The great Irish poet and Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney is dead at 74. His death was announced with “profound sorrow” by his publishers Faber. “His impact on literary culture is immeasurable,” Faber said. “He was nothing short of an inspiration to the company, and his friendship over many years is a great loss.” Friend and fellow Irish poet Paul Muldoon said Heaney died in hospital after a fall a day earlier.
American poet Robert Lowell described Heaney as the most important Irish poet since Yeats. Heaney was a household name in Ireland and his 12 major collections did well commercially. He was on the school curriculum and I remember his brooding poems from the 1970s singeing their way into my growing political conscience. Heaney was also a successful broadcaster and journalist and in 1995 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past”.
Irish president Michael D Higgins said Heaney’s contribution to letters, conscience, and humanity was immense. “The presence of Seamus was a warm one, full of humour, care and courtesy – a courtesy that enabled him to carry with such wry Northern Irish dignity so many well-deserved honours from all over the world,” Higgins said. “His careful delving, translation and attention to the work of other poets in different languages and often in conditions of unfreedom, meant that he provided them with an audience of a global kind.”
Seamus Justin Heaney was born on April 13, 1939 at Mossbawn, near Castledawson, Co Derry. His yeoman father Patrick owned a 40-acre farm and was a dealer in cattle and a taciturn man. Seamus would write about his father’s “lifelong speechlessness” and a gagging common to many that would later explode into violence between Catholic and Protestant communities in Northern Ireland.
Seamus’s mother Kathleen also fit an Irish stereotype of a warm, generous and imaginative woman. She bore nine children with Seamus the eldest. On her deathbed in 1984 the poet recalled a scene when they were cooking while the rest of the family was at Mass. “I remembered her head bent towards my head/Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives/never closer the rest of our lives”.
Heaney grew up in a world where Catholics and Protestants mixed and generally lived in harmony. He attended the primary school at Anahorish which catered for both creeds, unusual for Northern Ireland. Yet he could not avoid looking at the Ulster border on a map of Ireland as a “vestigially bloody marking”.
Heaney was the beneficiary of the enlightened 1947 Northern Ireland Education Act aimed at bright children from disadvantaged backgrounds. He won a scholarship to St Columb’s College, Derry. There he mixed with fellow poet Seamus Deane and politician John Hume. St Columb’s was a harsh environment but Heaney thrived academically. He won a second bursary to study at Queen’s University Belfast. At this bastion of Protestantism, Heaney sought out the Catholic Sodality and the GAA ceilidh. But the curriculum laid stress on British culture which saw him finding his way among “Jane Austen’s vicarages, discussing Tennyson’s loss of faith and Lawrence’s phallic conscience”.
This grounding in the canon helped make his Irish poetry accessible to English audiences. Robert Frost was another huge influence and like the American poet, the young Irishman witnessed the tension between the ancient craft of the land and modern education. Heaney published his first poems in his third year at Queen’s in the university’s literary magazines showing the influence of Frost but also of Dylan Thomas and Gerard Manley Hopkins.
He graduated with first class honours in English language and literature in 1961 and after a course at St Joseph’s College of Education, got a teaching job at a secondary school in Belfast. Heaney then discovered the Irish writers Patrick Kavanagh, John Montague and James Joyce. Kavanagh had a similar background to Heaney and his book The Great Hunger would become a major influence. “Kavanagh gave you permission to dwell without cultural anxiety among the usual landmarks of your life,” Heaney wrote. Montague showed Heaney how to write about the complexities of Northern Ireland while Joyce freed him of his “linguistic inferiority complex”.
In October 1962 Heaney met schoolteacher and fellow writer Marie Devlin at a party. He loaned her a book, A. Alvarez’ anthology The New Poetry and asked her to return it a week later. They married three years later. The same year his Eleven Poems were published to coincide with the Belfast Festival of the Arts, and were well received by London critics. His 1966 collection Death of a Naturalist, based on his childhood, brought the attention of the wider world. As Heaney and Marie started a family, the political situation in Northern Ireland deteriorated, and the Civil Rights movement took its inspiration from the US. Heaney was politicised by Stormont’s hostility to the movement.
In 1969 Heaney published Door into the Dark including “Requiem for the Croppies”. Requiem harked back to the failed 1798 rebellion but lines like “A people hardly marching… on the hike/We found new tactics happening each day” spoke to the worsening situation in Belfast and Derry. Heaney had a hiatus from the unfolding tragedy with a sabbatical from Queen’s to be guest lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley. Heaney used his time in the US to connect circuits between the Old World and the New.
He returned to Ireland and in 1972 moved to Carysfort College in Dublin. His literary reputation grew with the collections Wintering Out and North. North showed a new and darker tone as Northern Ireland spiralled out of control. He told an ITV documentary Northern Ireland was “a society, if you like, that’s fallen from grace. This is limbo land at best, and at worst the country of the damned.” In Funeral Rights he wrote “Now as news come in of each neighbourly murder/ we pine for ceremony,/ customary rhythms:/ the temperate footsteps of a cortege, winding past / each blinded home”.
In the eighties Heaney worked at Harvard before being elected professor of poetry at Oxford in 1989. In 1995 came the Nobel award. In his acceptance speech Heaney recalled Yeats “on this platform more than seventy years ago” when Ireland was emerging from the civil war and war of independence. Yeats barely alluded to either war in his Nobel speech talking instead about the Irish Dramatic Movement. Heaney had no such inhibitions and said change in Northern Ireland was long overdue. “It should have come early, as the result of the ferment of protest on the streets in the late sixties, but that was not to be and the eggs of danger which were always incubating got hatched out very quickly,” he said.
Heaney finished that speech with a paean to poetry. It had, he said, “the power to persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness in spite of the evidence of wrongness all around it, the power to remind us that we are hunters and gatherers of values, that our very solitudes and distresses are creditable, in so far as they, too, are an earnest of our veritable human being.”