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Seamus Heaney will lie in the Derry soil that inspired his greatest work


After his funeral in Dublin, the poet and Nobel laureate will make his final journey to the village where he grew up

Seamus Heaney will be laid to rest in the same County Derry soil which his father once cut into with his spade and that he later wrote about in his most famous poem, Digging.

Before his burial on Monday evening there was a reflective calm in Bellaghy, where his family moved when he was a child. The main street was virtually deserted as rain dripped off the lifesize bronze figure of a turf cutter digging, a sculpted interpretation of Heaney's verse by Scottish artist David Anand in the centre of the village.

Outside the cemetery was a bunch of red carnations and a card bearing a handwritten note of gratitude : "Seamus. For Digging, Thank You, Anne." There was also a fresh bouquet on the Heaney family grave.

Among those posting tributes from Bellaghy was his old primary school, Anahorish, with a simple yet touching message of regret on the "death of Seamus, former pupil of the school". Heaney had always expressed his pride in attending its "tin huts".

In Derry city, where Heaney delivered countless readings and on the spot where Bill Clinton sang the poet's praise during his historic 1995 presidential visit, they queued up to pay homage to the Nobel laureate. Among the crowds inside the newly refurbished Guildhall was Martin McGuinness, deputy first minister and key player in the Irish peace process.

After signing the book of condolence, McGuinness told the Observer how a poem he once wrote was framed side by side with a verse from Heaney's Cure of Troy on Ian Paisley's wall at Stormont's parliament buildings. Visibly moved, he recalled how he had asked the poet to type out the verses as a present for Paisley when he retired as Northern Ireland's first minister.

"When Ian stood down as first minister I was wondering what kind of gift I would give him, so I asked Seamus to write the 'hope and history' poem from the Cure of Troy and he did it on absolutely beautiful parchment paper. He sent it up to me and I got it framed. What was very funny was that on the same occasion I presented Seamus's gift to Ian I also presented him with a little poem I wrote myself about Native American Indians and disappearing sea trout!

"When I next met Seamus in Bellaghy I told him that after I'd presented Ian with the two poems, three months later he was looking to see me. I said that when I went into his room in parliament buildings, on the wall there were the two poems side by side. So Ian Paisley effectively elevated me into the highest echelons of Seamus Heaney and the greatest of poets!"

McGuinness said everyone in the city and the county was very emotional because Ireland had lost "its brightest star, even though he was a humble Bellaghy man". He also revealed that Heaney once wrote to him during a critical period in the peace process wishing on him "blessings on all your work".

Among the throng in the Guildhall were sisters Frances and Nuala Ford who were on a holiday weekend. The women, from Galway city, said they were honoured to be able to sign their names in memory of Heaney. "He was a great prophet, not just for Ireland but the entire world. He spoke to everyone, his poems were universal," Nuala said.

Her sister said: "I loved his poetry and I loved the fact that he was a real humble man who was down to earth. He had a great common touch with the people while at the same time being a brilliant poet."

Father Peter O'Kane, based in the Derry diocese but originally from outside Strabane, studied Heaney's poetry in school. He said that because he was from a rural background he could empathise with the poet's depictions of life in the Northern Ireland countryside: "He was always rooted in the land and the people of south Derry and he never forgot that. I only ever heard him read poetry and address an audience once, and I instantly knew what a great communicator he was with people."

The worlds of literature, politics and celebrity will descend on Heaney's funeral in the Church of the Sacred Heart in the Donnybrook area of south Dublin on Monday morning before he is brought on his final journey to Bellaghy.

In the capital of his beloved county ordinary people were breaking off from a snaking queue from the Guildhall and out into the square so they could sign the book. They had been waiting for tickets for a BBC live television broadcast in the refurbished 19th-century building. They had gathered for Songs of Praise,but were singing their own, in single sentences and even little verses, in honour of a son of the County Derry soil.

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