Seamus Heaney: poet, friend and a man you could rely onImage

It is truly a shock that Seamus Heaney has passed away, and very sad. He was so much in the world, with a passion to understand it, that it is almost impossible to fathom that he is no longer with us.

Heaney and his work were not only part of the national consciousness. He, and his family, were also intertwined with my own family and the lives and milieu of my parents. It began when Heaney, as a poet, and my father, as a sculptor, both emerged in the 1960s as native artistic talents, with a fresh profile and creative work that was rooted in a modern Irish experience. They shared the same social milieu, with Wicklow parties held by Garech Browne of Claddagh Records and The Chieftains fame, as well as other lively associations with poets, artists and musicians.

Later, they both settled into (relative) domesticity and family life. One evening my father visited the Heaney’s after the birth of their third child, Catherine Anne. My father had a habit of sketching for people and he did a drawing on the spot in honour of ‘the as yet unnamed daughter’. I found this humorously apt since it was for a poet whose very vocation was the naming of things

I put this in my book, ‘Breaking the Mould – A Story of Art and Ireland’ (2009), which describes this creative scene and includes a number of references to Heaney. I also quoted from his wonderful poem to his sons, ‘A Kite for Michael and Christopher’, to describe my own changing relationship with my father, by re-using his metaphor of an airborne kite. Heaney roguishly approved and sent me a hand-typed copy of the poem, with a kind inscription to the ‘Kiteman’. I like to think it was a belated return for the drawing. It is certainly a poem that is being much quoted this week, in the context of Seamus moving on and the shifting of a generation to his children.

In another story, I described how Heaney participated in the unveiling of a big sculpture of my father’s in Belfast in 1971, during which he recited his famous ‘The Forge’, in honour of my father, since it was about ironwork, forges and sculpture-like activity. But before the unveiling, Heaney also helped out with the sculpture’s installation, and mucked out in holding up the huge piece of metal! He was a generous and down to earth man, who also had a mischievous sense of humour and a playful gregarious quality. After meeting him as a child, I then saw a lot of him later on the diplomatic circuit, especially when he turned up in North America at readings and Irish-American events. His poetry was often used in our speeches, including on Northern Ireland, where his phrases were a human respite to all the political rhetoric.

Heaney explored, at the most profound level, the themes of reconciliation and regeneration. In 2009, a sculpture of my father’s entitled ‘Eve’ was unveiled at the Irish Museum of Modern Art. It was an emaciated figure inspired by German suffering after World War Two but it was resonant of all such suffering, as well as renewal. By an extraordinary coincidence, my father passed away days before the unveiling and so neither he, nor we, could make the event. However, Seamus Heaney was there and he stepped into the breech, and stood next to the sculpture, to say a few well-chosen words. He was always a man you could rely on. Kiteman, farewell.