Books of Condolence
by Eunice J. Panetta
“Books of condolence will be open...” This is the way the articles about Seamus Heaney’s death on August 30 in the Irish press almost always ended. Books of condolence will be open in Dublin. Books of condolence will be open in Belfast. Books of condolence will be open in Sligo. Let the books of condolence be opened, for the Irish are mourning. And so are the poets, the teachers, and the readers who loved Seamus Heaney, right around this world.
My daughter and I flew overnight to Dublin on Saturday, August 31, and spent the following Sunday exploring the city before attending the Heaney funeral on Monday. Everyone we encountered had a favorite poem to share, or a memory of the man himself. In the window of the Ulysses antiquarian bookshop, empty acrylic holders sparkled, representing signed editions of his books that had been sold that day. The largest stadium in Dublin filled up at midafternoon for the semifinals of the annual championship of Gaelic football. Dublin was up against Kerry in front of the hometown crowd. Tens of thousands observed a moment of silence, then the players themselves championed poetry as they led a two-minute ovation for their champion poet.
Monday dawned sunny and blustery, with big white clouds covering and uncovering the sun. Unlike most of the people quietly flowing into Church of the Sacred Heart, which was soon overflowing, I did not know Seamus Heaney personally. I only read Seamus Heaney. I loved the earth-rooted music of his lines, like the tough skeins of beautiful tree roots exposed above the ground over which little children delight to clamber and grownups delight to exclaim. And I so very deeply admired the man he was. How he wore his greatness lightly, like a cloak to be thrown off or worn as befitted the occasion. How he caused great works from the past, such as Beowulf, to be more widely read, and how he urged younger poets to take heart, renewing their spirits with a word or two of praise. How he chose to chart a middle way in his art and in his life, as a public poet caught in the times of “The Troubles.” How he anguished over the stances he took, and how he laid bare his anguish and regret for all to see in his brilliant reworking of Virgil, Dante, and Kavanagh in the poem “Station Island.”
The service, carried live on national television, was full of grace notes. Mourners squeezed tightly into pews, overlapping shoulders to make extra room for fellow mourners. Along with the gifts of bread and wine, his granddaughters brought to the altar a small bouquet they had picked from the family garden, and a copy of his last book, “Human Chain.” Liam O’Flynn piped an unforgettable dirge. Paul Muldoon remembered the poet wonderfully, as a loving family man. The church, with its marble columns and simple beams, lightened and darkened with the movement of those big clouds as happy memories were shared and grief then returned. A soft gasp rose and fell through the congregation when the Heaneys’ son Michael shared that just minutes before he died, Seamus tapped out a message “in his beloved Latin” to Marie: “Noli timere,” Do not be afraid.
The ultimate grace note was sounded by Heaney himself. His dear friend and publisher Peter Fallon read Heaney’s poem “The Given Note.” The poem is the quintessence of Seamus Heaney’s beauty, with its bravura singing tone and its theme of the artist’s humility. The poem ends as follows:
So whether he calls it spirit music
Or not, I don’t care. He took it
Out of wind off mid-Atlantic.
Still he maintains, from nowhere.
It comes off the bow gravely,
Rephrases itself into the air.
On the way to the airport after the service, our cabbie pointed out a new bridge under construction over the River Liffey. It terminates on one side near the Abbey Theatre, with which Heaney had a long and rich association. I mentioned that some would like to see the bridge named after Heaney. “Well, wouldn’t that be fitting,” said the driver. Fitting indeed, for a man who built bridges his entire life between languages, between political factions, and most importantly between ordinary people and the extraordinary power of poetry, the given note.
The books of condolence for the great Seamus Heaney are open, and this is my small offering.
Eunice J. Panetta is a private investor. She has served on the Board of Directors of the Academy since 2001.