Irish poet Seamus Heaney's funeral draws politicians, rock stars

Ireland mourned the loss of its Nobel laureate poet Seamus Heaney with equal measures of poetry and pain Monday in a funeral full of grace notes and a final message from the great man himself: Don't be afraid.

'A great oak has fallen,' poet Theo Dorgan tells mourners

Family members carry the coffin of Irish poet Seamus Heaney from the Church of the Sacred Heart in Donnybrook, Dublin, on Monday. The Nobel Prize-winning poet's funeral drew politicians from across the political spectrum as well as poets and rock musicians. (Peter Morrison/Associated Press)

Ireland mourned the loss of its Nobel laureate poet, Seamus Heaney, with equal measures of poetry and pain Monday in a funeral full of grace notes and a final message from the great man himself: Don't be afraid.

Among those packing the pews of Dublin's Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart were were government leaders — from the Republic of Ireland as well as Northern Ireland; poets, playwrights and novelists; all four members of the rock band U2; the actor Stephen Rea; and Brian Keenan, an Irish national abducted while teaching in Beirut in the 1980s and held hostage for four years.

Ireland's foremost uilleann piper, Liam O'Flynn, played a wailing lament before family members and friends offered a string of readings from the Bible and their own often-lyrical remembrances of the country's most celebrated writer of the late 20th century.

Heaney won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1995 in recognition of his wide-ranging writings inspired by the rural wonders of Ireland, the strife of his native Northern Ireland, the ancient cultures of Europe, of Catholic faith and Celtic mysticism, and the immutability of family ties. He died Friday in a Dublin hospital at the age of 74.

Muldoon recalls 'big-hearted celebrity'

A eulogy by poet Paul Muldoon went strong on humor-tinged anecdotes of Heaney's easygoing family life, "bouncy" charm and "big-hearted celebrity."

Muldoon recalled how Heaney, after being fitted with a pacemaker following his 2006 stroke, "took an almost unseemly delight in announcing: Blessed are the pacemakers." He described Heaney's greatest trait as simply "his beauty" as both a bard and human being.

An Irish publisher and fellow poet, Peter Fallon, offered a reading of "The Given Note," the only Heaney poem read aloud during the ceremony.

O'Flynn, who often collaborated with Heaney on the poet's audio-recorded readings of his works, then played "Port na bPucai," Gaelic for "The Fairies' Tune," a medieval song of myth and legend that inspired the same poem.

Heaney requested Brahms's Lullaby

The 90-minute service ended with a cellist's rendition of the childhood bedtime classic known as Brahms's Lullaby. Mourners hummed along with the tune; some could even be seen mouthing the words "lullaby and goodnight" as Heaney's sons and siblings carried the casket up the aisle. Heaney himself had requested the music be played at his funeral.

In a tribute delivered from the pulpit, one of Heaney's three children revealed his final words: a text message from his hospital bed to his wife, Marie.

Michael Heaney said the words, "written a few minutes before he passed away, were in his beloved Latin. And they read: 'Noli timere.' Don't be afraid." That revelation opened a ripple of tears in the audience, including from Marie and Heaney's only daughter, Catherine, in the front row beside the flower-topped coffin.

Outside, on a blustery but sunny day, hundreds of people spontaneously applauded as Heaney's casket emerged into the light on the shoulders of his sons, Michael and Christopher, and other relatives. Irish President Michael D. Higgins, himself a poet, embraced Heaney's widow.

Police escort to hometown of Bellaghy

One of the poets who read prayers at the service, Theo Dorgan, said lovers of poetry worldwide had expected Heaney to live much longer, given his strong mind and masculine vigor.

"A great oak has fallen. A lot of people sheltered in the amplitude of the leaf and light and shade of the oak that was Seamus. He expanded our idea of what poetry is and can be," Dorgan said in an interview.

Heaney's funeral cortege received a police escort on the long drive north to his family home in Bellaghy, a Northern Ireland village that was the fountainhead for much of his work. He was buried in the family plot in Bellaghy's cemetery.

Elsewhere Monday, thousands queued to sign books of condolence opened in Dublin, Belfast and the Northern Ireland city of Londonderry, where Heaney attended Catholic boarding school in the 1950s.

On Sunday, a crowd of 80,000 observed a minute's silence and applauded the memory of Heaney at a Gaelic football match between Dublin and Kerry.