DUBLIN -- They came on Sunday night to say goodbye to Seamus Heaney, Ireland’s greatest modern poet, and the crowd was somber and respectful.
Afterwards they spilled out into the surrounding church courtyard, men and women of all ages and backgrounds, conversing on a beautiful late summer evening in South Dublin about a poet who touched the lives of so many.
Inside the Sacred Heart church in Donnybrook was full to overflowing, cars double-parked along what is one of Dublin’s busiest traffic routes.
Inside, the body of the poet was laid out with a simple prayer book placed on the coffin. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin remembered a spiritual and deeply humble man who inspired generations of Irish. There were no idle words manufactured for the occasion.
The wait to commiserate with the family and pay respects was long, but no one seemed to mind.
The death of a great poet is a moment of huge significance in Ireland, where literary tradition and cultural expression is a great part of society.
When a Nobel Prize winner passes it signifies the fall of a very big tree in the forest.
A few hours earlier in Croke Park at the All-Ireland semifinal between Dublin and Kerry, the 80,000 present delivered a standing ovation when a moment’s silence for Heaney was called for.
Imagine such a reaction before a Super Bowl in America, where no poet has anything remotely like the hold that Heaney had on the Irish population.
Partly it was Heaney’s reputation too. He was a wonderful person as well as a great poet. There were never any airs and graces, no great man puffing himself up like many other literati.
Such a persona was complete anathema to Heaney who like his poetry was simple yet so profound.
I last met Heaney in 2012 at the American Ireland Fund dinner in Cork where former President Bill Clinton was among those utterly in awe when he winner walked in.
Clinton is rarely that impressed with anyone other than fellow world leaders, but Heaney made a profound impact on him.
Heaney had a kind word for everyone there, was shy at the podium, yet embraced what the Ireland Fund was doing.
Over the years I have met him at various Irish American events and always marveled at his humble attitude. He was not overly impressed with success, paid attention to the low and lonely more than the high and mighty and was a living proof of Ireland’s extraordinary ability to create geniuses.
Consider Heaney’s high school in Derry, St. Columb’s, had other past pupils such fellow Nobel Prize winner John Hume, playwright Brian Friel, who many believe deserved a Nobel, and composer Phil Coulter among others. And that is just one high school.
Heaney would have been right at home with the politicians, intellectuals, and ordinary folk who came to mourn his passing.
Publisher’s Weekly once wrote that Heaney “has an aura, if not a star power, shared by few contemporary poets, emanating as much from his leonine features and un-pompous sense of civic responsibility as from the immediate accessibility of his lines.”
Amen to that, and may he rest in peace.