Emory students and faculty honored late Irish poet Seamus Heaney with personal anecdotes, poetry readings and music at a memorial service in the Robert W. Woodruff Library on Tuesday evening.
Heaney, who died Aug. 30 in Dublin at the age of 74, was widely acknowledged to be a highly-accomplished poet and a beloved Irish figure.
Heaney’s relationship with Emory has spanned more than three decades, including a number of visits to campus, the most recent of which was in March of this year, according to Associate Professor of English and Director of Irish Studies Geraldine Higgins.
Heaney also inaugurated the Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature in 1988, according to the Ellmann Lectures website.
People all over the world mourned Heaney’s death and celebrated his poetry, according to Higgins, who organized the commemoration for Heaney here at Emory.
“We also feel an enormous sense of grief as well as incredible gratitude for Heaney’s presence here over the last 25 years,” Higgins said in her address to begin the event. “We have lost a great man, but we take comfort in the fact that we will always have his extraordinary poetry.”
Students who have been moved by Heaney’s poetry attended the event to remember the poet.
“I started reading his poetry in high school,” Behzad Kianian, first-year graduate student at the Rollins School of Public Health said. “It stuck with me.”
The speakers at the memorial spoke about Heaney with nostalgia.
Goodrich C. White Professor of English Ron Schuchard, a friend of Heaney’s, first introduced Heaney to the Emory community. Schuhard recalled a memory at University College, Oxford, when Heaney joined him to teach a class.
“For the next hour, while sharing our sandwiches and telling anecdotes, he provided the most magical teaching day of my life,” Schuchard said.
Others who spoke drew connections from Dublin to pockets of Irish culture in Atlanta and at Emory.
As an Irish native, Heaney wrote poetry that held distinct Irish qualities and conjured the Irish spirit, often invoking the landscape and political strife of Northern Ireland. For example, in the poem “A Kite for Aibhín,” which Higgins read at the memorial, Heaney talks of “pale blue heavenly air” and “Anahorish Hill.”
“If we are to have this celebration that’s come much too soon, then there is no finer place for it in Atlanta,” Paul Gleeson, Atlanta Irish consul, said. “We speak proudly here of the Irish village in Emory. It was certainly a place he loved dearly.”
The evening was full of tributes to Irish culture, including the bar serving Irish whiskey — a favorite of Heaney’s, as some speakers were quick to note — and musical interludes of Irish music.
Lauren McDonough, a sixth-year graduate student in psychology, provided musical entertainment on her violin throughout the service.
“You could really get a feel for how playful a person Seamus Heaney was,” McDonough said of the memorial. According to her, there is a considerable Irish music contingency in Atlanta.
Heaney’s poetry and life’s work can be found in Emory’s Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library (MARBL), which houses his photos, personal letters, manuscripts, recordings of poetry and lectures.
Additionally, Higgins will curate an exhibition in 2014 at Emory featuring Heaney’s papers.
— By Rupsha Basu