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Poet begs release from stain of blood

Seamus Heaney's image, "a space has been created in which hope can grow," came to be associated with the Northern Ireland peace process and the desire for an end to war. The award to the poet of the Nobel prize for literature was one of those shining moments in which the best of Ireland was on show.

Now, Heaney, like everyone else, is struggling to come to terms with the continuing eruptions of violence which in recent times have left three people dead, brought about much destruction, and left community nerves on edge.

In January of last year, Heaney's home town of Bellaghy in County Derry celebrated his Nobel prize, feting him for the glory he had brought it. The evening was hosted by one of the town's leading figures, Sean Brown, who presented the poet with a painting of the local Lough Beg.

On Monday night last, Sean Brown was locking up the local Gaelic Athletic Club premises when a gang of loyalist gunmen jumped him, bundled him into his own car and drove him away. Less than an hour later, firemen were called to Randalstown, ten miles away, to deal with a burning car: as they put out the blaze they found Sean Brown's body nearby.

His death moved Heaney to write to the Belfast Irish News. "Sean Brown's murder was shocking and sinister. I have known two generations of the Brown family. They are people of great probity, much respected in the Bellaghy district, so my heart goes out to them at this moment ...

"He represented something better than we have grown used to, something not quite covered by the word 'reconciliation' because that word has become a policy word - official and public. This was more like a purification, a release from what the Greeks called the miasma, the stain of spilled blood. It is a terrible irony that the man who organised such an event should die at the hands of a sectarian killer".

Mr Brown was 61 years old. He left behind a wife, six children and a community stunned by the injustice of it all. In its time Bellaghy has produced some notorious republican gunmen, among them Dominic McGlinchey, but Mr Brown was not in this tradition.

Rather, he was a civil servant approaching retirement, having spent 30 years teaching mechanical engineering. He was commended as an outstanding citizen by everyone from the parish priest to the local Royal Ulster Constabulary. Most of all, he was a pivotal figure in the local Gaelic Athletic Association, which is the focus of Bellaghy's sporting, recreational and social life.

On most evenings, he locked up the GAA hall, securing the doors and setting the alarms which are a necessity in this part of Northern Ireland, for the premises have twice been burned down by loyalists. He was the easiest of easy targets, a non-political man except in the sense that he was identifiably Catholic and Irish.

Bellaghy is a largely Catholic town, but both Catholics and Protestants were there to see Sean Brown present the painting to Seamus Heaney. The poet's epitaph for the sportsman dwelt on the irony that the man who organised that mixed evening should fall victim to a sectarian killer.