Seamus Heaney, Nobel Prize in Literature, 1995

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Seamus Heaney, Nobel Prize in Literature, 1995

Birthplace: Casteldàwson, Northern Ireland
Death: Died in Dublin, Ireland
Cause of death: complications of a stroke
Immediate Family:

Son of Patrick Heaney and Margaret Kathleen Heaney
Husband of <private> Heaney (Devlin)
Father of <private> Heaney and <private> Heaney
Brother of <private> Heaney

Occupation: Irish poet, writer and lecturer.
Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About Seamus Heaney, Nobel Prize in Literature, 1995

Seamus Heaney (born 13 April 1939) is an Irish poet, writer and lecturer. He lives in Dublin. Heaney has received the Nobel Prize in Literature (1995), the Golden Wreath of Poetry (2001), T. S. Eliot Prize (2006) and two Whitbread prizes (1996 and 1999). He was both the Harvard and the Oxford Professor of Poetry and was made a Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et Lettres in 1996. Considered by many as the greatest Irish poet since Yeats.

Early life

Heaney was born on 13 April 1939 at the family farmhouse called Mossbawn, between Castledawson and Toomebridge in Northern Ireland; he was the first of nine children. In 1953, his family moved to Bellaghy, a few miles away, which is now the family home. His father, Patrick Heaney, a local of Castledawson, was the eighth child of ten born to James and Sarah Heaney. Patrick was a farmer but his real commitment was to cattle-dealing, to which he was introduced by the uncles who had cared for him after the early death of his own parents. Heaney's mother came from the McCann family, whose uncles and relations were employed in the local linen mill and whose aunt had worked as a maid for the mill owner's family. The poet has commented on the fact that his parentage thus contains both the Ireland of the cattle-herding Gaelic past and the Ulster of the Industrial Revolution; he considers this to have been a significant tension in his background.

Heaney initially attended Anahorish Primary School and when he was twelve-years-old, he won a scholarship to St. Columb's College, a Catholic boarding school situated in Derry. Heaney's brother, Christopher, was killed in a road accident at the age of four while Heaney was studying at St. Columb's. The poems Mid-Term Break and The Blackbird of Glanmore focus on the death of Christopher.



In 1957, Heaney travelled to Belfast to study English Language and Literature at the Queen's University of Belfast. During his time in Belfast he found a copy of Ted Hughes' Lupercal, which spurred him to write poetry. "Suddenly, the matter of contemporary poetry was the material of my own life" he has said. He graduated in 1961 with a First Class Honours degree. During teacher training at St Joseph's Teacher Training College in Belfast (now merged with St Mary's, University College), Heaney went on a placement to St Thomas' secondary Intermediate School in west Belfast. The headmaster of this school was the writer Michael McLaverty from County Monaghan, who introduced Heaney to the poetry of Patrick Kavanagh. With McLaverty's mentorship, Heaney first started to publish poetry, beginning in 1962. Hillal describes how McLaverty was like a foster father to the younger Belfast poet. In the introduction to McLaverty's Collected works, Heaney summarised the poet's contribution and influence: "His voice was modestly pitched, he never sought the limelight, yet for all that, his place in our literature is secure." Heaney's poem Fosterage, in the sequence Singing School from North (1975) is dedicated to him.

In 1963, Heaney became a lecturer at St Joseph's and in the spring of 1963, after contributing various articles to local magazines, he came to the attention of Philip Hobsbaum, then an English lecturer at Queen's University. Hobsbaum was to set up a Belfast Group of local young poets (to mirror the success he had with the London group) and this would bring Heaney into contact with other Belfast poets such as Derek Mahon and Michael Longley. In August 1965 he married Marie Devlin, a school teacher and native of Ardboe, County Tyrone. (Devlin is a writer herself and, in 1994, published Over Nine Waves, a collection of traditional Irish myths and legends.) Heaney's first book, Eleven Poems, was published in November 1965 for the Queen's University Festival. In 1967, Faber and Faber published his first major volume, called Death of a Naturalist. This collection met with much critical acclaim and went on to win several awards, the Gregory Award for Young Writers and the Geoffrey Faber Prize. Also in 1966, he was appointed as a lecturer in Modern English Literature at Queen's University Belfast and his first son, Michael, was born. A second son, Christopher, was born in 1968. That same year, with Michael Longley, Heaney took part in a reading tour called Room to Rhyme, which led to much exposure for the poet's work. In 1969, his second major volume, Door into the Dark, was published.

