A year has now passed since the renowned Irish poet Seamus Heaney died in Dublin at the end of last summer. He was buried near his family’s grave in the little country churchyard of St. Mary’s in Bellaghy in his native County Derry, Northern Ireland. This May, on the first of many pilgrimages to Bellaghy, I stood beside the resting place of this great but humble man, the spot marked by a simple wooden cross, his name and dates on a metal plate. It was tucked into a corner of the churchyard, the grave capped with a bank of clay and chained off by small white links. Alone, I read with rueful irony the line, “Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not” from his poem “Blackberry Picking.”
Seamus Heaney left us on August 30, 2013, texting his last words to his wife: “noli timere,” Latin for “don’t be afraid.” I find a comfort of sorts in the thought that Heaney was himself unafraid of what lay before him as death approached. Now, a year later, many continue to feel his loss but know that in his silence, his verse is with us still. How can I enter a church anywhere, anytime, after reading his “Poor Women in a City Church” without seeing “bright asterisks on brass candlesticks:/. . . Blue flames . . . jerking on wicks” or “Old dough-faced women with black shawls/ Drawn down tight kneel in the stalls”? “Marble columns and cool shadows/Still them,” he tells us, and “In the gloom you cannot trace/A wrinkle on their beeswax brows.”
How can he be gone from us, this Nobel Prize-winning poet, when in his lines we hear “the squelch and slap/Of soggy peat” as turf is cut from a bog and tossed up upon the bank in “Digging”? Or when he recalls for us those childhood days when we traipsed behind our fathers, following in their steps, then live to see with awful poignancy the roles reversed in “Follower”:
I was a nuisance, tripping, falling,
Yapping always, but today
It is my father who keeps stumbling
Behind me, and will not go away.
How can he not be here, this poet of grace and truth, who in “Mid-Term Break” is called home from school when his little brother is struck by a car? He who captures forever the image of his brother’s coffin: “A four foot box, a foot for every year”?
In the years to come, each time I return to Ireland I will make the journey to Drumcliff churchyard outside Sligo Town, as I always do, to pay homage beside the grave of the poet William Butler Yeats. But I will then drive on up to County Derry in the North and find my way to the humble country churchyard of St. Mary’s in Bellaghy. There I will pay tribute to Seamus Heaney. An Irish friend suggested to me that Heaney’s grave will never attain the pilgrimage status of Yeats’s final resting place, as Yeats lies beside a main road outside a major town. One finds himself amidst the remote and lonely backroads leading to Bellaghy, he told me, only if one has made a particular point of going there, or if one is lost. Yet I envision a different future altogether for Heaney’s gravesite. I see a poet’s grave marked by a polished granite headstone and border to which the people whose lives his words have touched will journey from near and far alike. They will come alone and in droves to pay tribute to this poet who lives still in his words, whose voice we still hear.