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.
“I didn’t have any personal relationship with him, but I interviewed him in 2001 when he was doing a reading at the Lincoln Center,” Dwyer told the Voice. “Before I had met him as a poet I already though he was remarkable as a man. The reason I thought that was I went to a Gala Dinner around the time Ireland House at NYU first opened. I believe it was shortly after he won the Nobel Prize.”
Heaney got up and gave a talk about the importance of Ireland House, but then he discussed the world of Irish writers that he lived among. “He mentioned Gerald Dawe and Michael Longley and Paul Muldoon and Brian Friel and all his contemporaries,” says Dwyer. “He was breaking a little of the bread off the Nobel and passing it along. He was making sure they were regarded as his peers. He was underlining their importance to him as writers and his peers. He blended them into what he was saying without ostentation. I admired his generosity, which was unshowy. He did the same thing with his Nobel speech.”
Dwyer was in highschool when Heaney’s collection North came out, he recalls. “I had a special aunt who wanted to get me something for my graduation. I told her about this book by this Irish poet. So she got me the book and noticed it had maybe 40 pages. My aunt Sheila being a great Kerry woman was astounded. How could this be a book she wondered? I still have the book and the note she gave me, which reads: “Here is the book you wanted, it’s such a mean looking little thing I’ve enclosed a check.”
Dwyer told Heaney and his wife Marie about the note and the check when he met them and they erupted with laughter.
For people who live outside Ireland it can come as a surprise to discover that Irish poets, particularly northern poets, do not live in ivory towers far removed from the daily struggles of their compatriots. For Dwyer it’s another aspect of Heaney’s dexterity as a writer.
“As you get older you appreciate how people navigate the incredible tension and the claustrophobia that was Northern Ireland in the 1970s and 80s. How he navigated all that with his integrity impresses me.”
Look at how preoccupied Heaney was with the rituals of death and transformation, Dwyer says, adding that when they met Heaney told him: “At a certain age, the light that you live in is inhabited by the shades --it is.” Adding: “The death of people doesn't banish them out of your consciousness. They’re part of the light in your head.”
In New York this week former president Bill Clinton lead the tributes to the man he called “our finest poet of the rhythms of ordinary lives” and a “powerful voice for peace.”
“Both his stunning work and his life were a gift to the world,” Clinton continued. “We loved him and we will miss him. More than a brilliant artist, Seamus was, from the first day we met him, a joy to be with and a warm and caring friend - in short, a true son of Northern Ireland.”
Vice President Joe Biden described Heaney as “one of the finest Irish poets to ever live,” and spoke of how saddened he was to learn of his death. “Heaney taught us that ‘once in a lifetime, the longed-for tidal wave of justice can rise up, and hope and history rhyme.' We have been lucky, in our lifetimes, to see that tidal wave of justice rise, and to find our hopes reflected in historic moments of opportunity.”