In the nearly 300 years of this newspaper’s existence we have reported on many notable Ulstermen. Our early editions coincided with the final decades of the famous scientist Hans Sloane, who died in London, aged in his 90s, having been born in Killyleagh in the mid 1600s.
In the 1700s we covered the rise of Viscount Castlereagh, who became the key British statesman of the Napoleonic era.
By the 1800s, the News Letter was publishing despatches on the American presidency of men with ancestry from the northern part of Ireland such as Andrew Jackson — in essence an Ulsterman, born shortly after his parents departed Carrickfergus.
In the 20th century we covered the emerging stars of sport and entertainment, such as the rise and fall of George Best, one of the finest footballers in the history of the game.
Seamus Heaney, who will be buried tonight, was an artistic talent of such rarity that his name deserves inclusion on any list of Ulster greats of the last 275 years.
Like the Enniskillen-schooled writers Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett, Heaney’s stardom was in the literary sphere.
As was granted to Beckett 26 years earlier, Heaney’s achievements were recognised in the extraordinary honour of the Nobel Prize for literature (he enjoyed numerous other accolades including professorships at Harvard and Oxford universities and the exclusive French honour Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres).
But while brilliant men can often be troubled or difficult people, Heaney was a genius who, by all accounts, managed to remain a charming person.
His thoughtfulness was apparent in his magical prose, which observed the natural and human world not only with insight, but with compassion and warmth.
Heaney and his work transcended the tribal Ulster divide.
That is one of the many reasons the Province will come together this evening to pay the fullest tribute to his legacy.