Seamus Heaney was born on 13 April, 1939 in rural County Derry, in Northern Ireland. He was the eldest of nine children born to Patrick Heaney, a cattle farmer, and Margaret McCann, and grew up on the family farm of Mossbawn. Heaney’s childhood was a peaceful and simple one: in his Nobel lecture, he called it ‘an intimate, physical, creaturely existence… in suspension between the archaic and the modern’. The people, landscapes and memories of his upbringing would inform his poetry throughout his life.
In Stepping Stones, Dennis O’Driscoll’s 2008 book of interviews with Heaney, he describes the rhythms of life in Mossbawn in vivid detail – the churning of butter, gathering of rainwater and other long disappeared rituals of rural life. He also talks about growing up Catholic in the days before the violence of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and how this informed daily interactions and his later worldview.
In 1953, Heaney’s second youngest brother Christopher was killed in a road accident, aged four. This tragic event is commemorated in one of his most famous poems, ‘Mid-Term Break’. After Christopher’s death, the family moved to a new farm, The Wood, outside the village of Bellaghy.
In 1951, Heaney began his studies at St Columb’s College in Derry, leaving the family home to become a boarder there. He poignantly describes the separation from his parents in the poem ‘The Conway Stewart’, from his final collection, Human Chain. Among his classmates at St Columb’s was the poet and academic Seamus Deane, who would become a lifelong friend and, later, a fellow director of the Field Day Theatre Company. Heaney went on to Queen’s University Belfast in 1957 to study English Language and Literature, and graduated with First Class Honours. After earning his diploma from St Joseph’s College of Education in 1962, he began his career as a teacher.
Marriage and family
In 1965, he married Marie Devlin, who had grown up near the poet, in Ardboe, County Tyrone, on the shores of Lough Neagh. Together they had three children, Michael (born in 1966), Christopher (1968) and Catherine Ann (1973). They lived in Belfast until 1972, when they moved to County Wicklow in the Republic of Ireland. This was the first time that Heaney had devoted himself completely to his own writing and the family spent four years in Glanmore Cottage, a small gate lodge owned by their friend, the Canadian academic Ann Saddlemyer. In creative terms, the Glanmore years were an extremely productive period and though he was never to live in Northern Ireland again, Heaney’s early life there and the ongoing political situation would continue to inform his work. In 1975, he took up a teaching post at Carysfort College of Education in Dublin and, the following year, moved with his family to a new home in the city's neighbourhood of Sandymount, where he would live for the rest of his life.
International and public life
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Seamus Heaney’s international reputation grew. His work gained a devoted readership in the US in particular, where, from 1982 onwards, he spent four months every year teaching at Harvard University. As his work was translated into other languages, he also found a readership beyond the English-speaking world. He took his role as an ambassador for poetry seriously, advocating its relevance and necessity in his lectures as Oxford Professor of Poetry and perhaps most memorably in his 1995 Nobel lecture, ‘Crediting Poetry’. He travelled extensively, delivering lectures, taking part in festivals and summer schools, and giving readings around the world.
In Ireland, he became an increasingly public figure and was frequently called upon to comment on political situations, such as the Northern Ireland Peace Process. It was a duty he took seriously, as reflected in poems such as ‘From the Republic of Conscience’, written for Amnesty International, and ‘Beacons at Bealtaine’, a specially commissioned poem which he read in Dublin on 1 May 2004, at a ceremony to mark the accession of ten new countries to the European Union.
Among his peers in the literary community, Heaney is perhaps best remembered for his generosity of spirit and unstinting support of younger writers, championing them in public and encouraging them in private correspondence. (He was particularly devoted to sending postcards to friends and family.) Famously, an early recipient of this support was the young Paul Muldoon, but there were countless others to whom he acted as a guiding spirit. He was a supporter and patron of many poetry organisations and prizes - including Poetry Ireland, the Poetry Archive, the Irish Literary Society and Poetry Aloud.
His untimely death in Dublin on 30 August 2013, after a short illness, prompted a huge outpouring of grief in his native Ireland and around the world. Fellow writers expressed their sorrow and shock, paying tribute in obituaries to Heaney’s exceptional gifts as a poet and his personal warmth, while international figures spoke of his legacy beyond the world of letters, with President Bill Clinton calling him ‘a powerful voice for peace’.
Today, Heaney’s legacy continues through his poetry, which is taught in classrooms around the world, and remains beloved by readers of all ages. In 2015, his poem ‘Clearances iii’ (‘When all the others were away at Mass’) was voted Ireland’s favourite poem of the past 100 years.
In 2004, the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry opened at Queen’s University Belfast, Heaney’s alma mater, and offers undergraduate and postgraduate tuition in creative writing as well as events and a poetry prize. In 2011, Heaney donated his literary papers and notebooks to the National Library of Ireland, so that they would find a permanent home in Ireland and be accessible to scholars and anyone with an interest in his work. The Heaney papers are among the most consulted of Library’s collections. Manuscripts and notebooks from this collection form the basis of a major new exhibition, Listen Now Again, which opened in July 2018 in the Bank of Ireland Culture and Heritage Centre at College Green in Dublin. In 2016, the Seamus Heaney HomePlace opened in his home village of Bellaghy, County Derry. An award-winning arts and literary centre, it houses a permanent exhibition celebrating his life and poetry, amid the landscape that inspired it.
Through the ongoing work of these institutions and the Estate of Seamus Heaney – as well as his readers, fellow writers and scholars around the world – Seamus Heaney’s legacy continues today. Most of all, it lives on through the poems themselves.
To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.’
from ‘Personal Helicon’
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