Seamus Heaney through the eyes of his Irish American friends
A man of “enormous modesty” and a “powerful voice for peace”
Tributes to the late poet Seamus Heaney, 74, have poured in from world leaders and friends this week as the nation and the world grapple with the news of his passing.
For those who knew him, their glory was that they had such a friend. Dr. Kevin Cahill, president of the American Irish Historical Society, told the Irish Voice of Heaney’s genuine modesty, which despite his accolades never failed.
“I knew Seamus as a very dear friend, but his loss is a great one to everyone who loves words,” said Cahill. “Although he had an international reputation he was a man of enormous modesty.”
For Cahill it was Heaney’s wife Marie who stood at the center of his life. “She was very much a loving moral compass. It’s very difficult to withstand the acclaim and demands if you don’t have someone like Marie next to you. They were almost like one person in my mind."
Cahill admits that he has known them both for so long that he reflexively puts them together in his mind. “She was so essential his entire life. I saw them when they would first come over to the US and they would sleep on the pull out couch in my office in Lennox Hill Hospital. So we go all the way back to that.”
Heaney’s great friend and mentor in the States was the writer Thomas (and his wife Jean) Flanagan, Cahill says. “After Seamus had his stroke in 2006 he gave his first, wonderful, talk at the Thomas Flanagan Lecture at the American Irish Historical society. He talked about the difference between a teacher and a mentor. Tom put his arm around him as an older writer would. “He never told me how to write,” Seamus told Cahill. “But if I did something that was quick Tom would say you’re better than that Seamus.”
Heaney was a major friend and supporter of the American Ireland Fund and the organization reacted to his death.
“Across the family of The Ireland Funds, there is great sadness at the news of the passing of Seamus Heaney. We had the privilege of recognizing Seamus with our Literary Award in 1973. He helped us select the subsequent honoree every year since. On the 40th anniversary of the Award in 2012, and in the presence of his good friend and admirer, President Bill Clinton, we presented Seamus with a Lifetime Achievement Award.
"Over those four decades he made himself available at both major and intimate events to promote any number of Irish cultural causes. He was a force in the world of philanthropy as well as poetry. So many established and emerging Irish writers and artists are indebted to Seamus for his encouragement and example.”
Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times columnist Jim Dwyer, who met and interviewed Heaney in 2001 when his Electric Light collection was published, was already a fan before their first meeting.
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