Obituary – Seamus Heaney

Poet Seamus Heaney, 1939-2013
Seamus Heaney, 1939-2013 ... Image: Sean O'Connor
Poet Seamus Heaney, 1939-2013
Seamus Heaney, 1939-2013 … Image: Sean O’Connor

“I can’t think of a case where poems changed the world, but what they do is they change people’s understanding of what’s going on in the world.” – Seamus Heaney, 1939-2013

Seamus Heaney was recognised internationally as one of the greatest poets of all time. Often cited as the greatest Irish poet since WB Yeats, he was made an honorary fellow at the University of Central Lancashire in 2003.

Poetry was just one of the arrows in the quiver of a man of many talents. He was also a translator, a broadcaster and a prose writer. However, it is his poetry that he will be most remembered for. They covered a broad range of topics but one thing that never changed was their unerring ability to consistently have an impact on the reader.

“If you have the words, there’s always a chance that you’ll find the way.”

Born in Northern Ireland, he was a Catholic and a Nationalist who made his feelings towards Britain clear when he wrote: “Be advised, my passport’s green. No glass of ours was ever raised, to toast the Queen.”  During the troubles in Northern Ireland, he came under pressure to take sides and received some criticism for his refusal to do so. His writing on the violence often sought to put it into historical context and he also wrote personally for friends that died as a result.

Talented even as a boy, he was sent on a scholarship to St Columb’s College in Derry at the age of 12. From there he attended Queen’s University in Belfast, studying for a degree in English. He moved into teaching, notably returning to Queen’s University as a lecturer before becoming Head of English at Carysfort College – a teacher training school.

“Behaviour that’s admired is the path to power among people everywhere.”

In 1972 he gave up life as a full-time academic to become a freelance writer after the success of his first poetry collection, Death of a Naturalist. It was only in 1975 with the release of Then In North, that his work took a darker tone after the violence had begun. His work also celebrated the bravery of those who continued with everyday life in Northern Ireland during this time.

Throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s, his reputation continued to blossom. Unlike many of his contemporaries, who were withdrawn and reserved about their work, Heaney was happy to discuss the details of his poems and was capable of telling jokes at his own expense.

His legacy was sealed in 1995 when he was awarded the Nobel Prize, “for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.” Before his death, he was also awarded the TS Eliot Prize for Poetry, The Whitbread Prize and the David Cohen Prize by Arts Council England for a lifetime’s achievement.

Loved by many, Northern Irish poet Michael Longley said of Heaney: “Just his presence filled a room; his marvellous poems filled the hearts of generations of readers.”

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