An Ode to “Famous” Seamus Heaney

Photo © Rossa Williams Cole.

I’d met him when I was young, but the first encounter with Seamus Heaney that I vividly recall came when I was a teenager in the 1980s. My brother and I went to Ireland with our father, who was an old friend of Seamus’s from the 1960s, and we stayed at the Heaney residence in Dublin. As teenage louts, we didn’t pay much mind to the fact that we were staying at the home of one of the most distinguished figures in Irish letters. I was more excited to find that the record collection of his sons (who were away and in whose room we stayed) reflected my own taste.
The drinking customs were a bit looser over there, so one night my brother and I went out and tied one on, and I remember my father cajoling us out of bed in the late morning hours. A smirking Seamus and his wife Marie greeted us in their warm kitchen, giving us tea and “rashers” to soothe our aching heads. Upon leaving, Seamus gave me a copy of his Selected Poems 1965 - 75 and inscribed it, “For Bill, Whose luck will not run out / As long as Guinness brews its stout.”

The death of Seamus in August at a relatively early age (74) was, indeed, a shock. Yet the praise for Seamus’s character that came from all over the world in his case rang true. The relationship he had with my father—who was 20 years older—formed when Seamus was a young poet visiting New York. It was one based in Irish lore—in poetry, song, and humor. And it started well before “Famous” Seamus. Unlike many friendships that lag with the fortunes of one side rise, this one never changed. That alone is a testament to Seamus’s character and to the bond they had.

Seamus and my dad, who edited several collections of humor, were quite alike. When I heard that at Heaney’s memorial, fellow poet Paul Muldoon spoke about how Seamus loved to say “Blessed are the Pacemakers” after he had had one of the heart machines installed in him some years back, I knew my father would have loved that. He and Seamus had laughed many times over the time when one of Seamus’s sons’ friends was fighting a hangover. When asked if he would like some breakfast, he clutched his stomach and said, “Ah, Ulcer says no!” Always clever, I also remember Seamus giving us the spare key for their place in Dublin and indicating which way to turn it by saying, “So remember, just turn it against your political inclinations!” Certainly, by that he meant to the right.

It’s an odd thing when you know someone in a personal way and then see their face spread across the front page of the New York Times, next to a story accompanied by accolades from the famous and powerful. I suppose, in this day and age, it’s even stranger to see a poet on the front page of the newspaper and featured in the international news cycle as well. But even as Seamus gained world renown, he stayed loyal to his friends. I’ll always be grateful that when our father passed away in 2000, Seamus wrote a poem specifically for him (that he also graciously allowed us to publish in the then-fledgling Brooklyn Rail).

He also included a letter along with the poem. In it, Seamus fondly recalled how my father welcomed him “to that book grotto on West Fifty Fourth . . . [and] there was always an open channel between us, an affection and trust and merriment that never failed. Marie and I came to cherish those rides up 3 flights in the elevator with the Carnegie Deli’s corned beef sandwiches in one hand and the vodka in the other. Next thing would be Delia Murphy on the record player and a discussion of who was good and who was godawful among the old and young bards of Ireland. We seemed to come more and more to our senses, even though there were occasions when we managed to lose them.”

To close the letter, Seamus quoted Thomas Moore’s lyrics to the classic Irish song “Oft in the Stilly Night”:

When I remember all / The friends so linked together / I’ve seen around me fall / Like leaves in wintry weather, / I feel like one who treads alone / Some banquet hall deserted, / Whose lights are shed, whose garlands dead, / And all but he departed….

I suppose there is a lesson here, even if it’s a bit cliché: life moves fast so always recognize, cherish, and hold onto a true friend, no matter what becomes of them.

Contributor

Williams Cole

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