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Seamus Heaney - Ireland's poet who made good

Updated on May 27, 2014
A young Seamus.
A young Seamus. | Source
Downtown Castledawson, County Derry, where Heaney was born.
Downtown Castledawson, County Derry, where Heaney was born. | Source
Seamus Heanley meeeting Queen Elizabeth II.
Seamus Heanley meeeting Queen Elizabeth II. | Source
Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queen's University, Belfast, opened in 2004.
Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queen's University, Belfast, opened in 2004. | Source

1939 - 2013

Recognized as one of Ireland's greatest poets, Seamus Heaney, recently passed away and left us with a collection of poetry, prose, translations, plays and lectures that represent the heart and soul of Ireland. Only Heaney could capture the emotions, loves, lives, nature and the world around him of his beloved Ireland. Throughout his life he constantly harbored doubts about his poetry and his ability to write poetry, but in the end, those doubts were conquered and he is considered the best Irish poet since Yeats.

When he recently passed away, Heaney was the best-known poet in the world. And, he achieved the pinnacle of writing success when his body of work was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995, " for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past," according to the Nobel Prize committee.

He is also recognized as one of the major poets of the 20th century and is the author of more than twenty volumes of poetry and criticism and has edited several widely used poetry anthologies.

His humble beginnings stayed with him and his poetry throughout his life. He was born and raised in Castledawson, County Derry, in Northern Ireland and born into a Catholic family in a Protestant Northern Island. During his young adult life he knew the "Troubles" well.

He grew up on a farm, his father a farmer and cattle dealer and his mother a homemaker. Seamus was the first of nine children she bore. His mother came from an industrial family that worked at a local linen mill in Northern Ireland. It was these beginnings that factored especially in his early poetry and his realistic writing oft the simple life and nature around him.

From 1972 to his death, Heaney lived in Sandymount, Dublin and he claimed Irish rather than British nationality. He wrote of this in his poem, An Open Letter:

Be advised

My passport's green

No glass of ours was ever raised

To toast the Queen.

But, Heaney did graciously meet Queen Elizabeth II in 2009. Even the most hard-hearted of Irishmen melted at the opportunity to meet HRH the queen.

As a young college student, however, Heaney attended and graduated from Queen's University in Belfast, Northern Ireland and in 2004 the university opened the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry in his honor.

Although Heaney taught at Harvard University (1985-2006) and served as the Oxford Professor of Poetry (1989-1994) in Oxford, England, his poetry was always popular with the common reader. He was a popular poet for his subject matter which is known for its beauty and finely-wrought textures. He is a regional poet who is also a traditionlist as he looked back towards the "pre-modern" worlds of William Wordsworth and John Clare.

At the same time, he writes of modern Northern Ireland with its forms and cities beset with civil strife and its natural culture. The impact of his surroundings and details of his humble upbringing in his work is huge.

He served his community well by preserving it's natural customs and crafts in his poetry and this gave him access to a larger community of writers and poets. He takes his place among the best poets in the world because of this. His descriptions of rural farmers and their tasks makes the reader see, hear, smell and taste this Irish life.


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Heaney's poetry & translations

Heaney wrote more than 20 poetry collections/anthologies during his lifetime about the Irish life and condition of the common man. He drew on his upbringing on the farm and his and their rural life. Many of his poems are about life in Northern Ireland and many were of Ireland as well. His heart and soul were with the Irish and hence his life and home in Dublin for the latter half of his life.

His first two poetry collections were about the rough rural Irish life and many are a description of rural farmers and their tasks and thoughts and feelings of nature around them. His poetry permits the reader to see, hear, smell and taste this Irish rural life. Death of a Naturalist (1966) and Door into the Dark (1969) are the poetry collections that depict this theme of his.

