The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney (b. April 13 1939) is a poet, writer and lecturer from Northern Ireland. He is one of the most widely known and important poets working in English, or perhaps any language, today.



Heaney was born, the eldest of nine children, on a farm called Mossbawn, in County Derry thirty miles to the Northwest of Belfast, in Northern Ireland. He was brought up a Catholic. As a child he remembered watching American soldiers practising for the D-Day landings. The family left the farm in 1953. He was educated at the local primary school and St. Columb's College, a Catholic boarding school in Derry to which he was awarded a scholarship. At St Columbs he was taught the Irish language. He then attended Queen's University, Belfast.

In the sixties Heaney trained as a teacher and worked in schools in Belfast and Ballymurphy. It was at this time that he first started to publish poetry, beginning in 1962. His first book, Death of a Naturalist, was published in 1966. It met with much critical acclaim. In 1965 he met and married Marie Devlin. (Devlin is a writer herself and in 1994 published Over Nine Waves a collection of traditional Irish myths and legends.) They had three children.

Throughout the sixties, he was working, at formal meetings, with a number of writers including Michael Longley , Derek Mahon , and Philip Hobsbaum . In the seventies younger poets attended these meetings, now run by Heaney, including Paul Muldoon and Frank Ormsby . In 1968, with Michael Longley, Heaney took part in a reading tour called 'Room to Rhyme', this lead to quite a lot of exposure for the poet's work. He was appointed to the Arts Council in the Republic of Ireland in 1974. He became an elected Saoi of Aosdána. In 1972 Heaney left his lectureship at Belfast and moved to the Republic, working at a teacher training college in Dublin. In 1984, Heaney was appointed Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory, at Harvard University. In 1989, he was elected to be Professor of Poetry at Oxford University, which he held for a five-year term to 1994 (not requiring residence in Oxford).

Throughout this time he was publishing prolifically and dividing his time between Ireland and America. He also continued to give public readings, which were very popular. 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 pop-music fanaticism on the part of his supporters.

He was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1995.


His work often deals with "the local"—that is, his surroundings and everything inclusive of them. Inevitably this means Ireland, and particularly Northern Ireland. Hints of sectarian violence, which began just as his writing career did, can be found in many of his poems, even works that on the surface appear to deal with something else. Despite his many travels much of his work appears to be set in rural Derry, the county of his childhood. Like the troubles themselves, Heaney's work is deeply associated with the lessons of history, sometimes even prehistory. Many of his works concern his own family history and focus on characters in his own family, they can be read as elegies for those family members. He has acknowledged this trend.

The use of Anglo-Saxon influences in his work is also noteworthy, his university study of the language had a profound effect on his work. It also led to a small revival of interest in the verse forms of Anglo-Saxon poetry amongst a number of poets influenced by Heaney. He has also written critically well regarded essays and one play. His essays, among other things, have been credited with beginning the critical re-examination of Thomas Hardy. His anthologies (edited with friend Ted Hughes) The Rattle Bag and The School Bag are used extensively in schools in the UK and elsewhere.

In addition to his original works, Heaney has published translations, including a verse translation of Beowulf from Old English in 1999, and Sophocles' Antigone in 2004.

His influence on contemporary poetry is reckoned to be immense and few poets working today would not mention him as an influence. Robert Lowell has called Heaney "the most important Irish poet since Yeats." A good many others have echoed the sentiment. His influence is not restricted to Ireland but is felt world wide. However some critics have attacked Heaney for not dealing more directly with the political situation in Northern Ireland. His Nobel Prize nomination ran "for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past."


A selection of Heaney's work.


  • Death of a Naturalist. (1966)
  • Door into the Dark. (1969)
  • Wintering Out. (1972)
  • Stations. (1975)
  • North. (1975)
  • Field Work. (1979)
  • Selected Poems 1965-1975. (1980)
  • Station Island. (1984)
  • The Haw Lantern. (1987)
  • New Selected Poems 1966-1987. (1990)
  • Seeing Things. (1991)
  • The Spirit Level. (1996)
  • Opened Ground: Poems 1966-1996. (1998)
  • Electric Light. (2001)
  • Follower. (1989)
  • " the daneil romen (2004)
  • life is great (2004)


  • Sweeney Astray. A version from the Irish. (1984)
  • Beowulf. (1999)


  • Preoccupations: Selected Prose. 1968-1978. (1980)
  • The Government of the Tongue. (1988)
  • The Place of Writing. (1989)
  • The Redress of Poetry: Oxford lectures. (1995)
  • Crediting Poetry: The Nobel Lecture. (1995)
  • Finders Keepers: Selected Prose 1971-2001. (2002)


  • The Cure at Troy. A version of Sophocles' Philoctetes. (1991)
  • The Burial at Thebes. A version of Sophocles'Antigone. (2004)

Critical works about Heaney

  • A Collection of Critical Essays Ed. by Elmer Andrews. (1993)

External links

  • Bibliography, including minor works
  • Nobel acceptance speech

Last updated: 02-07-2005 05:24:34
Last updated: 05-03-2005 17:50:55