Seamus Heaney won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995 and his work accounts for two-thirds of all the poetry books sold in the UK. Many critics regarded him as the greatest poet of the late 20th century anywhere in the world.
The British writer Blake Morrison described him as “that rare thing, a poet rated highly by critics and academics yet popular with the common reader”.
Heaney was born on 13 April 1939 in Castledawson in County Derry in Northern Ireland. This would technically make him British but he has always asserted that he is Irish. He refused to allow his work to be included in an anthology of British poets, even though it meant turning down royalties.
He also turned down the offer of becoming the British Poet Laureate, whose role is to write celebratory poems about the royal family and great state occasions. He wrote:
Be advised my passport’s green.
No glass of ours was ever raised to toast the Queen
Despite turning down the offer, Heaney was keen to point out: “I’ve nothing against the Queen. I had lunch at the Palace once upon a time.” Heaney was also happy to accept the post of Professor of Poetry at Oxford University, one of Britain’s most prestigious universities.
A childhood steeped in rural Ireland
Heaney was one of nine children in a hard working agricultural family. His father Patrick owned a small farm of about 50 acres but his main interest was in cattle dealing.
His mother worked in the local linen mills in Derry. This led Heaney to comment that he was part of both the cattle herding tradition of old Ireland and the modern industrial revolution that had taken place in Ulster. He said this may have led to a tension within himself that inspired some of his work.
Heaney grew up as a country boy and this was to have a profound influence on his work throughout his career. As a young man he read the works of poets like Patrick Kavanagh, Robert Frost and Ted Hughes and realised that like them, he could write about his native, rural background. He later said: “I learned that my local Co Derry childhood experiences, which I had considered archaic and irrelevant to the modern world was to be trusted. They taught me that trust and helped me to articulate it.
Heaney’s earliest poems in collections like Death of a Naturalist (published 1966) and Door into the Dark (published 1969) paint a precise, insightful picture of rural life.
The Troubles in Northern Ireland in the 1970s were reflected in several of Heaney’s poems in collections like Wintering Out (1973) and North (1975). Heaney was a Catholic but he didn’t get involved in any form of sectarian division. He commented on events and wrote eulogies for friends who died during the violence, but he did not take sides, believing that the role of the poet was that of honest observer and commentator rather than political activist.
He preferred to be neutral and illustrated this in a light hearted way by saying that when he travelled by train from Dublin to Belfast, he drank Irish whiskey until he reached the border and then started drinking Scotch whisky as he entered Ulster.
Heaney wins the Nobel Prize for Literature
Heaney was already one of the most celebrated poets in the world at that time and had had prestigious positions as a professor at both Oxford University in the UK and Harvard University in the US, yet his response to the award was typical of his modesty and humility. He said: “It’s like being a little foothill at the bottom of a mountain range. You hope you just live up to it. It’s extraordinary.”
In spite of his misgivings, most critics believe he has indeed lived up to the award and he remained one of the most successful poets in the world. His public readings sold out very quickly with those who queue for tickets are sometimes described as “Heaneyboppers” as if Heaney were some kind of pop star.
Heaney was married to the poet Marie Devlin who also comes from Northern Ireland. They had two sons and lived in Co Wicklow in Ireland. He died in hospital in 2013, following a short illness.