He also used his poetry to reflect on the "Troubles", the violent political struggles that disrupted Northern Ireland during Heaney's young adulthood. The IRA protests, bombings, and terrorism disrupted Northern Ireland for more than half the 20th century, in their protest against the English government and control of Northern Ireland. Heaney wrote many poems about the "Troubles" as they were called. He wove the "Troubles" into a larger historical frame with his poetry.

Many of these poems were elegies for friends who died during these times. Heaney took on the post of public spokeman and as someone the rest of Ireland looked to for comment and guidance during these turbulent times.

On the other hand, he felt the weight of this post on his shoulders, and also defended the right of poets to be private, apolitical, and question the extent to which poetry can influence the course of history. During this time Heaney struggled with trying to find a historical framework with which to put his "Troubles" poetry in.

His "Troubles" poems are bleak, undercutting complexities full of ironies. But, even with that, he still writes and shines as a beacon of hope in a troubled time and land. Wintering Out (1973) and North (1975) are the two collections of poetry of the "Troubles" time.

The first literary translation Heaney wrote was of an Irish lyric poem, Buile Suibhne. It was titled, Sweeney Attray: A Version from the Irish (1984). It is an epic poem that is the story of an ancient king who, cursed by the church, is transformed into a mad bird-man and is forced to wander in the harsh inhospitable countryside. It describes the connections between personal choices, dramas and losses and universal forces that the bird-man encounters.

In his collection, Station Island (1984), he wrote a series of poems called "Sweeney Redivivus" revisiting the ancient king from his translation.

The Haw Lantern (1987) is a collection of poetry about his childhood, farm life, politics and culture in Northern Ireland. As he wrote this poetry he looked at how all this has affected the language and how the language has changed and served as a culture bearer. He included a world of imaginations and offered the wisdom of a man growing older and more mature.

His writings took a new direction in his career with the publication of Selected Poems, 1966-1987 (1990). These poems were less literal and more spiritual in their images and flow. Heaney looked inward at himself and wondered who he had become. Through these poems he explored humanism, politics, and nature.

In Electric Light (2001), Heaney broadened his use of allusion and also used memory, elegy, and the pastoral tradition as an aging man writing. He began to re-experience his childhood and early adulthood perceptions in these poems. He was clearly looking inward to his past and his experiences and how they affected him at the time.

Heaney won the T.S. Elliot Prize, the most prestigious poetry award in the UK, for District and Circle (2006). These are authentic and believable poems of the common man. The poems say something extraordinary, but at the same time, something that an ordinary or common person might say.

He won the Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism, the largest annual prize for literary criticism in the English language, for his collection, Finders Keepers: Selected Prose 1971 - 2001 (2002).

These poems are about Heaney's thirty year struggle with the demon of doubt. He questions: What good is poetry? How can it contribute to society? Is it worth all the dedication and demands? His answer: Poets are finders and keepers and look after life by being discoverers and custodians of the hidden and unlooked for. This was Heaney's inward looking time of life and he pondered the many questions we all have as writers.

Heaney's most famous translation work is that of Beowulf (2002), the great Anglo-Saxon epic poem. He took the freedom of using the modern vernacular English in his translation and this revitalized the poem. This translation work is considered brilliant by critics and writers alike.

Heaney had a strong belief in the power of art and poetry to offer hope in the face of an uncertain future even with all the technological change and economic collapse Ireland has faced. Although, his voice is grounded in tradition, two-thirds of poetry collections sold in the UK are of his poetry and are Heaney titles.

Heaney was able to connect with the Irish common man with his own life and experiences in life through his poetry. And the Irish common man was able to connect back to him. This is what made him so popular in Ireland and throughout the world - the ability to 'see' the common man and his plight in Ireland and the rest of the world. He reminded the Irish of their place in the world and how proud they should be of it.

His popularity in death is as great as it was when he was alive. He once said, "If poetry and the arts do anything," he said, "they can fortify our inner life, your inwardness."

And, really, isn't that why we all write?

