Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 1 October 2014

Seamus Heaney: Always charming and unassuming, poet carried his poetic genius lightly

Seamus Heaney, pictured in 1995
Seamus Heaney, pictured in 1995
21/12/2011: Irish Nobel laureate Dr Seamus Heaney with Taoiseach Enda Kenny, today handed over his literary papers to the National Library of Ireland
21/12/2011: Irish Nobel laureate Dr Seamus Heaney with Taoiseach Enda Kenny, today handed over his literary papers to the National Library of Ireland
10/09/2009: Poet Seamus Heaney at Lyric Threshold Stone unveiling at the widely recognised Lyric Theatre as the unveiling of the threshold stone highlights the progress that has been made with the construction of the new theatre
10/09/2009: Poet Seamus Heaney at Lyric Threshold Stone unveiling at the widely recognised Lyric Theatre as the unveiling of the threshold stone highlights the progress that has been made with the construction of the new theatre

The Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney, who has died at 74 after a short illness, was one of the finest poets in the English language, and he was also regarded as the greatest poet in Ireland since WB Yeats.

He was also a charming and unassuming man who carried his poetic genius lightly.

He was an Ulsterman born and bred, and although he lived for a large part of his life in Dublin, he never forgot his Northern roots.

Heaney refused to allow himself be drawn in to commenting directly about the Troubles in Northern Ireland, but in some of his poems and comments he tried to bring his deep humanity and common sense to bear on a tragic situation in his native land that was often beyond words.

Though he steered clear of politics, he held republican views and he once wrote;

"Be advised, my passport's green

No glass of ours was ever raised

To toast the Queen."

Nevertheless he joined the Queen's table in Dublin Castle with his friend President Mary McAleese during Her Majesty's historic visit to the Irish Republic, and more recently he said in a newspaper article that there would never be a united Ireland.

One of his recent and best-known poems, The Cure at Troy, contained the lines that gave context and hope to his native country emerging from decades of deadlock, danger and despair:

"History says, Don't hope

On this side of the grave

But then, once in a lifetime

The longed-for tidal wave

Of justice can rise up,

And hope and history rhyme."

Heaney was of farming stock, and this forms the background to some of his most celebrated lines.

When describing his father and grandfather digging on the land he wrote:

" ... I've no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests.

I'll dig with it."

Seamus Heaney was born on 13 April 1939 at the family farmhouse situated between Castledawson and Toomebridge.

He was the eldest of nine children born to Margaret and Patrick Heaney, who himself was the eighth of the 10 children of James and Sarah Heaney.

Educated at Anahorish Primary School, he won a scholarship to St Columb's College in Londonderry where his contemporaries and near contemporaries included John Hume and Phil Coulter.

Seamus Heaney came up to Queen's University to study English in 1957, at a time when there were many other notable talents within the student body.

Heaney was particularly gifted, and it was no surprise when he graduated in 1961 with a First Class Honours degree in English Language and Literature.

He entered St Joseph's College in Belfast as a trainee teacher, and on a placement to St Thomas' Intermediate School he was influenced by the headmaster Michael McLaverty, himself a noted writer who encouraged Heaney to start publishing his own poetry.

He later became a lecturer at Queen's where he was greatly influenced by Philip Hobsbaum, an English academic.

This was a seminal period for Heaney where he met other gifted Ulster poets Derek Mahon and Michael Longley.

Heaney retained a deep affection for Queen's, and remained loyal all his life to his alma mater.

The university was always extremely proud of one of its leading alumni, establishing The Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry. It also named its major library the Seamus Heaney Library, which contains the Heaney Media Archive.

He said, of opening of the Heaney Centre for Poetry, that he owed much to Queen's.

"I received an indispensable grounding in languages and literature, classical and vernacular."

His first major work, Death of a Naturalist, was published in 1966 by Faber and Faber, a company with which he formed a successful career partnership.

In 1976 he moved to Dublin as a member of staff at Carysfort College, while his flow of celebrated poetry, including collections titled Wintering Out, North and Field Work and others brought him widespread acclaim as a poet of rare quality.

By the mid-'80s his national and global reputation was secure.

He became a Visiting Professor and later the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard University, where he was also the Ralph Waldo Emerson Poet in Residence from 1998-2006.

In 1989 he was elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford University for a five-year term.

Seamus Heaney was on holiday in Greece when he heard that he had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995 for what the judges described as "works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past".

This was perhaps the greatest of many distinctions following in the footsteps of WB Yeats, George Bernard Shaw and Samuel Beckett.

With typical modesty, Heaney described this as "like being a little foothill at the bottom of a mountain range. You just hope that you live up to it".

Seamus Heaney received many awards, including honorary degrees as well as the Whitbread Prize, TS Eliot Prize, David Cohen Prize for Literature and other tributes to his literary excellence.

Yet Seamus Heaney remained an unassuming man.

Though he had a sharp intellect, he was never wounding, and he had a wry sense of humour which helped him to survey the human condition with equanimity.

His death at 74 marks a physical dying of the light, but the deep warmth and glow of his poetry will live on as long as the creative arts and literature endure.

He is survived by his wife Marie, and children Christopher, Michael and Catherine Ann, and by his wider family.

Alf McCreary

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