After a spell as guest lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, he returned to Queen's University in 1971. In 1972, Heaney left his lectureship at Belfast and moved to Dublin in the Republic of Ireland, working as a teacher at Carysfort College. In 1972, Wintering Out was published, and over the next few years Heaney began to give readings throughout Ireland, Britain, and the United States. In 1975, Heaney published his fourth volume, North. He became Head of English at Carysfort College in Dublin in 1976. His next volume, Field Work, was published in 1979. Selected Poems 1965-1975 and Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-1978 were published in 1980. When the Republic of Ireland established Aosdána, the national Irish Arts Council, in 1981, Heaney was among those elected into its first group (he was subsequently elected a Saoi, one of its five elders and its highest honor, in 1997). Also in 1981, he left Carysfort to become visiting professor at Harvard University. He was awarded two honorary doctorates, from Queen's University and from Fordham University in New York City (1982). At the Fordham commencement ceremony in 1982, Heaney delivered the commencement address in a 46-stanza poem entitled Verses for a Fordham Commencement. As he was born and educated in Northern Ireland, Heaney has felt the need to emphasise that he is Irish and not British. Following the success of the Field Day Theatre Company's production of Brian Friel's Translations, Heaney joined the company's expanded Board of Directors in 1981, when the company's founders Brian Friel and Stephen Rea decided to make the company a permanent group. In 1984 his mother, Margaret Kathleen Heaney, died.


Heaney was Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard University (formerly Visiting Professor) 1985-1997 and Ralph Waldo Emerson Poet in Residence at Harvard 1998-2006. In 1986, Heaney received a Litt.D. from Bates College. His father, Patrick, died soon after publication of the 1987 volume, The Haw Lantern. In 1988, a collection of critical essays called The Government of the Tongue was published.

In 1989, Heaney was elected Professor of Poetry at the University of Oxford, which he held for a five-year term to 1994. The chair does not require residence in Oxford, and throughout this period he was dividing his time between Ireland and America. He also continued to give public readings; so well attended and keenly anticipated were these events that those who queued for tickets with such enthusiasm have sometimes been dubbed "Heaneyboppers", suggesting an almost teenybopper fanaticism on the part of his supporters. In 1993 Heaney guest-edited The Mays Anthology, a collection of new writing from students at the University of Oxford and University of Cambridge.

In 1990, The Cure at Troy, a play based on Sophocles' Philoctetes, was published to much acclaim, followed by Seeing Things in 1991.

Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995 for what the Nobel committee described as "works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past". He was on holiday in Greece with his wife when the news broke and no one, not even journalists or his own children, could find him until he appeared at Dublin Airport two days later, though an Irish television camera traced him to Kalamata. Asked how it felt having his name to the Irish Nobel pantheon featuring William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw and Samuel Beckett, Heaney responded: "It's like being a little foothill at the bottom of a mountain range. You hope you just live up to it. It's extraordinary." He and Marie were immediately whisked straight from the airport to Áras an Uachtaráin for champagne with President Mary Robinson.

Heaney's 1996 collection The Spirit Level won the Whitbread Book of the Year Award and repeated the success with the release of Beowulf: A New Translation.


In 2000, Heaney was awarded an honorary doctorate and delivered the commencement address at the University of Pennsylvania. In 2002, Heaney was awarded an honorary doctorate from Rhodes University and delivered a public lecture on "The Guttural Muse". In 2003, the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry was opened at Queen's University Belfast. It houses the Heaney Media Archive, a record of Heaney's entire oeuvre, along with a full catalogue of his radio and television presentations. That same year Heaney, decided to lodge a substantial portion of his literary archive at Emory University, as a memorial to the work of William M. Chace, the university’s recently retired president. The Emory papers represented the largest repository of Heaney's work (1964-2003), donated to build their large existing archive from Irish writers including Yeats, Paul Muldoon, Ciaran Carson, Michael Longley and other members of the The Belfast Group.

In 2003, when asked if there was any figure in popular culture who aroused interest in poetry and lyrics, Heaney praised rap artist Eminem, saying "He has created a sense of what is possible. He has sent a voltage around a generation. He has done this not just through his subversive attitude but also his verbal energy." Heaney was named an Honorary Patron of the University Philosophical Society, Trinity College, Dublin and was elected an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature (1991). He composed the poem "Beacons of Bealtaine" for the 2004 EU Enlargement. The poem was read by Heaney at a ceremony for the twenty-five leaders of the enlarged European Union arranged by the Irish EU presidency.

