Like a great Celtic chieftain they bore him back to his ancestral home. Our gaelic forefathers must have gathered like this centuries before, to await the return of champions slain in battle. Back then, the bard was just as revered as the warrior. It felt like that again.
Homes along the whole length of the Oldtown Road, from Hillhead to Bellaghy, lowered their eyes in hushed, curtained, reverence, awaiting this last homecoming to his native parish. The people from surrounding townlands made their way to Main Street to pay this last tribute.
They assembled to acclaim, as well as mourn, the poet – their poet. This small parish on the south Derry plain had loaned the world a great treasure; now it was calling him back to eternal rest in the cramped graveyard beside St Mary’s church.
The cortege halted briefly, at the edge of Bellaghy, where a single piper joined it, at the head of the procession. Then, at a solemn pace, he keened the funeral party through the village to the chapel, past pavements lined by kith and kin. With every step the column grew deeper and longer, its ranks swelling as mourners filtered in from each side.
In the cemetery, the great from politics and the arts mingled with the good people of the parish. Fellow Nobel laureate John Hume was there, along with Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness; the celebrated playwright, Brian Friel; and the singer-song writer Paul Brady. All had come to pay homage to this true god of word.
As unostentatious in death as in life, we learned at the graveside that the poet had chosen to be buried there in Bellaghy. He had left the place as a young man, but the place had never left him. They laid him to rest in the shade of a sycamore tree, the priest commending him to another God: “May the green sod of Bellaghy rest gently upon him”.
Better than any stone. The poet would have liked that.