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21st September 2013

Celebrating the life and work of Seamus Heaney

Elizabeth Mitchell pays tribute to the great Irish poet

On August 30th, the world lost the most important Irish poet since WB Yeats. Born in 1939, Seamus Heaney was one of the greatest modern poets. Indeed, at the time of his death, Heaney’s poetry made up two thirds of the sales of living poets’ work in Britain. His output was prolific, beginning with his revered collection, Death Of A Naturalist, published in 1966. The volume is based on a childhood spent on his family’s farm in County Derry. The first poem, ‘Digging’, describes the land worked by his father and grandfather.

Heaney began his career as a schoolteacher. He later became a lecturer, culminating in a 21-year stint at Harvard and his election as Professor of Poetry at the University of Oxford. Heaney also wrote two plays and was a respected translator, with his translation of Beowulf winning the 1999 Whitbread Book of the Year Award. However, he will be best remembered for his poetry, which earned him the 1995 Nobel Prize for Literature.

A Catholic and a Republican, Heaney moved to the Republic of Ireland in 1972 and claimed Irish nationality. Writing at the time of the Troubles, his work took on a darker nature. While turning down the British laureateship partly for political reasons, Heaney read ‘Requiem for the Croppies’ to both Catholic and Protestant audiences on the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising. His work celebrated those easily forgotten – the ordinary people trying to survive, irrespective of their political allegiances.

Having suffered a stroke in 2006, Heaney was left in a self-proclaimed juvenile state. This served as inspiration for his final volume Human Chain, which charts the process of ageing and comments on mortality in a bleak, confessing manner. It won him the Forward Poetry Prize, the only major poetry prize that Heaney had yet to be awarded. Heaney’s literary genius was even apparent minutes before his death: his last words, “Noli timere” (Latin for ‘Do not be afraid’), were texted to his wife. His genius will live on through his work.

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