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Of all the notable deaths this year, perhaps it was the sudden passing of poet Seamus Heaney which was one of the most shocking and affecting. He was such a huge part of our cultural world, both here and internationally, that his departure seemed truly untimely and unjust. And yet he lives on in his art, and in his language and his wisdom, and his final stoic and calming words to his family- ‘Don’t be afraid’- is itself part of the wonderful wise calm that he always imparted. He faced the end like it was as much a part of the journey as his life had been.

This strong and courageous attitude to life and death was entirely characteristic of Heaney, and when my father, the sculptor Edward, died in 2009, Heaney wrote to me to express condolences not in a grief-stricken way but with a celebratory description of the 1960 artistic milieu from which they had both emerged. There was ‘a surge of confidence arising from the work of being done by the country’s’ artists in the 1960s’, he wrote (an ‘excitement and a sense of both possibility and solidarity’) and he gave a roll-call of the names: the composer Sean O’Riada, and Garech De Brun, Claddagh records and the Chieftains, the poets, John Montague, Tom Kinsella, Richard Murphy, and the writers John McGahern, and Edna O’Brien and ‘the ageing eagle of Inniskeen’ (Patrick Kavanagh). Heaney wrote of the ‘untameable energy’ then arising in music, poetry and sculpture.

Later, both my father and Heaney settled into the relative domesticity of married life, and there were nice moment that were both family and artistic, such as when my father visited the Heaney’s after the birth of their third child, Catherine Anne. My father had a habit then 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

In my book, ‘Breaking the Mould – A Story of Art and Ireland’ (2009), which describes this creative 1960s scene, I quoted from Heaney’s wonderful poem to his sons, ‘A Kite for Michael and Christopher’, to describe my own changing relationship with my father, and tried re-use his fantastic metaphor of an airborne kite. Heaney roguishly approved and sent me a signed copy of the poem, with a kind inscription to a ‘Kiteman’.

At the unveiling ceremony of a big sculpture of my father’s in Belfast in 1971, a youthful Heaney recited his famous poem, ‘The Forge’, since it was about ironwork, forges and sculpture-like activity. But before the unveiling, Heaney also helped out with the sculpture’s actual installation, and got up on the scaffolding to secure the huge piece of metal! He was a not just a generous man, but one of an earthy physicality, with a mischievous sense of humour and a playful gregarious quality.

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 supposed to be resonant of all such suffering, as well as renewal. By an extraordinary coincidence, my father passed away only days before the unveiling and so neither he, nor we, could make the event. However, Seamus Heaney was at the event and stepped into the breech, coming forward to say a few well-chosen words. In his subsequent letter, he regrets that he ‘couldn’t make the turas to Mayo’ (my father’s funeral)- but was ‘glad to be Adam to his Eve.’

This was Heaney, a man seemingly not daunted by death, be it his own or those of others, and someone who gave words to the moment. After his own passing, the Kite poem was quoted repeatedly, with its fantastic final stanza urging his young sons to come and help him fly the kite.

‘take in your two hands, boys, and feel
the strumming, rooted, long-tailed pull of grief.
You were born fit for it.
Stand in here in front of me
and take the strain..

Hearing the recordings of Heaney recite these lines now, it is impossible for me, and for many others, not to become highly emotional. And yet when the sense of grief and sadness subsides, one is left instead with a sense of wonder and transcendence, precisely because of his words, and because of his determination to make sense of it all. That is the great gift that Seamus Heaney has left us.

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