It was my conviction then, as it still remains, that art and literature are utterly essential to understanding what it means to be human.

Ladies and gentlemen, and if I may say so, all the Heaney family, for my wife and I it really is a such great treat to have the opportunity to meet so many of the family here today, and to join you all. Above all else, I wanted to express warmest possible congratulations to all those who have taken part in this marvellous performance just now. The music was a great treat; I'm always impressed by people who can pick up different instruments one after another in such an incredible way! It was very special and I can't thank you all enough! And also if I may say so, a remarkable tribute to the talent that has been nurtured here. Clearly, the spirit of creativity which was so much evidenced in the life of Seamus Heaney, is still very much at work.

Now I had the privilege of meeting Seamus Heaney when, despite his enormously busy schedule, he very generously accepted an invitation to teach on the literature summer schools run by my Teaching Institute.

It was my conviction then, as it still remains, that art and literature are utterly essential to understanding what it means to be human.  That is why I was so glad that one of the most outstanding poets of our time, and one whose work I admire so greatly, was prepared to come and share his vision with the teachers from state secondary schools whom we had gathered on those occasions.  I know that the participants found the whole experience hugely inspiring.  They said that to hear the great man read his own work, and that of other writers, often quoting from memory, was quite simply unforgettable.

It was his particular gift that all who encountered him, whether in person or in his work, felt that he was speaking specifically to them.  In that sense, as his Nobel Prize and his international fame showed, he belonged to the whole world.

Yet despite the praise and the prizes, he never forgot the place that was the centre of his ever-widening circle of friendship and understanding: the Helicon from whose waters his powers were drawn. As you know far better than me, it was this place, above all else, that was the never-failing source of his vision.

Ladies and gentlemen, in seeing the work you have accomplished here: the wealth of material displayed so imaginatively - and which we didn't have nearly enough time to see - the myriad ways in which the visitor is invited to appreciate, to participate, and even, perhaps, to create themselves, it is clear that you have reciprocated the tremendous pride which your famous son felt for his native soil.

What is so encouraging, too, is the way this centre, like Seamus Heaney's work itself, reaches out across different communities, different cultures and different nations, finding, as he did, a universal voice with the accent of a particular place.

This is the kind of understanding I had hoped to foster when he and I worked together on the summer schools, and which you are taking forward so splendidly here.  So often, it is the poets who can find the words which identify the essential beyond the superficial, which reveal the sense beyond the slogan, and which can discover, beyond the external things which separate us, the humanity we share.

This evening in Hillsborough Castle, as in previous years, my wife and I will be hosting a concert for guests from across the communities of Northern Ireland, and from Ireland. And we will hear performed for the first time a new musical piece which I have commissioned from the composer Neil Martin, who I believe is well-known to the Heaney family. The piece sets to music words by poets in Irish, English and Ulster Scots, as a means of celebrating all the traditions of this very special part of the world. Neil has chosen three pieces, all of them united by a single theme of the blackbird's song.

For the whole sequence, Neil has chosen the title 'Songs After Rain', because, it seems - actually I know it's true from my own garden - it is after the rain that the blackbird's song is sweetest. I hope, in some way, this work will help show how our varied histories, voices and traditions can create all the greater harmony when they come together. After all, it is differences that make harmony possible, even as it is the barriers that have been overcome that make friendship all the stronger. This part of the world has seen more than its fair share of rain, in every sense; I can only pray that the songs which follow will be all the sweeter for that.

Ladies and Gentlemen, all this is, I trust, in the spirit of the great poet whose extraordinary work we are celebrating here today: one who saw differences as opportunities for understanding and exchange; one who learned in Bellaghy what it means to belong, and who, with grace and generosity, extended that belonging to the world.