Aug. 30: Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet whose lyrical beauty and ethical depth won him the Nobel Prize in 1995 and gave him a prominence far beyond literary circles, died in Dublin today after a brief illness, according to a statement issued on behalf of his family. He was 74.
Heaney was born on a family farm in Londonderry in Northern Ireland but, as a Catholic and a nationalist, chose to live in Dublin. His poems often mined the images of his childhood — the peat bogs, small towns and potato farms — and, in collections like 1975’s North, delved into the sectarian violence that was ripping the north apart, exploring its sorrows and causes, though he avoided becoming a spokesman for the Republican cause.
As his reputation grew in the 1980s and 1990s, he remained an accessible and public writer, a respected translator, broadcaster and, most importantly, a prolific poet with a gifted eye.
Publishing more than a dozen major collections of poems between 1966 and 2010, he rose to become one of the most distinctive literary voices of the 20th century.
Digging, the first poem in his first collection, The Death of a Naturalist, described his father digging potatoes and his grandfather digging turf. The last lines seemed to set down his personal manifesto:
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.
And dig he did, producing a remarkable range of work: love poems, epic poems, poems about conflict and strife, odes to nature, poems addressed to friends, poems for the dead, poems that simply revelled in the sound of the English language. After he gained fame with Death of Naturalist, Heaney never eased his pace. His later volumes of poetry include The Spirit Level, District and Circle and Bog Poems.
Seamus Justin Heaney was born, the eldest of nine children, on April 13, 1939, on a farm called Mossbawn, Northern Ireland.
His father, Patrick, a cattle-dealer and farmer, was a dour, unliterary man, suspicious of verbiage. His mother was not literary, but, Heaney recalled, she used to “recite lists of affixes and suffixes, and Latin roots, with their English meanings, rhymes that formed part of her early schooling in the early part of the century”.
All around him, he watched police and public officials of the predominantly Protestant province treat Catholics with disdain, sometimes with cruelty. One of his biographers, Michael Parker, wrote: “It could be argued that while Heaney’s exposure to what he now regards as ‘cultural colonialism’ may have bred feelings of inferiority and insecurity in the short term, in the long term it also honed his sense of identity and provided him with sustenance from two rich traditions.”