once suggested for his epitaph, when asked during a documentary what his choice would be. A man quick to smile, he laughed and remembered a translation from Oedipus at Colonus — a response from a messenger following the murder of the old king.
“Wherever that man went, he went gratefully. Something like that,” Heaney said.
“That’s not an epitaph for the graveyard but it’s the kind of epitaph that would work, would do.”
As Heaney made his final departure from his beloved Dublin, bound for the Co Derry countryside that gave birth to much of his poetry, he left countless heartbroken in his wake.
Musicians and broadcasters, politicians and poets — all said their final farewell with a touch of the coffin.
Passers-by on the busy road in the capital craned their necks to see the Taoiseach chat with mourners, and artists mingle with friends. One man saw the wooden box and flowers, bowed his head and quietly said: “Goodbye, Seamus.”