Heaney suffered a stroke from which he recovered in August 2006, but cancelled all public engagements for several months. He was in County Donegal at the time on the occasion of the 75th birthday of Anne Friel, playwright Brian Friel's wife. He read the works of Henning Mankell, Donna Leon and Robert Harris while in hospital.

Heaney's District and Circle won the 2006 T. S. Eliot Prize. He became artist of honour in Østermarie, Denmark in 2008 and the Seamus Heaney Stræde (street) was named after him. In 2009, Heaney was presented with an Honorary-Life Membership award from the UCD Law Society, in recognition of his remarkable role as a literary figure. Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney by Dennis O'Driscoll was published by Faber & Faber in 2008 and has been described as the nearest thing to an autobiography of the poet. Heaney was awarded the David Cohen Prize for Literature in 2009. He spoke at the West Belfast Festival 2010 in celebration of his mentor, the poet and novelist Michael MacLaverty, who had helped Heaney to first publish his poetry.

In 2010, he was awarded the Forward Prize for the Best Collection for Human Chain (Faber 2010), one of the only major poetry prizes he had not previously won, despite being twice short-listed. In October 2010 the collection, a Poetry Book Society Choice, was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize, to be announced on 24 January 2011. The book, published 44 years after his first, was inspired in part by his stroke in 2006 which left him "babyish" and "on the brink". Poet and Forward judge Ruth Padel described the work as "a collection of painful, honest, and delicately weighted poems...a wonderful and humane achievement". Writer Colm Tóibín notes that Human Chain "his best single volume for many years, and one that contains some of the best poems he has written... is a book of shades and memories, of things whispered, of journeys into the underworld, of elegies and translations, of echoes and silences."

In 2011, Heaney was named one of "Britain's top 300 intellectuals" by The Observer.


Robert Lowell called him "the most important Irish poet since Yeats" and many others have echoed the sentiment that he is "the greatest poet of our age". His books make up two-thirds of the sales of living poets in the UK.

Heaney's work often deals with the local surroundings in Ireland, particularly in Northern Ireland, where he was born. Speaking of his early life and education, he commented "I learned that my local County Derry experience, which I had considered archaic and irrelevant to 'the modern world' was to be trusted. They taught me that trust and helped me to articulate it." Death of a Naturalist (1966) and Door into the Dark (1969) mostly focus on the detail of rural, parochial life. Allusions to sectarian difference, widespread in Northern Ireland through his lifetime, can be found in his poems. His books Wintering Out (1973) and North (1975) seek to interweave commentary on 'The Troubles' with a historical context and wider human experience. Whilst some critics have accused Heaney of being "an apologist and a mythologizer" of the violence, Blake Morrison suggests the poet "has written poems directly about the Troubles as well as elegies for friends and acquaintances who have died in them; he has tried to discover a historical framework in which to interpret the current unrest; and he has taken on the mantle of public spokesman, someone looked to for comment and guidance... Yet he has also shown signs of deeply resenting this role, defending the right of poets to be private and apolitical, and questioning the extent to which poetry, however 'committed,' can influence the course of history." Shaun O'Connell in the New Boston Review notes that "those who see Seamus Heaney as a symbol of hope in a troubled land are not, of course, wrong to do so, though they may be missing much of the undercutting complexities of his poetry, the backwash of ironies which make him as bleak as he is bright." O'Connell notes in his Boston Review critique of Station Island: "Again and again Heaney pulls back from political purposes; despite its emblems of savagery, Station Island lends no rhetorical comfort to Republicanism. Politic about politics, Station Island is less about a united Ireland than about a poet seeking religious and aesthetic unity". Heaney is described by critic Terry Eagleton as "an enlightened cosmopolitan liberal", refusing to be drawn. Eagleton suggests: "When the political is introduced... it is only in the context of what Heaney will or will not say." Reflections on what Heaney identifies as "tribal conflict", favour the description of people's lives and their voices, drawing out the 'psychic landscape'. His collections often recall the assassination of his family members and close friends, lynchings and bombings. Colm Tóibín wrote, "throughout his career there have been poems of simple evocation and description. His refusal to sum up or offer meaning is part of his tact". Heaney in Kraków, August 2004

Heaney published “Requiem for the Croppies” on the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising, a poem that commemorates the Irish rebels of 1798. He has read the poem to both Catholic and Protestant audiences in Ireland. He commented "To read ‘'Requiem for the Croppies'’ wasn’t to say ‘up the IRA’ or anything. It was silence-breaking rather than rabble-rousing.” He stated “You don’t have to love it. You just have to permit it.” He turned down the offer of laureateship partly for political reasons, commenting "I’ve nothing against the Queen personally: I had lunch at the Palace once upon a time". He stated that his "cultural starting point" was "off centre". His most commonly cited political statement came in 1982 when he objected to being included in an anthology of British poetry, despite being of Northern Irish birth. He has lived in the Republic of Ireland since 1972 and claimed his Irish rather than British nationality, responding

