In English class at school the teacher used to berate me for looking out the window, daydreaming. “Are you too good for this? Do you know it all already?” she said. She was wrong, I was always focussed in English class, but staring out the window might have been my way of digesting the words we were working on. I’ll never forget the first time we read “Digging” in class. There was no staring out the window that day. The explosion of sounds, the connection of the rural to writing, the earthiness. Yes, it was more accessible than Chaucer, Alexander Pope, Shakespeare, but it was complex nonetheless, in its rootedness, its sense of place, the richness of sound, its ability to unearth the essence of humanity in a few lines.
That was the beginning of writing for me. Aged 15 or 16, and also from a big family, I would head out to the river on my bicycle in search of peace. I’d read Heaney, Yeats, MacNeice and pen my own words, words which I would use later in my album with Crustation, Bloom.
Seamus Heaney, my path into writing, a figure who was always luminous and vivid on my writing path, as when I wrote my thesis on the role of poetry for an MA at UCD; his writings, from Preoccupations, to Government of the Tongue and the Redress of Poetry, inspire us to read poetry for its power to heal and to enlighten, to better understand ourselves and the world.
I will forever turn to his poetry for the comfort it brings, its musicality and textured layers of sonic pleasure. Generous, the poet; devastating, our loss. In the words of Liam Neeson, Ireland has lost part of its soul.
Eileen Battersby wrote one of the loveliest pieces in the Irish Times: She wrote about “the humble artist pssessed of a candid and lyrical epic vision.”
His passing has made international headlines, for he is the most read poet in the world. Tributes poured in from all over the world. Here are some thoughts from the president, Michael D Higgins, and the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny.
The President said that with the reaction to his death, “we in Ireland will once again get a sense of the depth and range of the contribution of Seamus Heaney to our contemporary world, but what those of us who have had the privilege of his friendship and presence will miss is the extraordinary depth and warmth of his personality.”
He continued: “The presence of Seamus was a warm one, full of humour, care and courtesy – a courtesy that enabled him to carry with such wry Northern Irish dignity so many well-deserved honours from all over the world . . . His careful delving, translation and attention to the work of other poets in different languages and often in conditions of unfreedom, meant that he provided them with an audience of a global kind. And we in Ireland gained from his scholarship and the breath of his reference.
“Generations of Irish people will have been familiar with Seamus’s poems. Scholars all over the world will have gained from the depth of the critical essays, and so many rights organisations will want to thank him for all the solidarity he gave to the struggles within the republic of conscience.”
Taoiseach Enda Kenny said Heaney’s death had brought “great sorrow to Ireland, to language and to literature”.
“For us, Seamus Heaney was the keeper of language, our codes, our essence as a people . . . Today, it would take Seamus Heaney himself to describe the depth of his loss to us as a nation.
“We are blessed to call Seamus Heaney our own and thankful for the gift of him in our national life. He belongs with Joyce, Yeats, Shaw and Beckett in the pantheon of our greatest literary exponents.
In Heaney’s own words:
“You are neither here nor there,/ A hurry through which known and strange things pass/ As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways/ And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.”
From “Postscript”, The Spirit Level