Seamus Heaney (1939–2013) rose from humble beginnings as a County Derry farm boy to become one of the giants of 20th-century poetry. Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995, his work is known and loved around the world.
The eldest child of nine, Heaney grew up in County Derry, Northern Ireland. The memories, people and landscapes of his early years were an inspiration he returned to time and again in his poems. His academic career began with a scholarship to St Columb’s College, Derry, and led him to Queen’s University, Belfast and then on to distinguished posts at Harvard and Oxford, where he was Professor of Poetry.
Heaney wrote over 20 books of poetry and criticism. Key early collections include his first, Death of a Naturalist (Faber and Faber, 1966), Door into the Dark (Faber and Faber, 1969) and North (Faber and Faber, 1975). Of his later collections, Electric Light (Faber and Faber, 2001) and District and Circle (Faber and Faber, 2006) were both shortlisted for the T S Eliot Prize, as was his final collection Human Chain (Faber and Faber, 2010) which also won the Forward Prize for Best Collection. He was also a celebrated translator whose version of Beowulf (Faber and Faber, 1999) became an unlikely bestseller, winning the Whitbread Book of the Year Award.
His poetry is informed by his wide learning and knowledge of literature, but never overwhelmed by it. Rather, he roots his work in the specific, alert to the miracles of ordinary happenings. Allied to a rich music of consonant and rhythm influenced by the cadences of his native Northern Irish accent, these qualities mean his poetry appeals as much to the ear and the heart as to the mind. It’s perhaps these aspects of his work which have made him a genuinely popular poet, one of the few that people beyond the poetry world have heard of.
The contentious history of Northern Ireland and its eruption into ‘The Troubles’ also influenced his work, though he refused a simple stance of pro-Republican propaganda, his poetry insisting on the complex realities of the situation. This refusal to become a cheerleader for the Catholic cause drew criticism from some quarters at the time, and partly prompted his later move over the border to the Republic of Ireland. Gradually, however, the integrity of his vision won recognition, culminating in his Nobel citation which praised his work for its ‘lyrical beauty and ethical depth’.
When Seamus Heaney died in 2013, tributes flooded in from around the world. The UK Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, spoke for many when she said that for his ‘brothers and sisters in poetry, he came to be the poet we all measured ourselves against and he demonstrated the true vocational nature of his art for every moment of his life. He is irreplaceable.’