Posted By: September 02, 2013

Tom Kelly. Irish News. Monday, September 2, 2013
"WITH speech and intuitions born in the lightning brain we create civilizations,
shelter from wind and rain. Each difficult circumstance, crisis, disease or pain,
inspires us; only against death do we strive in vain." So wrote the Irish poet Derek
Mahon in his chorus from Antigone. It seemed a fitting tribute to mark the passing
of Seamus Heaney, a man who with his plainness of speech and native intuition
created for us through poetry, civilizations giving us shelter from wind and rain,
crisis and pain. Heaney succumbed to death but not in vain, as his words are forever
immortal. Like many of my generation it was Heaney, not Wordsworth or Hopkins that
inspired a love for literature. Heaney set free a world of reluctant young learners
from the yoke of memorising that hardy curriculum annual "A pageant of English
verse". Heaney spoke to us in our own tongue. Long before I ever read or heard of
Heaney's poem Digging I came to the mature conclusion at the age of 14 that I wanted
to leave school. Being the son and grandson of carpenters I thought there may have
been some latent instinctive talent for the craft. Leaving school was never going to
be a serious option at that age as my father had invested too much time and effort
in keeping me incarcerated in the care of the Irish Christian Brothers.

One time, my father came home following a head injury at work whereby he required
quite a few stitches. I was horrified by the accident. He asked, "Do you still want
to leave school?" Instantly seeing that there were would be few physical dangers
from carrying a pen, I replied; "No" "Good," he said. "Now remember that pen will
always be easier carried than a spade." Heaney wrote the way my Da spoke; the way
all our Das spoke. In Digging, like me, he recognised that he had "no spade to
follow men like them, between my finger and thumb the squat pen rests, I will dig
with that". I have often wondered how many other children were rescued or inspired
in c lassrooms across the country by Heaney's Digging? I met the great man several
times but some years ago had the privilege of having dinner with him in New York. I
was in the company of a well-known Irish businessman and a very pompous Irish
ambassador. The eatery was very upmarket many miles from the culinary delights of
Bellaghy. Heaney was a charming raconteur without match reminiscing as he quaffed
copious amounts of red wine. I was starstuck but I learned an important lesson that
evening about the difference between self-awareness and self regard. The Irish
diplomat was insufferable. He complained about the length of time we waited for a
table, the position of the table, the food that was not available and his lobster
thermidor - he even complained about the poor quality of the Muscat. (Just in case
Michael Noonan or Eamon Gilmore is about to go into apoplexy at the luxuriant tastes
of their diplomatic corps this predated the economic turndown, Nama and
Anglo-related indigestion. Anyhow he wasn't paying). But remonstrating with the
waiter he did echo those infamous words of self import "Don't you know who I am?"
The waiter stared blankly and answered in the negative. Our Kofi Annan was
indignant. Throughout the dinner the Nobel laureate and Harvard professor smiled and
said nothing. As we left the waiter thanked us and as Heaney walked by, the waiter
recited two lines from Requiem for the Crop-pies - "The pockets of our grey coats
full of barley - no kitchens on the run." Heaney shook his hand. Heaney the
acclaimed and distinguished man of letters was humble, acutely self-aware but
without the self-regard of our anonymous ambassador who was full of airs and no
grace. It was a salutary lesson. Heaney's death is a loss to what little
civilization we cling to in Ireland. His words cut across the avarice of the
citizens in the Republic and the innate sectarianism of us northerners. It has not
been lost on some that Heaney, a poet of the people, passed away on the eve of the
100th anniversary of the Dublin Lockout.

Heaney more than most, understood the struggle and adversity of the ordinary man;
even more so than Yeats. We owe Heaney much as he helped us escape our miseries
through verse.

He, as AE Russell wrote; 'mingled amongst the multitude.' He was one of us.