Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 10 July 2014

Poet Seamus Heaney dies

Seamus Heaney, pictured in 1995
Seamus Heaney, pictured in 1995

Northern Ireland poet Seamus Heaney has died.

Recognised by many as the best Irish poet since WB Yeats, the 74-year-old had been a teacher before embarking on a career in poetry which led to him winning the Nobel prize for literature in 1995.

He was made a Commandeur de L'Ordre des Arts et Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture in 1996.

"The death has taken place of Seamus Heaney. The poet and Nobel Laureate died in hospital in Dublin this morning after a short illness," a statement on behalf of the family said.

"The family has requested privacy at this time."

Heaney is survived by his wife, Marie, and children, Christopher, Michael and Catherine Ann.

Funeral arrangements are to be announced later.

The Nobel prize-winner was born in April 1939, the eldest of nine children, on a small farm called Mossbawn near Bellaghy in Co Derry, Northern Ireland, and his upbringing often played out in the poetry he wrote in later years.

He was educated at St Columb's College, Derry, a Catholic boarding school, and later at Queen's University Belfast, before making his home in Dublin, with periods of teaching in the US.

Heaney was an honorary fellow at Trinity College Dublin and last year was bestowed with the Seamus Heaney Professorship in Irish Writing at the university, which he described as a great honour.

His world renowned poetry first came to public attention in the mid-1960s with his first major collection, Death Of A Naturalist, published in 1966.

As the Troubles took hold later that decade, his experiences were seen through the darkened mood of his work.

Heaney donated his personal literary notes to the National Library of Ireland in December 2011, joining the ranks of Irish literary master James Joyce and fellow Nobel winner WB Yeats.

During his literary career he held prestigious posts at Oxford University and at Harvard in the US.

Just before lunchtime today, actor Adrian Dunbar led a round of applause at the bust of Heaney in the Lyric Theatre in Belfast, while a book of condolences is to be opened in the Guildhall in Derry.

Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny said Heaney's death is a great sorrow for Ireland, language and literature.

"He is mourned - and deeply - wherever poetry and the world of the spirit are cherished and celebrated," he said.

"For us, Seamus Heaney was the keeper of language, our codes, our essence as a people."

Mr Kenny said it would take Heaney himself to describe the depth of loss Ireland would feel at his death.

Ireland's Deputy Prime Minister, Eamon Gilmore, said Heaney's legacy would be as one of the finest Irish poets of all time.

"His work reflected his deep love and knowledge of the Irish land and the Irish people. His poetry explained us to ourselves. In his work, the dignity and honour of the everyday lives of people came to life," he said.

"Yet his poetry was also universal in nature, as can be seen by the wonderful tributes being paid to him by people across the globe today and by his incredible achievement in winning the Nobel Prize for Literature."

Patsy McGlone, SDLP MP for Mid-Ulster, the area of Heaney's birthplace, said he has left a tremendous cultural legacy to south Derry but also to the literary world.

"Seamus Heaney was the voice of this community, a man of the people who knew his community well and reflected the history and cultural richness of that community," he said.

"I remember him calling in to my father's business when I was younger and being struck by his humility."

Belfast Poet Laureate Dr Sinead Morrissey said "poet-superstar" Heaney "seemed peculiarly destined for the kind of living success that is almost unimaginable".

She said it is "impossible to imagine" the literary and cultural landscape of Ireland without him.

"We've all suffered a huge loss with the passing of Seamus Heaney. It's difficult to articulate the extent of the loss. So many different parts of Ireland, North and South - places where he grew up, lived and taught and wrote - claim Heaney as theirs but he was everyone's.

"Reading about his life in Stepping Stones, from childhood right through each publication, each incredible award and accolade that came his way, he seemed peculiarly destined for the kind of living success that is almost unimaginable.

"Unusually, he was a writer who was a poet-superstar, a statesman, a national treasure, an international voice, in his own lifetime, and it's simply impossible to imagine the literary and cultural life of Ireland without him.

"The brilliance of the work - which schoolchildren know by heart even if they don't know anyone else's - will be the enduring legacy of his extraordinary life," she said.

Ian Martin, a writer of The Thick Of It, said he will toast Heaney and "binge-read" his work tonight.

He tweeted: "Love Seamus Heaney. Used to read his shorter poems to my daughter. 'Widgeon' she memorised. Will raise glass and binge-read Heaney tonight."

Irish President Michael D Higgins said Heaney's contribution "to the republics of letters, conscience, and humanity was immense".

"As tributes flow in from around the world, as people recall the extraordinary occasions of the readings and the lectures, we in Ireland will once again get a sense of the depth and range of the contribution of Seamus Heaney to our contemporary world, but what those of us who have had the privilege of his friendship and presence will miss is the extraordinary depth and warmth of his personality," he said.

Mr Higgins, himself a published poet, described Heaney as warm, humourous, caring and courteous.

