Over the course of nearly two hours at Daedalus, what was noticeable was how many people Heaney said hello to, either he recognizing them as they walked past or when they approached and said they hadn’t seen him for a while. After the Nobel, Heaney’s international obligations soared, and his Harvard teaching gig got more and more sporadic. What I’ll always remember is that most of the people who Heaney recognized that night at Daedalus were what you would call ordinary people: guys from the Harvard maintenance staff, custodians, a cook from Adams House, a secretary in one of the dean’s offices, and a librarian from the Widener.
Seamus Heaney the person was, like his poetry, remarkably accessible. And while, as a Nobel laureate, he consorted with the great and the good, he was more comfortable with the not so great and the not so good. If writing, especially poetry, is a lonely, solitary pursuit, Seamus was the most sociable of poets. He loved people as much as words.
He grew up in humble circumstances, in County Derry, in the north of Ireland, and that’s what we talked about mostly when we shared some time. I spent many years covering Northern Ireland, and I had been to many of the places where Heaney had spent his youth. When we used the word Toomebridge in conversation, it didn’t evoke the place near Heaney’s birth as much as it reminded us of the killing of Roddy McCorley, the radical Presbyterian who was a leader of the United Irishmen rebellion of 1798. Heaney saw that as such a lost opportunity, when Irishmen — Protestant, Catholic and dissenter — rose together against British oppression. And it was at Toome that civil rights demonstrators were beaten by police, presaging the Troubles that would engulf Northern Ireland in 1969 and last for the next four decades.
So much of Heaney’s life, and so much of his poetry, unfolded against the backdrop of the Troubles, when Catholic nationalists and Protestant loyalists were engaged in murderous tumult. Heaney was a Catholic nationalist. He famously declined honors from the Queen. But he was not sectarian, and he lost friends to both sides. His poem, “Casualty,” was about a friend, Louis O’Neill, who was killed by a bomb in 1972.
That evening at the bar in Daedalus, Seamus and I talked about a murder I had covered, a murder that deeply affected him. It happened in 1997, just as the Troubles were winding down, just as it appeared that, as Seamus put it, hope and history would rhyme. It happened in Bellaghy, a sleepy little village in County Derry where Seamus Heaney grew up, and it happened to a man, Sean Brown, who Heaney knew and admired.
Sean Brown was a teacher by profession, but his passion was Gaelic games, especially Gaelic football. He was chairman of the Gaelic Athletic Association in Bellaghy, which is why loyalist extremists murdered him. To them, Gaelic sports were a badge of Irish nationalism, something they hated. But to Sean Brown’s Protestant neighbors, his murder was an obscenity, because he was a kind and generous man to all his neighbors, without regard to their religion. There was a poem read at Sean Brown’s funeral. It wasn’t written by Heaney, but by Brown’s 12-year-old neighbor, Fiona Smyth, a Protestant. In it, she recalled that Sean Brown greeted her every day the same way: “Hello Fiona, how was school today?”
“I remember that,” Seamus Heaney said, almost to himself, that day in Cambridge, nodding his head almost imperceptibly so that Laurence Hopkins would pour a shot of Jameson’s. “The murder of Sean Brown hurt my soul.”
I’ll never forget what he said, and how he said it. It hurt my soul.
He was in Greece when he learned of Sean Brown’s murder, just after visiting the stadium where the first Olympic games were held, and it struck him that it was a crime not just against humanity but against the ancient Olympic spirit, where sportsmen confined their battles to the athletic field.
When Seamus returned to his hometown after winning the Nobel Prize, Sean Brown presented him with a painting of Lough Beg, and the celebration, organized by Brown, was noteworthy because everybody, Protestant and Catholic alike, turned out to greet a local boy made good.
“He represented something better than we have grown used to, something not quite covered by the word ‘reconciliation’, because that word has become a policy word,” Seamus Heaney wrote in a tribute to his friend Sean Brown. “This was more like a purification, a release from what the Greeks called the miasma, the stain of spilled blood. It is a terrible irony that the man who organized such an event should die at the hands of a sectarian killer.”Continued...