Seamus Heaney, one of the great poets of the 20th Century, died aged 74 on Friday morning at a hospital in Dublin following a short illness.
Heaney was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1995 for his work, which focused on themes including his rural upbringing, the troubles in Northern Ireland and the sense of community in his native Ireland.
Described by fellow poet Robert Lowell as the “most important Irish poet since Yeats”, Heaney was also a playwright, translator and lecturer.
He was forthright about his Irish nationality and, at one stage during his career, he turned down an offer of becoming poet laureate. “I’ve nothing against the Queen personally: I had lunch at the palace once upon a time … it’s just that the basis of my imagination, the basis of the cultural starting point, is off-centre.”
In 1982 when he was included in an anthology of British poets, he responded: “My passport’s green/No glass of ours was ever raised/to toast the Queen.”
Born on a farm in County Derry in Northern Ireland, Heaney was one of nine children. He was educated at St Columb’s College in the same county, a famous Catholic boarding school, and later at Queen’s University Belfast. He began his career as a teacher before becoming a lecturer at Queen’s in 1966. In the same year he published his first big collection, Death of a Naturalist.
As a Catholic nationalist born in Northern Ireland, Heaney at times came under pressure to take sides during almost three decades of conflict in the province. But although many of his poems addressed “the troubles”- often seeking to put them in a broader historical context- he was reluctant to take on such a role. He once described his own instincts on writing about conflict in Northern Ireland as “an early warning system telling me to get back inside my own head”.
Enda Kenny, Ireland’s prime minister, on Friday said Heaney’s death brought great sorrow to Ireland, to language and to literature.
“For us, Seamus Heaney was the keeper of language, our codes, our essence as a people,” he said.
Heaney’s publisher, Faber, said in a statement: “We cannot adequately express our profound sorrow at the loss of one of the world’s greatest writers. His impact on literary culture is immeasurable.”
“As his publisher we could not have been prouder to publish his work over nearly 50 years. He was nothing short of an inspiration to the company, and his friendship over many years is a great loss.”
In 2007 Heaney’s books made up two-thirds of all sales of living poets in the UK.
In an interview with the BBC this year, Heaney described how he felt when he discovered poetry for the first time.
“It was the voltage of the language; it was entrancing,” he said.
“I think the first little jolt I got was reading Gerard Manley Hopkins - I liked other poems … but Hopkins was kind of electric for me - he changed the rules with speech, and the whole intensity of the language was there and so on.”
He had a stroke a few years ago, which had led to health complications. In a short statement, his family requested privacy.
“The death has taken place of Seamus Heaney. The poet and Nobel laureate died in hospital in Dublin this morning after a short illness,” it said.
Heaney and has wife Marie had three children together: Christopher, Michael and Catherine Ann.
In his own words …
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
From “Digging”, in The Death of a Naturalist (1966)
Don’t be surprised
If I demur, for, be advised
My passport’s green.
No glass of ours was ever raised
To toast The Queen.
“An Open Letter” (1983) objecting to his inclusion in The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry
So now, as a thank-offering for one
Whose long wait on the shaded bank has ended,
I arrive with my bunch of stalks and silvered heads
Like tapers that won’t dim
As her earthlight breaks and we gather round
Talking baby talk.
From “Route 110”, in The Human Chain (2010)