He is concerned as a poet and a translator, with the English language itself, as it is spoken in Ireland but also as spoken elsewhere and in other times; the Anglo-Saxon influences in his work and study are strong. Critic W. S. Di Piero noted "Whatever the occasion, childhood, farm life, politics and culture in Northern Ireland, other poets past and present, Heaney strikes time and again at the taproot of language, examining its genetic structures, trying to discover how it has served, in all its changes, as a culture bearer, a world to contain imaginations, at once a rhetorical weapon and nutriment of spirit. He writes of these matters with rare discrimination and resourcefulness, and a winning impatience with received wisdom." Heaney's first translation came with the Irish lyric poem "Buile Suibhne", published as Sweeney Astray: A Version from the Irish (1984), a character and connection taken up in Station Island (1984). Heaney's prize-winning translation of Beowulf (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000, Whitbread Book of the Year Award) was seen as ground-breaking in its use of modern language melded with the original Anglo-Saxon 'music'. His works of drama includes The Cure at Troy: A Version of Sophocles' Philoctetes (1991). Heaney's 2004 play The Burial at Thebes makes parallels between Creon with the foreign policies of the Bush administration.

Heaney's engagement with poetry as a necessary engine for cultural and personal change, is reflected in his prose works The Redress of Poetry (1995) and Finders Keepers: Selected Prose, 1971-2001 (2002). "When a poem rhymes," Heaney wrote, "when a form generates itself, when a metre provokes consciousness into new postures, it is already on the side of life. When a rhyme surprises and extends the fixed relations between words, that in itself protests against necessity. When language does more than enough, as it does in all achieved poetry, it opts for the condition of overlife, and rebels at limit." He expands: "The vision of reality which poetry offers should be transformative, more than just a printout of the given circumstances of its time and place".

Heaney's work is used extensively on school syllabi internationally, including the anthologies The Rattle Bag (1982) and The School Bag (1987) (both edited with Ted Hughes). Originally entitled The Faber Book of Verse for Younger People on the Faber contract, Hughes and Heaney decided the The Rattle Bag's main purpose was to offer enjoyment to the reader: "Arbitrary riches". Heaney commented "the book in our heads was something closer to The Fancy Free Poetry Supplement". It included work that they would have liked to encountered sooner as well as nonsense rhymes, ballad-type poems, riddles, folk songs and rhythmical jingles. Much familiar canonical work was not included, since they took it for granted that their audience would know the standard fare. Fifteen years later The School Bag aimed at something different. The foreword stated that they wanted "less of a carnival, more like a checklist." It included poems in English, Irish, Welsh, Scots and Scots Gaelic, together with work reflecting the African-American experience.


Poetry: main collections

  • 1966: Death of a Naturalist, Faber & Faber
  • 1969: Door into the Dark, Faber & Faber
  • 1972: Wintering Out, Faber & Faber
  • 1975: Stations, Ulsterman
  • 1975: North, Faber & Faber
  • 1979: Field Work, Faber & Faber
  • 1984: Station Island, Faber & Faber
  • 1987: The Haw Lantern, Faber & Faber
  • 1991: Seeing Things, Faber & Faber
  • 1996: The Spirit Level, Faber & Faber
  • 2001: Electric Light, Faber & Faber
  • 2006: District and Circle, Faber & Faber
  • 2010: Human Chain, Faber & Faber

Poetry: collected editions

  • 1980: Selected Poems 1965-1975, Faber & Faber
  • 1990: New Selected Poems 1966-1987, Faber & Faber
  • 1998: Opened Ground: Poems 1966-1996, Faber & Faber

Prose: main collections

  • 1980: Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-1978, Faber & Faber
  • 1988: The Government of the Tongue, Faber & Faber
  • 1995: The Redress of Poetry: Oxford Lectures, Faber & Faber
  • 2002: Finders Keepers: Selected Prose 1971-2001, Faber & Faber


  • 1990: The Cure at Troy A version of Sophocles' Philoctetes, Field Day
  • 2004: The Burial at Thebes A version of Sophocles' Antigone, Faber & Faber


