Education and early writing
Seamus Heaney went to the local primary school at Anahorish. He received a scholarship to secondary school at St Columb’s College in Derry, where he was a boarder. He went on to Queen’s University, Belfast and graduated with a BA in English Language and Literature. In 1962 he completed a diploma course at St Joseph’s College of Education and started work as a schoolteacher.
Seamus Heaney started writing while still studying at Queen’s University Belfast and some of his earliest poems were published in the college literary magazine, Gorgon, under the pen name Incertus (meaning Uncertain). He was a member of The Belfast Group, a gathering of young Northern Irish poets who met weekly to share and develop their work, under the guidance of poet and Queen’s lecturer Philip Hobsbaum.
In 1964, three of Heaney’s poems – including possibly his best-known, ‘Digging’ – were published in The New Statesman magazine. Their appearance prompted the Poetry Editor of Faber and Faber, Charles Monteith, to contact the young poet and see if he had a manuscript – and in May 1966 his debut, Death of a Naturalist, was published.
Over the next four decades, Seamus Heaney would publish eleven more volumes of original poetry with Faber and Faber. He was one of a generation of gifted poets to emerge from Ulster in the 1960s, among them his friends Michael Longley and Derek Mahon. He was also greatly influenced by the English poet Ted Hughes, who later became a close friend and with whom he edited two anthologies, The Rattle Bag and The School Bag.
Heaney’s early volumes included Door Into the Dark, Wintering Out and the landmark North, published in 1975 after the poet and his family moved from Belfast to Wicklow in the Republic of Ireland, as sectarian violence erupted in Northern Ireland. These early collections are firmly rooted in the landscapes and traditions of Heaney’s native Derry, but in poems such as ‘Whatever You Say, Say Nothing’ and ‘The Tollund Man’, they also reflected the turmoil of the times.
Field Work, Station Island and The Haw Lantern followed, all of which engaged with the themes of history (both personal and political), place and the ‘everyday miracles’ that the Swedish Academy would later recognise in the citation for the Nobel Prize. Heaney’s 1991 collection Seeing Things was viewed as another departure as the poet – then just in his fifties – found ‘Time to be dazzled and the heart to lighten’. In this and his later volumes The Spirit Level, Electric Light, District and Circle and Human Chain, the poet continued to mine his personal past while exploring themes of loss, memory and the changing world of the 21st century.
Translations, plays and prose
Seamus Heaney was also an accomplished translator. His 1999 version of the Old English epic poem Beowulf became an international bestseller. Other works include translations from Middle Irish, such as Sweeney Astray and The Midnight Verdict (published by The Gallery Press, run by his friend Peter Fallon) and a limited edition of late translations of the work of Italian poet Giovanni Pascoli. His translation of Virgil’s Aeneid Book VI – a work that has fascinated him since his schooldays – was published posthumously in 2016.
In addition to his poetry, Heaney wrote two plays, The Cure at Troy and The Burial at Thebes, which were adaptations of Sophocles’ ancient Greek dramas Philoctetes and Antigone, respectively. The Cure at Troy was written for, and first produced by, the Field Day Theatre Company, founded by his friends the playwright Brian Friel and actor Stephen Rea. It premiered at the Guildhall in Derry in 1990. The Burial at Thebes was first performed in 2004 at The Abbey Theatre in Dublin, to mark the theatre's centenary, with Irish actress Ruth Negga in the role of Antigone.
Heaney was admired as a critic and essayist. He published three collections of prose, Preoccupations, The Government of the Tongue, and Finders Keepers, as well as The Redress of Poetry, a collection of the lectures he gave as Oxford Professor of Poetry from 1989-1994. While often overshadowed by his poetry, Heaney’s prose illustrates his gifts as both a critic and teacher, and in many ways these pieces serve as his manifesto for poetry’s place and relevance in the modern world.
In 2008, a book of interviews with Heaney – conducted and written by his longtime friend and fellow poet Dennis O'Driscoll – was published. Covering everything from the poet's earliest memories in Mossbawn to the stroke he suffered in 2006, it would provide the fullest account of his life and the closest he would come to writing a memoir.
Teaching and broadcasting
Throughout his life, Heaney was a teacher and is remembered by students and colleagues alike for his commitment to education and support of younger writers. After a brief stint as a schoolteacher at St Thomas’s Secondary School (where he met his early mentor, the writer Michael McLaverty), Heaney was appointed lecturer at St Joseph’s Teacher Training College in Belfast, in 1963. Three years later, he moved to the English department at his alma mater, Queen’s University Belfast. In 1970-71 he spent a year teaching at University of California at Berkeley, and in 1975 – after his family's move to the Republic of Ireland – he took up a lecturing position at Carysfort College of Education in Dublin. In 1979, he spent a year teaching at Harvard University and became a permanent member of staff there in 1984, when he was made Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory. It was a post he would hold until 1996 – going to Cambridge, Massachusetts to teach the spring semester every year – after which he became Ralph Waldo Emerson Poet in Residence.
In 1989, Heaney followed in the footsteps of WH Auden and Robert Graves in being elected Professor of Poetry at the University of Oxford, and delivered fifteen public lectures over a five-year term. In addition, throughout his career, he gave addresses, lectures and talks at schools, universities and poetry centres around the world, and was the recipient of honorary degrees from many universities, including the Sorbonne, Princeton and Oxford. He played an active role in Ireland’s cultural life, and was a director of the Field Day Theatre Company.
Heaney was also a seasoned broadcaster. Early in his career, he made films and radio programmes for BBC Northern Ireland’s Schools Service, and presented RTÉ Radio’s books programme Imprint in the 1970s. He appeared in numerous films and programmes about his own work and that of others, most notably Charlie McCarthy’s biographical film Out of the Marvellous, a documentary made to coincide with the poet’s 70th birthday in 2009.
From the outset, Heaney’s work met with acclaim and won many awards. Early prizes included the Somerset Maugham Award and the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize. In 1995, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for ‘works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth’ and he twice won the Whitbread Book of the Year Award, for The Spirit Level in 1996 and Beowulf in 2000. Other prizes included the Bob Hughes Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2011 Irish Book Awards, and the Griffin Prize Lifetime Recognition Award in 2012. He was a Commandeur of the Ordre des Arts et Lettres, awarded by the French government in 1996; a fellow of both the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Royal Society of Literature; a Saoi of Aosdána and an honorary fellow of the Royal Irish Academy.
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