"A courtesy that enabled him to carry with such wry Northern Irish dignity so many well-deserved honours from all over the world," he said.

"Generations of Irish people will have been familiar with Seamus' poems. Scholars all over the world will have gained from the depth of the critical essays, and so many rights organisations will want to thank him for all the solidarity he gave to the struggles within the republic of conscience."

Heaney's profile and the high regard he was held in was evidenced when he sat at the Queen's table for a banquet on her state visit to the Irish Republic in 2011, the first such trip for a ruling British monarch.

He was due to deliver a speech at the Linen Hall Library in Belfast next Tuesday and make an address next month at Amnesty International's ambassador of conscience award, named after a poem he wrote for the organisation in 1985.

Those who knew him remarked on how he was renowned for always accepting invites to speak.

Patrick Corrigan, the organisation's Northern Ireland director, said he connected not just with people in Ireland but across the world.

"Through the beauty and elegance of his writing, Seamus Heaney reminded us of the bonds which unite and our duty to uphold the dignity of all," he said.

"Ireland has lost a legendary man of letters. The world has lost a towering giant of humanity."

Heaney's work has been taught in schools on both sides of the Irish border, and in Britain with lines of verse still resonating years later from the likes of Digging and Tollund Man.

John Hume, the former SDLP leader in Northern Ireland and a native of Derry city, was good friends with Heaney.

"His poetry expressed a special love of people, place and diversity of life," he said.

"That profound regard for humanity has made his poetry a special channel for repudiating violence, injustice and prejudice, and urging us all to the better side of our human nature.

"I have always received great inspiration from his written word and I am deeply grateful for the personal encouragement that I always received from such a warm friend and a wise man."

Micheal Martin, leader of Ireland's main opposition party Fianna Fail, said Ireland had lost one of its very best.

"He knew his people, and he helped us understand ourselves better. He was a unifying figure, who gave voice to the changing dynamic on our island and the potential that exists," he said.

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said Heaney is regarded by many as the greatest Irish poet since Yeats.

"Winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995, he brought great pride to Ireland and has left us an immense legacy," he said.

In a statement, his publisher Faber and Faber said: "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 poetry over nearly 50 years. He was nothing short of an inspiration to the company, and his friendship over many years is a great loss."

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt described Heaney as a man of global significance.

"His influence ran broader than the arts. We all remember how US president Bill Clinton chose Heaney's great phrase about when 'hope and history rhyme' from Heaney's play The Cure At Troy in his speech in Londonderry, and went on to use it for the title of his book detailing his vision of the US in the 21st Century," he said.

The Republic's Arts Minister, Jimmy Deenihan, praised Heaney for his work as a literary great but also for promoting Ireland.

"He was just a very humble, modest man. He was very accessible," he said.

"Anywhere I have ever travelled in the world and you mention poetry and literature and the name of Seamus Heaney comes up immediately."

Mr Deenihan recently joined Heaney at an event at the Irish Embassy in Paris where the poet gave readings to an audience of 1,000 invited guests.

"He was a huge figure internationally, a great ambassador for literature obviously, but also for Ireland," the minister said.

Fellow poet and friend Peter Sirr expressed his shock at the Derry man’s death, saying he thought Heaney had left the world too soon.

“I know he wasn’t well and he was quite frail after his stroke,” the Waterford poet said on Radio One this morning, “but he died too soon.

“There was always a notion that Seamus was a permanent presence in the world both as a man and a poet, I never thought I’d wake up and he’d be gone.

“This is a global event but first of all it’s a family event.”

Dublin poet Thomas Kinsella said he was in a state of shock.

“It is just such a powerful presence taken from us,” Kinsella said.

“My memory of his very earliest poems... we just knew we were dealing with the real thing.

“God rest him and God help us.”

Fellow poet John Montague said the sad news had comes as no surprise.

“I’m not surprised – I knew he was in bad health,” Mr Montague said.

He added that he had been speaking to relative of Heaney’s recently who told him he was “not in good shape”.

Irish literary writer Colum McCann said Heaney brought “incredible joy” to the world.

“It’s hard to say what I think.

“Seamus brought incredible joy to us... to scholars, lovers, poets and intellectuals.

“He helped us negotiate a sense of ourselves, especially during the Peace Process.”

Minister for Tourism & Heritage Jimmy Deenihan told the Irish Independent that he had recently met with Heaney and his wife Marie.

“Just a few weeks ago I spent a very enjoyable evening with him in Paris with his wife Marie and we stayed together in the Ambassador’s residence and he performed there to a huge audience of about 1,000 people outdoors.

“You could just sense the respect that people had for him.

“He was just a very humble, modest man.

“Anywhere I ever travelled in the world, on the subject of poetry, the name of Seamus Heaney came up immediately.”

“He was a huge figure internationally. He was just a great ambassador for literature.”

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