I called the Heaney house once years ago. Maybe thirty years, now. The phone was answered by one of the boys. Michael, Im pretty sure. He was a teen-ager at the time. Having known him since he was a kid, I was glad to have a chance to have a chat and hear what he was up to. After a while, Michael ventured, I suppose youll want to speak to head-the-ball? Not being a parent at the time, I was a little taken aback by the familiarity, perhaps even the over-familiarity, of this nomenclature. Even if Michael didnt call Seamus head-the-ball to his face (which Im pretty sure he didnt), I realize now that it was a very telling moment. It was a moment that suggested a wonderfully relaxed attitude between father and teen-age son, one I now see as highly difficult to establish and maintain.
The Seamus Heaney who was renowned the world over was never a man who took himself too seriously, certainly not with his family and friends. He had, after all, a signal ability to make each of us feel connected not only to him but to one another. Weve all spent many years thinking about his poetry. Well all spend many more years thinking about it. Its the person rather than the poet Im focussing on today. The person who did everything con brio, with vigor. This was, after all, the Seamus Heaney who repurposed Yeatss description of a bronze chariot in his poem Who Goes With Fergus? and referred to his B.M.W. as a brazen car. However the Seamus Heaney were here to celebrate today might be described, brazen is hardly a word that comes to mind. Anything that smacks of ostentation would be quite inappropriate. As would anything that smacks of meanness of spirit. A word that might come to mind is bounteous. And, while Im in the realm of the Bs, maybe even bouncy.
This last may seem a bit strange, but I have a distinct memory of playing football with Seamus, Michael, and Christopher somewhere in or around Glanmore. When I say football, I need to be clear, particularly when this could well have been in an era when soccer was perceived as a foreign game. Lets put it like this. It was not a game in which Seamuss talent for heading the ball was ever called on. It was Gaelic football, and I have to tell you that I speak as someone whos been shoulder-charged by Seamus Heaney. He bounced me off like snow off a plough. Benignly, though. Benign is another word that comes to mind.
Actually, benign is somewhat inadequate. Big-hearted is coming closer. On the subject of the heart, when Seamus was fitted with a monitored electronic device a few years ago he took an almost unseemly delight in announcing, Blessed are the pacemakers. Seamuss big-hearted celebrity attracted other celebrities, of course. Movers and shakers always attract movers and shakers. Was it a young Michael (or a young Christopher, perhaps?), who was introduced to a couple of dinner guests and inquired of each of them in turn, What is it youre famous for? To return to Seamuss capacity to act con brio, I dont think Ive ever seen another human being, with the possible exception of Usain Bolt, move with such speed and accuracy as did Seamus when he heard the then toddler Catherine-Ann cry out in distress after falling in the yard. He positively sprinted, swept her up in his arms, brought her to a safe place.
It was Seamus Heaneys unparalleled capacity to sweep all of us up in his arms that were honoring today. Though Seamus helped all of us develop our imaginative powers we can only imperfectly imagine what Marie is going through. She above all recognizes that other great attribute of Seamus Heaney. Im thinking of his beauty. Today we mourn with Marie and the children, as well as the extended families, the nation, the wide world. We remember the beauty of Seamus Heaney - as a bard, and in his being.