  • 1983: Sweeney Astray: A version from the Irish, Field Day
  • 1992: Sweeney's Flight (with Rachel Giese, photographer), Faber & Faber
  • 1993: The Midnight Verdict: Translations from the Irish of Brian Merriman and from the Metamorphoses of Ovid, Gallery Press
  • 1995: Laments, a cycle of Polish Renaissance elegies by Jan Kochanowski, translated with Stanisław Barańczak, Faber & Faber
  • 1999: Beowulf, Faber & Faber
  • 1999: Diary of One Who Vanished, a song cycle by Leoš Janáček of poems by Ozef Kalda, Faber & Faber
  • 2002: Hallaig, Sorley MacLean Trust
  • 2002: Arion, a poem by Alexander Pushkin, translated from the Russian, with a note by Olga Carlisle, Arion Press
  • 2004: The Testament of Cresseid, Enitharmon Press
  • 2004: Columcille The Scribe, The Royal Irish Academy
  • 2009: The Testament of Cresseid & Seven Fables, Faber & Faber

Limited editions and booklets (poetry and prose)

  • 1965: Eleven Poems, Queen's University
  • 1968: The Island People, BBC; Room to Rhyme, Arts Council N.I.
  • 1969: A Lough Neagh Sequence, Phoenix
  • 1970: Night Drive, Gilbertson; A Boy Driving His Father to Confession, Sceptre Press
  • 1973: Explorations, BBC
  • 1975: Bog Poems, Rainbow Press; The Fire i' the Flint, Oxford University Press
  • 1976: Four Poems, Crannog Press
  • 1977: Glanmore Sonnets, Editions Monika Beck; In Their Element, Arts Council N.I.
  • 1978: Robert Lowell: A Memorial Address and an Elegy, Faber & Faber; The Makings of a Music, University of Liverpool; After Summer, Gallery Press
  • 1979: Hedge School, Janus Press; Ugolino, Carpenter Press; Gravities, Charlotte Press; A Family Album, Byron Press
  • 1980: Toome, National College of Art and Design
  • 1981: Sweeney Praises the Trees, Henry Pearson
  • 1982: A Personal Selection, Ulster Museum; Poems and a Memoir, Limited Editions Club
  • 1983: An Open Letter, Field Day; Among Schoolchildren, Queen's University
  • 1984: Verses for a Fordham Commencement, Nadja Press; Hailstones, Gallery Press
  • 1985: From the Republic of Conscience, Amnesty International; Place and Displacement, Dove Cottage; Towards a Collaboration, Arts Council N.I.
  • 1986: Clearances, Cornamona Press
  • 1988: Readings in Contemporary Poetry, DIA Art Foundation; The Sounds of Rain, Emory University
  • 1989: An Upstairs Outlook, Linen Hall Library; The Place of Writing, Emory University
  • 1990: The Tree Clock, Linen Hall Library
  • 1991: Squarings, Hieroglyph Editions
  • 1992: Dylan the Durable, Bennington College; The Gravel Walks, Lenoir Rhyne College; The Golden Bough, Bonnefant Press
  • 1993: Keeping Going, Bow and Arrow Press; Joy or Night, University of Swansea
  • 1994: Extending the Alphabet, Memorial University of Newfoundland; Speranza in Reading, University of Tasmania
  • 1995: Oscar Wilde Dedication, Westminster Abbey; Charles Montgomery Monteith, All Souls College; Crediting Poetry: The Nobel Lecture, Gallery Press
  • 1997: Poet to Blacksmith, Pim Witteveen
  • 1998: Commencement Address, UNC Chapel Hill; Audenesque, Maeght
  • 1999: The Light of the Leaves, Bonnefant Press
  • 2001: Something to Write Home About, Flying Fox
  • 2002: Hope and History, Rhodes University; Ecologues in Extremis, Royal Irish Academy; A Keen for the Coins, Lenoir Rhyne College
  • 2003: Squarings, Arion Press
  • 2004: Anything can Happen, Town House Publishers
  • 2005: The Door Stands Open, Irish Writers Centre; A Shiver, Clutag Press
  • 2007: The Riverbank Field, Gallery Press
  • 2008: Articulations, Royal Irish Academy; One on a Side, Robert Frost Foundation
  • 2009: Spelling It Out, Gallery Press


  1. Seamus Heaney, Irish Poet of Soil and Strife, Dies at 74 The New York Times, 30 August 2013
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Seamus Heaney, Nobel Prize in Literature, 1995's Timeline

April 13, 1939
Casteldàwson, Northern Ireland
August 30, 2013
Age 74
Dublin, Ireland