In the same peaty soil into which his father drove a spade, Seamus Heaney was laid to rest yesterday evening in the quiet village that inspired so much of his work.
Digging, with its evocative description of the earth of his south Derry homeland, was perhaps the Nobel laureate’s best known poem and in Bellaghy a sculpture of a man toiling the fields is fitting tribute to its most famous son.
In life he was there to see it unveiled and yesterday, in death, the bronze figure stood as silent monument as the poet was brought back home.
“May the green sod of Bellaghy rest gently upon him,” Father Andrew Dolan told the hundreds of mourners that packed the graveyard of St Mary’s parish church to bid farewell.
They had begun to congregate in the picturesque setting hours before the hearse ended its journey of 125 miles from Donnybrook church in Dublin, where requiem mass was held yesterday morning.
A sea of faces gradually grew among the weather-beaten white crosses atop the headstones.
Many wore dark glasses to shield their eyes from the low hung sun. It was the start of September, but this was one of the warmest days of the year.
As they awaited the cortege, some perched on the stone borders of the plots.
A few leafed through the pages of Heaney’s works, lost in the words, while nearby a young family sat on the grass and ate a picnic.
Among the notables that had gathered to pay respects were former SDLP leader John Hume, Sinn Fein leaders Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams, Foyle MP Mark Durkan and the former bishop of Derry Edward Daly.
At the other side of the graveyard, on a raised pathway running in front of the slate roofed church, a row of well-prepared mourners sat on a hotch potch of fold-away chairs.
They were almost too far away to see.
Like the rest, they rose to their feet when the first bars of a lone piper’s lament indicated the poet had finally arrived.
Children from two local primary schools – St Mary’s and St John Bosco – formed a miniature guard of honour as Heaney was carried along the winding path to the secluded corner that holds the family plot.
His widow Marie, comforted by other family members, followed close behind.
She was joined at the graveside by the couple’s children Michael, Christopher and Catherine Ann.
Under the shade of overhead sycamore and ash trees, they listened in silence as Father Dolan urged people to reflect on the significance of the moment – particularly for the family but also for the whole community.
The cleric said the turnout spoke volumes for the regard in which the bard was held.
“We welcome home Seamus to Bellaghy,” he said.
“The parish is honoured that Seamus Heaney chose to be buried here. The name Seamus Heaney and this place will be forever entwined.
“Today we proudly and warmly welcome him back, back home in Derry, south Derry.
“We are privileged to be able through this rite of burial to fulfil Seamus’s deepest wish – that he be buried here in the place that he never left really and among the people also who influenced him so much.”
For the burial of a poet, symbolism was never going to be in short supply.
A glance to the occasional bird flitting between the high hedgerows near the open grave, scouring for any last scraps of food before sunset, would surely have given lovers of Heaney pause to reflect on the eponymous subject of the poet’s Blackbird of Glanmore and its final two lines.
“On the grass when I arrive, in the ivy when I leave.”
That poem also referred to the death of Heaney’s four year-old brother Christopher in a car accident. The tragedy was the focus of his acclaimed work Mid-term Break.
Last night, more than 60 years later, the 74-year-old lies reunited with his brother in the family’s burial plot.
At end of the service, mourners broke into a spontaneous round of applause.
Seamus Heaney...receiving plaudits to the very end.