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Seamus Heaney 1939-2013


Tribute to Seamus Heaney by Dr Brian Hanratty, Department of English at St Mary’s University College Belfast on behalf of the College’s governors, staff and students.

The St Mary’s community shares the intense sense of loss experienced nationally and, indeed, more universally, at the death of Seamus Heaney. Seamus had direct connections with the College, having been both a postgraduate student teacher at St Joseph’s (1962-3), and, subsequently, a lecturer in English at the same institution (1963-6). [St Joseph’s merged with St Mary’s in 1986.] More recently (July 2010), he gave an acclaimed talk on his fellow writer and artistic patron, Michael MacLaverty, in the College Hall during Feilé an Phobail.


Described by the American poet Robert Lowell as “the most important Irish poet since Yeats”, Heaney wrote fourteen highly acclaimed volumes of poetry, from Death of a Naturalist (1966) to Human Chain (2010), as well as plays, translations and literary criticism. The award of the Nobel Prize in 1995 confirmed Heaney’s place in the pantheon of literary greats, but his literary genius always was underpinned by his great humanity, warm generosity of spirit and genuine empathy for all with whom he came in contact.


On 11 April 2009, the Irish Times published a special anniversary supplement for the occasion of his 70th birthday, and some of his fellow poets registered tributes which we can all appreciate. Peter Sirr wrote about ‘what a meaningful, clear trail Seamus Heaney had left behind him across the world’s landscape, a trail of uplift and admiration, of high standards and, above all, a trail that conferred honour on those of us following behind’.


John F. Deane wrote of Heaney’s encouragement “to urge the redress of poetry in a world spinning free of its human dignity”. The poet himself in a 2009 RTE programme about his life and work – Out of the Marvellous – hinted at a possible epitaph when he quoted a translation of the messenger’s words about the dead King Oedipus (at the end of Oedipus at Colonnus): “Wherever that man went, he went gratefully.”


Many of Heaney’s own poems also provide a fitting obituary, but especially moving are the sound and metaphysical sense of the concluding lines from ‘Postscript’ in the The Spirit Level (1996):


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.


Mick Gribben, one of our alumni from Toome, County Antrim, is the former principal of Anahorish Primary School where Heaney was a pupil in the 1940s. He was a friend of the great poet and said of him: “He was a very learned and erudite man who could speak and relate to anyone.” The Principal of Anahorish Primary today is Danny Quinn, who holds both a BEd and an MEd degree from St Mary’s, as well as a Sigerson Cup winner’s medal from 1989. In recent years Danny had the pleasure of welcoming Seamus Heaney back to his old primary school, an event captured in this BBC footage.