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Heaney, Seamus

In 2009 two-thirds of the poetry collections sold in the UK were by Seamus Heaney, and since his death in 2013 he has remained one of the most popular poets in the English language. Heaney’s work has been admired since the appearance in 1966 of his first poetry collection, ‘Death of a Naturalist’, which achieved immediate success. Heaney’s appreciation by the general public has been accompanied by praise from critics and scholars. His many literary prizes culminated in the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature of 1995, ‘for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past’.

Seamus Heaney was born in 1939 at a small farm in County Derry (also known as County Londonderry), Northern Ireland, where he lived until he was 14, when the family moved to another farm nearby. Heaney was very conscious of his background; his nationality, Irish Catholic identity and rural upbringing all feature strongly in his poems.

Seamus Heaney’s enduring popularity can be explained by his accessible subject matter and engaging style. Many of his best-loved poems deal with everyday childhood memories, such as ‘Blackberry-Picking’, or old farming practices, such as ‘Churning-Day’ in which he remembers his mother making butter by hand. However, there is nothing sentimental in Heaney’s poetry, and Heaney’s combination of vivid realism and subtle ideas owes a lot to his cultural heritage and education. He took his influences from both popular sources – what he has called the ‘roadside rhymes’ and ‘ordinary rituals of life’ – and the excellent formal education that he received. Heaney was part of the first generation of talented young working-class people in Northern Ireland able to gain a free academic education by passing a grammar school entrance examination. He made good use of his opportunity, progressing to Queen’s University in Belfast, where he studied English Language and Literature and gained a first class honours degree – a rare achievement at that time. This heritage allowed Heaney to combine a familiarity with the realities of rural life and nature with an intimate knowledge of the best of classical, Irish Gaelic and English language literature. The influences upon his work range from Irish legends and Anglo-Saxon sagas to Wordsworth and the Romantic poets to and contemporary poets such as Patrick Kavanagh and Ted Hughes.

In 1965 Seamus Heaney married fellow writer Marie Devlin. Living in Belfast in the 1970s in Northern Ireland Heaney inevitably found himself in the midst of the Troubles – the violent political and social conflict between the Catholic and Protestant communities which took place between 1969 and 1998. Few of Heaney’s poems written in this context are directly about the conflict; he chose instead to comment metaphorically – and powerfully – comparing the violence of the period to that inflicted on individuals in past historical periods, in poems such as ‘Punishment’.

In 1972 Heaney moved from Northern Ireland to live in the Irish Republic, working first as a freelance writer and also taking up a variety of University appointments, including periods at Harvard (USA) and Oxford. He continued to publish collections of poetry – all of which were well received – until his death in 2013. His later work was less directly personal than his earlier poems, exploring wider themes – including philosophy and politics – and drawing upon classical and mythological sources. Heaney is the also the author of several translations, including the Anglo-Saxon epic poem ‘Beowulf’ published in 2000.

A collection of Seamus Heaney’s poems taken from all his work was published in 2018, titled ‘100 Poems’. Heaney had planned the book himself, and after his death the collection was selected by his wife and family. The words of his daughter, Catherine, in her introduction refers to the ‘extraordinary … power and vitality’ of her father’s work: a succinct and fitting epitaph.
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13th April 1939

Heaney born on a farm near Castledawson in Northern Ireland

Seamus was the eldest child of nine, with six brothers and two sisters. His father came from a family of cattle dealers, whereas his mother’s family had worked in the local linen mill.
1945–1951

Attended primary school

He attended a primary school where the pupils were both Catholic and Protestant.
1951–1957

Won a scholarship to St Columb’s College, Derry

The Catholic boarding school was 40 miles away from his childhood home. The contrast between the manual life of a farm labourer and education will characterise Heaney’s poetry.
1953

Heaney’s brother Christopher died in a car accident

The family moved to the other end of the parish. Heaney wrote about this incident in ‘Mid-Term Break’.
1957–1961

Achieved a first class degree in English from Queen’s University, Belfast

He discovered Ted Hughes’s ‘Lupercal’, which inspired him to pursue poetry. He published his first poems in the university literary magazines.
1963

Joined the Belfast Group

Heaney joined the Belfast Group – a meeting of young Northern Irish poets.
1965

Married

He married Marie Devlin.
1966

University teaching post

Heaney was appointed lecturer of Modern English Literature at Queen’s University, Belfast. In the same year, Heaney’s first son, Michael, was born.
1966

Death of a Naturalist published

Heaney’s first major collection of poems, Death of a Naturalist, was published.
1968

Birth of Heaney’s second child

Heaney’s second son, Christopher, was born.
1969

Another poetry collection published

Door into the Dark was published.
1975

North published

Heaney’s most famous collection of poems is unusual among his work in that it deals directly with the political situation in Northern Ireland.

Read about the history of conflict in Northern Ireland

1979

A further poetry collection published

Field Work was published.
1984

Mother’s death

Heaney’s mother, Margaret Kathleen, died. He wrote about it in ‘Clearances’.
1987

Father’s death

The Haw Lantern was published. Heaney’s father, Patrick, died soon after publication.
1989

Elected Professor of Poetry

Heaney was elected Professor of Poetry at the University of Oxford.
1995

Nobel Prize

He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
2003

Praise for rapper

Heaney praised rapper Eminem for his ‘subversive attitude’ and ‘verbal energy’, highlighting an apparently incongruous link between the two artists.
2006

Stroke

Heaney suffered a stroke, from which he eventually recovered.
2009

Further award

Heaney was awarded the David Cohen Prize for Literature.
2010

Human Chain published

Faber published Human Chain, which was awarded the Forward Poetry Prize and shortlisted for the T S Eliot Prize.
2013

Death

Heaney died in Dublin on 30th August, aged 74.