Celebrating the life of Seamus Heaney

November 18, 2013
Irish Ambassador Anne Anderson spoke of her fondness for the work of Seamus Heaney. Chief Justice John Roberts left, Sen. Patrick Leahey right. (Ron Charles/Washington Post)
Irish Ambassador Anne Anderson spoke of her fondness for the poetry of the late Seamus Heaney at her residence on Nov. 17. Chief Justice John Roberts (left) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (right) were among the guests. (Ron Charles/Washington Post)

It was an evening only Seamus Heaney could have inspired, and it began with a story of sorrow and discovery:

On Aug. 30, just two days after the new Irish Ambassador, Anne Anderson, arrived at her American residence, the great poet of her homeland died. Shocked and saddened by the news, she took a moment to wander out into her new backyard and reflect on how much his poetry meant to her. There, toward the back of the property, she discovered a sorrel tree that Heaney had planted in 2000.

Last night, about 40 guests — including Sen. Patrick Leahy and Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts — came to the ambassador’s house to celebrate the life of the Nobel Prize-winning poet. It was the first literary dinner hosted by Anderson since she arrived: an evening full of Irish songs, great praise and beautiful poetry.

Before dinner, the guests gathered around that 13-year-old sorrel tree, while Patrick, the son of novelist Alice McDermott, played the uilleann pipes. The ground was soaked from recent rain, but the air was strangely warm. Lawyer and Yeats scholar Joe Hassett recalled his friend’s remarkable effect on everyone he met. “Seamus didn’t realize how charismatic he was,” Hassett said. “There’s no sugar-coating the enormous loss that we all feel.” And then, in his own gentle voice, he read the last stanza of a poem Heaney wrote when his mother died. “In Memoriam M.K.H., 1911-1984″ ends with a reference to “a soul ramifying and forever/ Silent, beyond silence listened for.”

Poet Paul Muldoon, an old friend of Seamus Heaney, at the Irish ambassador’s resident on Nov. 17.
Poet Paul Muldoon, an old friend of Seamus Heaney, at the Irish ambassador’s residence on Nov. 17. (Ron Charles/Washington Post)

Back in the dining room, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon served as master of ceremonies, pacing energetically between the elegant tables. “Though I spoke at his eulogy,” he began, “I have not quite taken in the fact that he’s dead. We have to do the best we can, following a long way behind him — stumbling behind him.”

Polly Devlin, Heaney’s sister-in-law, heard the news of his passing when she was on Martha’s Vinyard. “It was obviously some cosmic mistake,” she remembered thinking, “because he couldn’t be dead.”

“We have come to the end of a dispensation with the death of Seamus,” she said.

Devlin had known him since 1968. “I was so lucky to be his sister-in-law. Everyone he met was made to feel he was an individual. Taxi drivers wouldn’t take his money! I always tried to get a lift with him.”

Speaking from notes and from the heart, Devlin recalled the time Heaney and her sister came to visit just a few days after her daughter had been christened. As soon as they arrived, they realized that they’d forgotten to bring a present. Not a problem: Devlin’s sister pointed to her husband and said, “You, you go and write a poem.” Heaney’s baby niece got “A Peacock’s Feather” — and so did the world.

“He carried our hopes, he carried our aspirations,” Devlin said, “and he never let on that he was carrying our burdens.”

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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