Just weeks before his death after a short illness in a Dublin hospital Friday, Irish poet Seamus Heaney was still recalling the warm welcome he received when he spoke at Canisius College last Oct. 23.
Joseph Hassett, a Buffalo native and 1964 Canisius graduate, said that when he saw his friend Heaney during the Yeats International Summer School in early August, Heaney inscribed a copy of his Nobel Prize address to Canisius College “in appreciation of the warm welcome that had been extended.”
Heaney won the 1995 Nobel Prize in Literature for what the Nobel committee called his “works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.”
Heaney spoke at Canisius for the 10th anniversary of the Hassett Family Reading, endowed by Joseph Hassett’s family, which he said had a “special significance because there’s a friendship involved” with Hassett.
The two met in 1999 and immediately bonded because of their shared interest in poet W.B. Yeats and several mutual friendships.
“It is a very, very sad day,” said Hassett, who works as a corporate trial attorney in Washington, D.C. “Like his poetry, his presence was ennobling; it was life-enhancing. Both in his poetry and in his own personal attitude, he restored a link with the sacred. He made the sacred come alive.”
Those who met Heaney during his visit were captivated by his humble, humorous nature.
“He exuded a kind of deep spiritual calm and generosity and presence,” said Mick Cochrane, a novelist and professor of English at Canisius who is also coordinator of the Contemporary Writers Series that brought Heaney to campus. “People just adored him, and he was so grounded and modest.”
Although Heaney’s contract only required him to speak at the 550-seat Montante Cultural Center, which was packed with people of every age and utterly silent during his talk, that wasn’t enough for the poet. At a small dinner before his talk with members of the Hassett family, a few faculty members and students, Heaney expressed an interest in meeting with more students, possibly speaking with a class.
In an article he wrote for the English department newsletter, the Rev. James Pribek, who was teaching an Irish Literature course in which the students were reading Heaney’s poems, recounted the “wonder” of Heaney’s offer. “His only free hour was Wednesday at 10 a.m. – the exact time of our next Irish Literature class! Clearly, this was meant to be, and it was all the more delightful when it came as a spontaneous gift from Mr. Heaney.”
In the class, said Cochrane, “each student asked him a question. He was so warm and alive with his beneficent presence, which I think is why we all feel so personally bereaved.”
“We’ve all lived through the deaths of writers we respected and admired, but this is not like a writer’s death. It’s half a family member and half a beloved teacher,” said Pribek.
The talk in October was Heaney’s second visit to Canisius. He spoke there Feb. 12, 1982, during a trip to Buffalo that also included talks at the University at Buffalo and at SUNY Buffalo State. In an email interview before his visit last year, Heaney recalled being introduced by the poet Robert Creeley when he spoke at UB.
“I remember when he spoke at Harvard, and privileged and powerful people were there, and it was adulation the likes of which I have never seen,” said Pribek. “He received that graciously, of course, but he also had time for people in Buffalo, not just in Berkeley, not just in Manhattan, not just in Cambridge or Dublin. We were in his consciousness, and that says a lot about him, I think. He was, of course, a great artist, but he was a finer human being.”