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Famous Irish Names: Seamus Heaney

March 13, 2009
by findingDulcinea Staff
Seamus Heaney, born in 1939 in County Derry, Northern Ireland, is a cultural critic, translator and teacher. Fellow poet Robert Lowell once referred to him as the “most important Irish poet since Yeats.”

The Peat Sprouts a Poet

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Raised by a large Catholic farming family, Heaney took inspiration for nearly all of his work from the subjects of rural Ireland, family and the natural world. In 1995, nearly 30 years after publishing his first book, “Death of a Naturalist,” Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize. He often speaks of the moral obligation of having his own soapbox and listening audience; only one of his books, the controversial “North” (1975), specifically focuses on Irish politics and history, but those topics influence much of his other writing. He lives in Dublin with his wife Marie Devlin.
Heaney spoke to BBC Radio 4 about his background and his writing, discussing the influence his family and upbringing, the Troubles and the bogs of Ireland have all had on his poetry. The BBC also provides the text and an audio recording of the poem “Bogland,” read by Heaney himself.
While studying for a degree in English Language and Literature at Queen’s University Belfast, Seamus Heaney published his first poems in university magazines Q and Gorgon. He used the pen name “Incertus,” which means “Uncertain.”

The Poet at Work

“Digging,” from the 1966 work, “Death of a Naturalist,” examines the tensions between rural life and intellectual pursuit, reflecting Heaney’s pride in the work of his father and grandfather. “Clearances” is a short, affecting tribute to Heaney’s mother, while “Mid-term Break” is a poignant poem about the death of the author’s four-year-old brother.
Seamus Heaney reads his poems, “Mossbaun Sunlight” (about his family’s farm), “The Underground,” “Two Lorries” and “St. Kevin and the Blackbird” at The Poetry Archive.
Heaney does much of his writing in an attic room of his Dublin home, using a desk constructed from “a slab of board on two filing cabinets.”

The Nobel Prize

In 1995, Seamus Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. In his Nobel lecture, Heaney discussed the influences and aspirations that guided his work: “[A]s a poet I am in fact straining towards a strain, seeking repose in the stability conferred by a musically satisfying order of sounds.” Clearly, others have found that repose in Heaney’s poetry; on presenting the award, Swedish Academy member M. Osten Sjostrand said: “We all admire your revealing and compelling images and rhythms, we are gladdened by your quest for sacred wells and the sudden eruption of Beauty.”
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