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...
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