Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney was “a poet of the in-between”. He lived in a time of great division between England and Ireland, North and South, Catholic and Protestant; but he always strived for subtlety and nuance. As a university student, he used the pseudonym “Incertus” — Latin for “uncertain”. But one thing was for sure: he and his work were deeply rooted in Ireland. So much so that when one of his poems was included in a British anthology, he responded with the lines: “Be advised my passport’s green. / No glass of ours was ever raised / to toast the Queen.” In 1995 he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, “for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.”


In his first major published collection, Death of a Naturalist, Heaney explores his provincial upbringing on a farm in 20th century Northern Ireland. But through his careful descriptions of nature, he touches on more universal human themes — such as death, love and hard work.


Heaney has been called the “most important Irish poet since Yeats” and his writing frequently explores the culture, tradition and politics of his home country, particularly during the violent period known as the Troubles from 1968-1998.


Ireland is a country with a rich — and often violent — history. During the Troubles, Heaney resented the fact that people looked to him for comment and guidance. He refused to make his position clear — but he tried to understand his country’s “current unrest” by looking into its past.


In his poems “Digging” and “Follower”, Heaney considers his relationship with his father, a rural farmer just like his father before him. Heaney knew that he would take a different path — but his writing is deeply rooted in his childhood, family and community.


In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Heaney said that the best poems were “a retuning of the world itself”, like a thump which fixes a flickering TV set or the shock which sets a heart beating again. Can words really change the world?