Seamus Justin Heaney was born into a Roman Catholic farming family in rural Country Derry, Northern Ireland (Ulster), the predominantly Protestant and industrial province of the United Kingdom on the island of Ireland. Much of his boyhood was spent on a farm, one border of which was formed by a stream that also divided Ulster from Eire, the predominantly Catholic Republic of Ireland. As a schoolboy, he won scholarships, first at the age of eleven to St. Colomb’s College, a Catholic preparatory school, and then to Queen’s University, Belfast, from which he graduated in 1961 with a first class honors degree in English. There he joined a group of young poets working under the direction of creative writers on the faculty.
He began his professional career as a secondary school English teacher, after which he went into teacher education, eventually joining the English faculty of Queen’s in 1966. In 1965, he married Marie Devlin; they would have two sons and a daughter. When civil dissension broke out in Ulster in 1969, eventually leading to martial law, Heaney, as a Catholic-reared poet, became increasingly uncomfortable. In 1972, he relocated to a manor in the Eire countryside to write full time, although he also became a faculty member of a college in Dublin. Beginning in 1979, he adopted the practice of accepting academic appointments at various American universities and spending the rest of the year in Dublin. In 1986, he was appointed Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard University, and in 1989, he became professor of poetry at Oxford University. To accommodate both positions, he split his time between a home in Dublin and one in Boston. In August, 2006, he suffered a stroke but has recovered.
Seamus Heaney (HEE-nee), the eldest of nine children, was born on his Catholic parents’ farm in County Derry, Northern Ireland, on April 13, 1939. On his father’s side of the family were cattle dealers; on his mother’s were mill workers. Heaney would break with both family traditions and embrace a different line of work as a man of letters, but his rural ancestry and the landscapes of his childhood would provide rich fodder for his poetry. The rural-industrial divide between his parents further revealed itself in their speech patterns. In his childhood, Heaney felt torn between his loquacious mother and his reticent father, a tension sustained in the adult poet’s style of writing. A second tension was manifest in County Derry where Heaney was reared. Differences in practices and beliefs among Catholic and Protestant neighbors were apparent to the boy at an early age, despite generally peaceful relations between the local sects in the 1940’s and 1950’s. This experience, too, would provide material for future poetry.
The young scholar attended local grammar schools near Mossbawn, the name accorded the family farm. When Heaney was twelve, a scholarship replaced farm labor with academic pursuits, and he left home to attend St. Columbs College, a boarding school in Derry. His inaugural poem “Digging,” published in Death of a Naturalist (1966), pays homage to the rural life of his forefathers, but from an early age Heaney’s preference was for the life of the mind. Heaney left Derry for Belfast to attend Queen’s University. Following completion of English studies, he remained in Belfast, enrolling in postgraduate classes at St. Joseph’s College of Education, where he earned a teaching certificate. At this point in his life, Heaney embarked on a teaching career and began writing poems in earnest, dual occupations that would remain constants in his life.
The 1960’s were a time of expansion for Heaney in terms of his career, his family, and his publications. For much of the decade, Heaney taught at colleges and universities in Belfast, including positions as a lecturer at St. Joseph’s College and later Queen’s University. In 1965, he married Marie Devlin, a teacher. Their first son, Michael, was born in 1966, the same year Death of a Naturalist, Heaney’s first collection of poems, appeared in print. A second son, Christopher, was born in 1968; a year later his second volume of poetry, Door into the Dark (1969) was published. In addition to teaching, Heaney broadcast education programs on the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) radio and television networks. In 1970, with political violence on the rise in Northern Ireland, Heaney accepted a one-year appointment at the University of California at Berkeley, temporarily relocating his family to the United States. Ironically, instead of fleeing political strife, Heaney encountered it in another form. At Berkeley, student protests over both civil rights and the Vietnam War caused him to assume a more political voice in his own poetry.
Following his year in Berkeley, Heaney formally resigned his post at Queen’s University and settled with his family in the south of Ireland. Their exodus to a rural cottage in Glanmore coincided with the publication of another volume, Wintering Out (1972). The influence of political unrest in Northern Ireland and abroad upon his poetry was evident. For the first time the poet’s verse ventured from the private sphere into public concerns, and the collection received a subdued response from the critics, many uncomfortable with Heaney’s new direction. In 1973, daughter Catherine Ann was born. With his family still lodged at Glanmore, for the next two years Heaney traveled between England and the United States to present lectures and readings of his poetry. In 1975, Heaney accepted a position as chair of the English department at Caryfort College in Dublin, and his family again relocated. North (1975), a collection of poems, appeared the same year and received positive appraisal from the critics. The 1970’s ended with the publication of Field Work (1979) and the new decade began with the simultaneous publications of Poems, 1965-1975 (1980; pb. in England as Selected Poems, 1965-1975, 1980) and Preoccupations: Selected Prose, 1968-1978 (1980).
The 1980’s found the poet and teacher still dividing his time among Ireland, the United States, and England. In 1982, Heaney took a post at Harvard University in Massachusetts that required his presence on campus only half the year. During his tenure at Harvard, two significant works, Station Island (1984) and The Haw Lantern (1987) were published. Beginning in 1989, Heaney served as professor of poetry at Oxford University in England, another flexible position that allowed him to focus on his writing. In the 1990’s, Heaney produced poems at a prolific rate, also writing prose, plays, and translations. Collections of new poetry included Seeing Things (1991), The Spirit Level (1996), and Audenesque (1998). Heaney’s reputation as a translator was further enhanced upon the publication of Beowulf: A New Verse Translation (1999), a popular and critical achievement. Two volumes of poetry, Electric Light (2001) and District and Circle (2006), also received positive appraisal in the twenty-first century.
Throughout his career, Heaney has been an advocate for his craft, conducting poetry workshops and judging writing competitions. In the mid-1960’s, while teaching at Queen’s University, Heaney assumed responsibility for the poetry workshop founded by British poet Philip Hobsbaum. In the 1970’s, Heaney was an active member of the Republic of Ireland’s Arts Council. Honorary degrees from numerous institutions in Ireland and abroad have been awarded Heaney in recognition of his poetry and service. The Irish Academy of Artists and Writers and the American Academy of Arts and Letters count Heaney among their distinguished members. The French Ministry of Culture dubbed Heaney a Commandeur de L’Ordre des Arts et Lettres. In 1995, Heaney’s reputation as one of the most influential poets of the latter half of the twentieth century was confirmed when he received the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Seamus Heaney follows in the footsteps of William Butler Yeats, the premier Irish poet, with whom Heaney is frequently ranked and compared. Heaney was born the same year Yeats died, 1939, and some critics view this happenstance as a symbolic passing of the poetic torch in Ireland. As a modern-day Yeats, Heaney still wrestles with questions that plagued his compatriot a century earlier. Does poetry matter in a violence-ridden world? What responsibility does the poet share for the despair that ensnares so many people in his or her country? Heaney avoids definite answers to these questions; instead he chronicles personal events and experiences in poems that comprise a microcosm of Irish life in the latter half of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first.