‘Don’t be afraid’ - funeral told of Heaney ’s last words

Hundreds of figures from worlds of arts, entertainment and politics attend moving Dublin service

Seamus Heaney filled the world with poetry and prose, but said his goodbye with the simplest of lullabies. Tearful tributes from a lifelong friend and a loving son recalled the person behind the poet — a modest man who could "sweep us all into his arms".

Widely regarded as the greatest Irish poet since WB Yeats, the Nobel laureate died in hospital in Dublin on Friday following a short illness.

His funeral service at the Church of the Sacred Heart in Donnybrook was pierced with sweetness and light when a string rendition of Brahms’ Lullaby rang out.

His mourners — a mix of family, rock stars and the political elite — joined in a hushed and quiet humming of the dreamy children’s tune, chosen by Heaney as his own farewell to the world.


His contemporary and friend of more than 40 years Paul Muldoon gave the packed church a rare and true insight into the family man — playfully known among his children as “head the ball”.

He recalled Heaney’s football skills - or lack thereof - and compared him to Usain Bolt when describing the speeds he could reach in running to his children if ever they were hurt.

"When he heard Catherine Ann falling in the yard, he positively sprinted," Mr Muldoon said in a heartfelt tribute to the Nobel laureate.

“He swept her up in his arms and brought her to a safe place. It was Seamus’ capacity to sweep us all into his arms that we remember today.”

Heaney, he said, could make everyone feel connected - his family, his friends and his legions of admirers around the world.

“He was never a man who took himself too seriously. Certainly not with his family and friends,” Mr Muldoon said.

He remembered Heaney joked “blessed are the pacemakers” after he was fitted with an electronic device to monitor his heart.

A small posy of flowers from Heaney’s nearby garden and a copy of his last collection of poems — Human Chain — were offered as gifts in the service. Heads hung low as musician Neil Martin played Brahms’ Lullaby and Liam O’Flynn performed Port na bPucai — music loved by Heaney.

Heaney's son Michael was often responsible for the "head the ball" teasing. He also laughed at his father's friends — the "movers and shakers", and famous faces visiting the family home. One of those friends in high places was President and poet Michael D Higgins, whose sadness during the service left none in doubt of

Heaney’s impact. Speaking on behalf of his mother Marie, his siblings Christopher and Catherine Ann, his son, Michael praised his father’s “inspiration and generosity of spirit”, and revealed the last words he uttered. There was no poetry or prose, and no lengthy monologue. Just a simple text message containing two short words in Latin: “nolle timere”, meaning “don’t be afraid”. The poet’s final remarks — words to encourage and comfort his widow Marie — were to be simple and plain.

The chief celebrant was Heaney family friend Monsignor Brendan Devlin from Derry, while the co-celebrants were Auxiliary Bishop of Dublin Eamonn Walsh, retired moral theologian Enda MacDonagh, Fr Conor Harpur SJ and the Abbot of Glenstal Abbey, Mark Patrick Hederman.

Fr Devlin described Heaney as a man who could speak to the King of Sweden, an Oxford Don and a neighbour from south Derry with the directness of a “common and shared humanity”.

As a country, “we are keenly aware of our deprivation at the disappearance from among us of Seamus Heaney”, he said.

Fr Devlin quipped : “I think he might have liked his funeral Mass to be celebrated in a Northern Ireland accent.”

The Mass ended with a reading of one of Heaney’s poems, The Given Note, from his second published collection. Mourners were led by his widow Marie and children Michael, Christopher and Catherine Ann.

Other mourners included President Michael D Higgins, Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore and Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton. Also present were Fianna Fail's Micheal Martin, Attorney General Maire Whelan, Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams, former president Mary McAleese and her husband Martin McAleese.

Attendees from the arts world included Heaney's lifelong friend and poetry contemporary Michael Longley, along with singer Shane MacGowan, musician Paul Brady and U2 stars Bono — with his wife Ali Hewson — Edge, Larry Mullen and Adam Clayton. Also present were playwrights Frank McGuinness and Tom Murphy, founder of Claddagh Records Garech De Brun and actor Barry McGovern. Author Edna O'Brin, painter Roberty Ballagh, arts patron Loretta Glucksman and restaurateur Patrick Guilbauld were also in attendance.

The poet was later laid to rest in his native Bellaghy in Co Derry.

Eoin Burke-Kennedy

Eoin Burke-Kennedy

Eoin Burke-Kennedy is Economics Correspondent of The Irish Times