Death of a Naturalist by Seamus Heaney

Not the most pleasant of scenes from Heaney's childhood, but it represents the rural Irish land and nature as he remembered it. He runs away in the end, hence the "death" of the naturalist. If he dipped his hand in the bog, he would be caught there forever.

Death Of A Naturalist

All year the flax-dam festered in the heart
Of the townland; green and heavy headed
Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods.
Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun.
Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles
Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.
There were dragon-flies, spotted butterflies,
But best of all was the warm thick slobber
Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water
In the shade of the banks. Here, every spring
I would fill jampotfuls of the jellied
Specks to range on window-sills at home,
On shelves at school, and wait and watch until
The fattening dots burst into nimble-
Swimming tadpoles. Miss Walls would tell us how
The daddy frog was called a bullfrog
And how he croaked and how the mammy frog
Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was
Frogspawn. You could tell the weather by frogs too
For they were yellow in the sun and brown
In rain.
Then one hot day when fields were rank
With cowdung in the grass the angry frogs
Invaded the flax-dam; I ducked through hedges
To a coarse croaking that I had not heard
Before. The air was thick with a bass chorus.
Right down the dam gross-bellied frogs were cocked
On sods; their loose necks pulsed like sails. Some hopped:
The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat
Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.
I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kings
Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew
That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.

Seamus Heaney


Digging by Seamus Heanehy

Potato farming was his father and grandfather's toil. The realism with which he writes creates an endearing image in our minds as to the hard work of an Irish farmer. But, Heaney will also dig, giving reverence to his father and grandfather, but he will do it a bit differently - he will dig with his pen. And, that is exactly what Heaney did with his poetry writing.


Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound

When the spade sinks into gravelly ground: My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds

Bends low, comes up twenty years away

Stooping in rhythm through potato drills

Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft

Against the inside knee was levered firmly.He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep

To scatter new potatoes that we picked,Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.

Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a dayThan any other man on Toner’s bog.

Once I carried him milk in a bottleCorked sloppily with paper.

He straightened up

To drink it, then fell to right away

Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods

Over his shoulder, going down and down

For the good turf


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.

Seamus Heaney, "Digging" from Death of a Naturalist. Copyright 1966 by Seamus Heaney. Reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC.

Source: Death of a Naturalist (1966)

Copyright (c) 2013 Suzannah Wolf Walker all rights reserved



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    • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

      Suzette Walker 

      4 years ago from Taos, NM

      manatita: Yes, he was a great poet from Ireland. He captured the Irish heart and soul so well in his writings. Another passing of a great one. So glad you enjoyed reading this.

    • manatita44 profile image


      5 years ago from london

      A truly great and good man, our Seamus. Thank You, thank you ...

    • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

      Suzette Walker 

      5 years ago from Taos, NM

      Thank you,John and I am so glad you enjoyed reading this. Yes, I think he put Ireland on the map when it comes to poetry. He has such a love for his country and it is evident in his poems. Thanks so much for your insightful comments.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 

      5 years ago from Queensland Australia

      A wonderful hub and tribute to a great poet Suzette. I love Heaney's descriptive of real life. Thanks for sharing this wonderful hub.Voted up.

    • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

      Suzette Walker 

      7 years ago from Taos, NM

      mckbirdbks: I don't know about all that. You are too kind. Thanks you reading and for your kind comments. I appreciate your input and your visit.

      And, you are the man to see about publishing on Kindle. I am in the process of publishing a book on Kindle, but I need a bit of help. Colin highly recommended you. Do you have an email I could contact you with the specifics? I have the cover completed and now I am ready to upload - my manuscript is on Windows. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

    • mckbirdbks profile image


      7 years ago from Emerald Wells, Just off the crossroads,Texas

      suzettenaples you do such in depth research and continue to bring us the royalty of the written word. Soon all roads will lead to suzettenaples on hubpages to find out just what is what and who is who.

    • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

      Suzette Walker 

      7 years ago from Taos, NM

      Eddy : Thank you and I'm glad you enjoyed this. Your visit is most appreciated!

