Seamus Heaney was my idea of what a great Irishman should be: deeply conscious and proud of his ancestry, yet alive to the vicious contradictions of our history. Alert to his eminence, yet never trading on it — a sensible move in a society famous for its “begrudgers”, the folks who are forever seeking to cut down any tall poppy that dares to raise its head. They called him “Famous Seamus”, but the epithet never did him any damage.
One of the few things that made me proud of my country in recent years was the discovery that, at the state banquet to mark Queen Elizabeth’s landmark visit to Ireland, Heaney was seated at the top table, opposite the Queen. It was such a lovely change to see that a country which for so many years vilified and ignored its writers (“the old sow that eats her farrow”, as Joyce put it) finally had the grace to recognise a native genius.
I’ve always loved his poetry, especially the way he captured the tactility of things — the smell of sodden flax, the heft of a spade or the weight of a sod of turf. Here he is writing about helping his mother fold the bedlinen:
The cool that came off sheets just off the line
Made me think the damp must still be in them
But when I took my corners of the linen
And pulled against her, first straight down the hem
And then diagonally, then flapped and shook
The fabric like a sail in a cross-wind,
They made a dried-out undulating thwack.
So we’d stretch and fold and end up hand to hand
For a split second as if nothing had happened
For nothing had that had not always happened
Beforehand, day by day, just touch and go,
Coming close again by holding back
In moves where I was x and she was o
Inscribed in sheets she’d sewn from ripped-out flour sacks.
He evoked wonderful responses in people. After he’d had his stroke he was rushed to hospital in Letterkenny in Donegal. Bill Clinton was in Northern Ireland at the time on peace process business, and when he heard about Heaney, he secretly changed his schedule and raced to Letterkenny, astonishing the hospital staff, and no doubt the poet himself. At that moment Clinton went up a mile in my estimation. I cannot imagine a contemporary politician who has that kind of sensibility.
Seamus will have one hell of a funeral. And, who knows, maybe Clinton will come.