When a Poet Dies the Music Stops; When An Irish Poet Dies the Music Flies

Irish poet, Seamus Heaney — esteemed, brilliant, humble, plaintive and true — crossed o`er the hoary sea today. He died at 74 in Dublin after a brief illness. He was known for many poems; he won the Noble prize in literature and has been globally recognized as Ireland’s greatest poet since William Butler Yeats.

Michael Longley, a Belfast poet and close friend of Heaney, recalled chatting with Heaney over whiskey and beer earlier this month at a western Irish literary festival: “He was a wonderful nature poet, a love poet, and a war poet. He certainly addressed the darkness of what we call ‘the troubles’.”

The troubles. They slay us all. None speak it better than the Irish. The nobility of the poet in Ireland’s history reaches back to the visceral early years of the Gaelic culture. In sixth century Ireland it is estimated that approximately one third of the population were poets.

Saint Patrick — among other things, a poet — died c. 493. At that time another Irish champion was on the rise: Columcille (also known as Columba). He came from a line of kings who had ruled in Ireland for centuries and was himself in close succession to the throne. He was raised by priests, and in time renounced his rank to become “a religious” (a friar).

By his mid-20s he had founded several monasteries in Ireland, including the well-known Abbey at Kells. Columcille was also a poet and artist and did “illumination” — perhaps some of those in the Book of Kells itself—his skill as a scribe can be seen in the manuscripts of the psalms known as the Cathach of Columba (Columcille) at the Irish Academy. 

Columcille became embroiled in a controversy (on the details of which historians differ) that left him exiled from Ireland to cross the sea with a dozen companions and land on the island of Iona, off the coast of Scotland, where he founded an abbey. (He was far away from his beloved Ireland enough to be an exile, but still able to see its coastline.)

In the late sixth century, he returned to his native Ireland to take part in the assembly of Druim-Cett in Ulster. During the assembly, Columcille defended the rights of the Order of Bards (poets), whose legitimacy was under assault by the king. He claimed that the future of Gaelic culture demanded that the work of the bards be preserved:

For you know that God himself bought three-fifties of Psalms of praise from King David . . . . And on that account it is right for you to buy poems of the poets and to keep the poets in Ireland. As all the world is but a fable, it were well for you to buy a more enduring fable . . . If poets’ verses be but fables So be food and garments fables, So is all the world a fable, So is man of dust a fable.

Upon Colucille’s death c.597, a cleric spoke in his eulogy words that sing through the ages.

And now it sings of Seamus Heaney:

A beautiful attendence  He made a vigil of his life. Short was his time Paltry his sustanance. Everywhere a pillar of learning. An authority in the strict book of the law Light of the North Who brightened the West And inflamed the East.

About Wendy Murray

Wendy Murray is a veteran and award-winning journalist. She served as associate editor and Senior Writer at Christianity Today magazine and has written extensively for other publications such as Books & Culture and The Christian Century. She has written 11 books.