Who Is Seamus Heaney: A Biography

Who is Seamus Heaney? Read of the life and works of the Irish Poet who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995.

When Seamus Heaney won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995, he was widely acclaimed as the best Irish poet since the last Irish poet to win the prize in 1923, William Butler Yeats. However, Heaney is much more than simply an Irish poet; he is arguably one of the best living poets of our generation.

Seamus Justin Heaney was born at the family cattle farm named Mossbawn, close to Castledawson, in County Derry, on April 13, 1939. Incidentally, this was the year Yeats died. He was the first-born son to Margaret and Patrick Heaney, who were to have eight more children.

Heaney's education began at the local school called St. Columb's College in Anahorish before moving to Belfast where he graduated from Queens University in 1961 with a first class degree in English. The following year he obtained a teaching certificate at St. Joseph's College, in Belfast, and was quickly employed as an English Lecturer in 1963. It was around this time that he began to write, initially publishing in university magazines under the pen name 'Incertus'.

Poetry was his passion, and while at St. Joseph's he joined a poetry workshop, which was led by Philip Hobsbaum. His first anthology of poetry '11 Poems' was published in 1965, and in this year he married Marie Devlin. The following year Heaney took a lectureship at Queens in English Literature and became a father. His first-born son was named Michael. Also in 1966, Faber and Faber published the collection of poetry, which was to put his name on the international map - 'Death of a Naturalist'. So began his ascent to the higher echelons of poetry, and the beginning of a long list of literary awards and prizes.

His early poetry drew on his childhood at the farm, and his love for the soil, with, for Heaney, the obvious links to the past. This is depicted for example in 'Digging' where Heaney writes:

'Under my window, a clean rasping sound

When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:

My father, digging. I look down"¦.'

and goes on:

'By God, the old man could handle a spade

Just like his old man'


'Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests.

I'll dig with it'

... so making his decision early in life that he would make his living, not from the earth (as his father and forefathers had) but via his talent for writing. This poem also implies that Heaney would never forget his roots, his past and depicts the admiration he had for his father's manual labor.

Since 'Death of a Naturalist', Heaney has published many more poetry collections including: 'Door into the Dark' (1969), 'Wintering Out' (1973), 'North' (1975), 'Field Work' (1980), 'Selected Poems and Preoccupations: Selected Prose' (1981), 'The Haw Lantern' (1987), 'Seeing Things' (1991), and most recently, a translation of the Scandinavian epic legend 'Beowulf' (1999).

The plaudits, awards and admiration for his work have not ceased. However, Heaney does have his critics, especially with regard to his stance on the politics of his homeland - Ulster. Some accuse him of 'sitting on the fence', others that he could do more to evoke understanding of Ulster's politics with his poetry.

The fact, however, is that Heaney has used his talent for language in a quiet, unassuming way, to shed light on the underlying history behind 'The Troubles' in Northern Ireland. He has been a long-standing advocate for Peace in his homeland, but instead of rousing, opinionated prose, he uses understated, though debatably more powerful reason.

It was the outbreak of the unrest in 1969 of what was to become known as 'The Troubles', which had an undoubtedly major part to play in the Heaney's decision to leave Belfast. They settled in County Wicklow in 1972, and with a wife and two young sons to support, Heaney continued to write and publish. His daughter, Catherine Ann, was born in the South of Ireland in 1973.

By 1976, the Heaneys had moved to Dublin, where Seamus was once again teaching English. They have lived in Dublin, on and off, ever since, with sojourns to Harvard in Cambridge, MA(where Heaney was to become the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory in 1984). 1984 was also the year that his mother died, and his poetry became filled with images of death, memories and the empty spaces death of loved ones leave for those who remain. His father died a mere three years later in 1987, and Heaney was to also pay tribute to him through his verse.

For Heaney, the recognition of death is an absolute necessity for a poet, because, according to him, it is only then that the writer's soul can open up to what the wider universe has to say, what matters in this life, and what our forefathers can teach us. His fascination for bogland is also evident in his poetry, the earth and its links to the past, the present and the future. Heaney's poetry is not gloomy, but often uplifting, depicting real life in concrete and sometimes startling images.

The fact that Heaney is very well read is obvious in the many literary allusions he uses in his poetry - nods to Dante, Wordsworth, Hardy and more are to be found in many of his pieces. The poems can however be understood by everyone, while the discerning reader can delight in his wonderful usage of word play.

Heaney also held a professorship in poetry at Oxford University between 1989 and 1994, and 1995 brought the Nobel Prize (worth $1 million) and international fame. Typically, when the prize was announced, Heaney was on holiday in Greece with his wife and could not be contacted. People who know Heaney describe him as an 'unassuming man' who is very 'down-to-earth'. For someone who has won practically every literary award there is to win, this is heartening news. He has never lost his Catholic farm-boy heritage, continuing to touch the hearts and minds of poetry lovers everywhere with his wonderful prose.

He continues to teach at Harvard for several months each year and the rest of the year he spends in Dublin doing what he does best: unraveling life and probing the pulse of the human condition through his poetic descriptions of people and places. In summary, poetry for Heaney has always been "the ship and the anchor" (quoted from his Nobel speech), in a world filled with strife.

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