R.I.P. Seamus Heaney


Jean and I went to visit Siobhan in Ireland. Siobhan was in school, so Jean and I rented a car and drove across the country to Galway, and other Western points. On the way, we pulled off the road to go visit Clonmacnoise, a crumbling monastery by a river. We had gone there as kids. It was November, so there was nobody there but us. We wandered around in the frosty air, along the slopes with tilting lichened Celtic crosses, and ruins. The river there is low and reflective, so the sky is reflected in the water in often dizzying and strange ways. It’s a magical place. There is a legend about Clonmacnoise. During the medieval dark times, when it was a working monastery filled with monks, a ship came along, only it wasn’t floating in the river, it was floating in the air. It stopped above the monastery. The monks were at prayer. The anchor, coming down through the space above, had got caught, and a sailor slid down the rope to free it. He lay there, gasping. He couldn’t breathe “down there”. The monks helped him back up the rope, and the ship floated off in the air. If you go to Clonmacnoise, and you see the effects of light and water and air, you can see how such a legend would be born. Or maybe it really happened.


When I came home to the States, I was telling Dad about our trip to Ireland, and I mentioned our magical stop-off at Clonmacnoise and how good it was to see it again after all those years. I told him how quiet it was, and how, on that wintry day, it was easy to imagine a ship floating by in the air.

Dad got up and went to his bookshelf. He pulled down a book. He flipped through it until he found what he wanted. Then he read out loud to me this stunning poem by Seamus Heaney:

The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise
Were all at prayers inside the oratory
A ship appeared above them in the air.

The anchor dragged along behind so deep
It hooked itself into the altar rails
And then, as the big hull rocked to a standstill,

A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope
And struggled to release it. But in vain.
‘This man can’t bear our life here and will drown,’

The abbot said, ‘unless we help him.’ So
They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back
Out of the marvellous as he had known it.

Every collection of Seamus Heaney’s work that I own, the poems, the essays, were given to me by my father.

When I read Heaney’s poems, I hear my Dad’s voice.

This is devastating news. He was so important in our family.

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11 Responses to R.I.P. Seamus Heaney

  1. And you read his achingly beautiful poem, “Scaffolding” at our wedding!! Getting tears in my eyes just thinking of it.

    • sheila says:

      Oh Siobhanny! I remember before I got up to read, I had to really get myself together so I wouldn’t LOSE it reading those beautiful words. xoxo

  2. Dg says:

    “Scaffolding” what a great poem for a wedding… I loved hearing Heaney read his own poems in that Northern Irish accent… so that when you read them yourself you heard that accent in the writing… I guess the title of “greatest living poet” is now up for grabs.

  3. mutecypher says:

    Sorry for your loss. I only know him from his masterful, beautiful translation of Beowulf.

    • sheila says:

      Yes, so good. I have the audio version with him reading it. Wonderful.

      I love how it starts with the word “So”. So conversational, almost mid-sentence. There was a good piece in the NY Times where he was interviewed, and he talked a lot about that “So”.

  4. Kate P says:

    Just catching up with this news–crushing. This is going to be hard to talk about with my 4th graders during our festival of Irish Lit in March.

  5. Eanna Brophy says:

    Mid-Term Break by Seamus Heaney

    I sat all morning in the college sick bay
    Counting bells knelling classes to a close.
    At two o’clock our neighbours drove me home.

    In the porch I met my father crying–
    He had always taken funerals in his stride–
    And Big Jim Evans saying it was a hard blow.

    The baby cooed and laughed and rocked the pram
    When I came in, and I was embarrassed
    By old men standing up to shake my hand

    And tell me they were “sorry for my trouble,”
    Whispers informed strangers I was the eldest,
    Away at school, as my mother held my hand

    In hers and coughed out angry tearless sighs.
    At ten o’clock the ambulance arrived
    With the corpse, stanched and bandaged by the nurses.

    Next morning I went up into the room. Snowdrops
    And candles soothed the bedside; I saw him
    For the first time in six weeks. Paler now,

    Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple,
    He lay in the four foot box as in his cot.
    No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.

    A four foot box, a foot for every year.


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