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Beautiful, earthy words on a terrible day, the death of Seamus Heaney

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Seamus Heaney's death, the world altered
Seamus Heaney's death, the world altered

Ever wake and know the world altered while you slept?

Don’t ponder it much before a big cup of tea or coffee.

Or maybe that is just how my old head works.

That odd feeling struck me again opening my eyes last weekend as the early sun shone over the surf and the sea breeze moved the bedroom blinds.

Baffled by the premonition, I didn’t know where to begin while sipping the caffeine.

Then the news was there, simply put, in an email from the New Jersey poet Tom Plante.

“Rest in peace: Seamus Heaney (1939-2013). Slan abhaile.”

As the reality of his death sunk in, I debated where to find his obit.

Irish newspapers tend to write too passively for my liking, their copy filled with quotes from politicians rather than telling the life story. I went with our local paper of record.

The New York Times obit I posted on social media quickly received a beautiful blast back from a fellow Northern Irishman of Heaney’s.

“I heard of Seamus Heaney’s death from Eugene McGovern over in Swanlinbar this morning,” Arthur Hynes, the Cranford jeweler, wrote me. “Glad I heard it from there.”

“I read the (NY) Times article which was quite good but so blatantly English in its description of his birthplace and his nationalism in its worst depiction.”

“I had to go to the RTE website to find my Seamus Heaney.”

Words matter, as Heaney knew.

Later, a calmer Artie wrote: “The NY Times have realized (their) errors and done a much better follow up article with a new writer. Now he is born in Co. Derry.”

In between those notes Artie sent me these words:

“Tommy Sands (“a great songwriter, performer and wit”) and myself shared our farming and boarding school experience with Seamus Heaney. Seamus Heaney came up out of the same ground but what he drew from his experiences are breathtaking and consoling. He found his own soul and told us all about it. He sought neither fame nor fortune, only truth.”

The mind shifted to a humble Irish poet priest in poor and murderous Camden, New Jersey who treasured Heaney, especially his poem “The Forge.”

Father Michael has a framed signed copy and it is written in on the wall of a blackened building across from his church. It begins:

All I know is a door into the dark.
Outside, old axles and iron hoops rusting;
Inside, the hammered anvil’s short-pitched ring,
The unpredictable fantail of sparks
Or hiss when a new shoe toughens in water.

The Longford priest’s farmer grandfather would often say: “It’s a terrible day: Thanks be to God.”
Seamus Heaney would have known those words and life well.

Looking for the proper obit, I did sell one Irish newspaper writer short. Rosita Boland of The Irish Times wrote it perfect.

“Spade.  Rake. Shovel. They stood under the ash and sycamore trees, beside the plot Heaney had chosen for himself.”

Beautiful, earthy words on a terrible day, Seamus would have thought them perfect nature.

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