    • Eiddwen profile image


      7 years ago from Wales

      Wonderful Suzette ;interesting and so well written. Have a great day.


    • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

      Suzette Walker 

      7 years ago from Taos, NM

      Mhatter: you are most welcome. He is so interesting to write about.

    • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

      Suzette Walker 

      7 years ago from Taos, NM

      Blossom: So glad you enjoyed reading this. He really is a credit to Ireland and all poets in general. I appreciated your kind comments!

    • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

      Suzette Walker 

      7 years ago from Taos, NM

      cleaner: Glad you enjoyed this!

    • Mhatter99 profile image

      Martin Kloess 

      7 years ago from San Francisco

      Thank you for this.

    • BlossomSB profile image

      Bronwen Scott-Branagan 

      7 years ago from Victoria, Australia

      What a great hub about this famous poet. He did so much and wrote so much in his life-time and your writing is a lovely tribute.

    • cleaner3 profile image


      7 years ago from Pueblo, Colorado

      thank you ..suzette...I also enjoy your dear .!

    • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

      Suzette Walker 

      7 years ago from Taos, NM

      cleaner3: So glad you liked this! Thank you for your comments. Most appreciated. I so enjoyed reading your poetry.

    • cleaner3 profile image


      7 years ago from Pueblo, Colorado

      suzette.. this is a great write .. read beowolf and found it to bevery interesting .. he di have his own style in writing.. a great poet he was .. thanks for the hub.. am looking forward to reading some of the works you exposed .. thank you ..


    • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

      Suzette Walker 

      7 years ago from Taos, NM

      Flourish: Thank you so much for stopping by to read this- most appreciated. Glad you enjoyed it.

    • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

      Suzette Walker 

      7 years ago from Taos, NM

      Vincent: Thank you so much for reading this and I am glad you enjoyed this. His poetry is amazing and a great poetic role model for all of us. I'd say you are writing in images as he did and you are doing a darn good job at it. Your comments are appreciated.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image


      7 years ago from USA

      Lovely tribute to this Irish man of words.

    • profile image

      Vincent Moore 

      7 years ago

      He was a shining poet laureate and the Irish loved him. He could take the simplest of things and make them visual, that is the sign of a true poet, seeing everything as you read it. I try my best to be as visual as I can in my work, I admire poets like Seamus who are perfect naturals. Thank you for sharing his work and the man himself, RIP you deserve to be with poets from our past and I know you are.

    • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

      Suzette Walker 

      7 years ago from Taos, NM

      Faith: So glad you enjoyed this. His poetry was certainly about the Irish and Ireland and he truly did exalt his country through his poetry. He wrote about the simist things in life and made them important. Hugs to you too Faith!

    • Faith Reaper profile image

      Faith Reaper 

      7 years ago from southern USA

      He was such a phenomenal poet ... truly, he was just phenomenal! Thank you for your most excellent write here. This is a fascinating read to say the least. I appreciate you including two of his amazing poems here. Wow.

      I really love how the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995 worded its comments to Seamus, " for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past," and that truly does sum it up properly.

      Thank you for this wondrous write here as a reminder of the impact a poet extraordinaire can have in this life!

      Voted up, awesome, interesting, beautiful and useful and sharing too.

      Hope you are having a glorious Sunday.

      Hugs, Faith Reaper

    • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

      Suzette Walker 

      7 years ago from Taos, NM

      Bill: Thank you. So glad you enjoyed this and now know someone new, although, sadly he just passed away within the last two weeks. He is so popular in Ireland, and throughout the world. Yes, poetry does make one think, and thank heavens there are poets who can capture the public's imagination the way Heaney did. I haven't read a whole lot of his poetry, but I am familiar with some of it. Thanks for your visit and your comments. Most appreciated, as always!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      7 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I meet the most interesting people through your articles. Well done and thank you. I have a special place in my heart for hard to make it in the poetry business, because poetry requires the reading public to actually think. :)


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