RIP Seamus Heaney, one of the greats

by Siobhan McNamara for

Acclaimed poet Seamus Heaney has died at the age of 74.

Seamus Heaney was born near Toomebridge and as a child moved with his family to Bellaghy. His upbringing in the Co Derry countryside was to have a huge influence on his writing.

He learned Irish and latin during his education at the Catholic boarding school St Columb’s College in Derry and Queen’s University in Belfast. While working as a young teacher in Belfast in the 1960s he began writing poetry and has since published an extensive volume of work.

Heaney’s career led to him becoming a lecturer in Queen’s University but he resigned this role in 1972 to become a full-time poet. He lived in Co Wicklow but later moved to Dublin and became Head of the English Department at Carysford teacher training college. He then took up a position with Harvard that allowed him to teach for one semester and have the rest of the year free for his writing. He also delivered lectures in Poetry at Oxford University.

As well as recording rural life during the war and post-war years, Seamus Heaney wrote extensively on the social responsibility of poetry. The violence of the troubles was to add an inevitable darker element to much of his work. He described poetry as: “poised between a need for creative freedom within itself and a pressure to express the sense of social obligation felt by the poet as citizen.”

He dedicated a lot of time to supporting emerging poets. While a lecturer at Queen’s University in Belfast he helped young poets to produce pamphlets of their work. Heaney also served as judge and lecturer in countless competitions in Ireland and abroad and was closely associated with the Field Day Theatre Company and the Yeats Summer School.

In 1995 Seamus Heaney was honoured with the Nobel Prize in Literature. He has receieved many other honorary degrees and awards throughout his career. In 2011 he donated a huge collection of manuscripts and notebooks to the National Library of Ireland. He is survived by his wife Marie and their three children.


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 day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked 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. Digging.

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

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