Heaney was born on 13th. April 1939, the eldest
of nine children at the family farm called Mossbawn in the Townland
of Tamniarn near Castledawson, Northern Ireland, about thirty
miles north-west of Belfast and two miles north-east of Magherafelt.
As well as being a farmer, his father Patrick was also a cattle
dealer and was a popular figure at cattle markets and fairs
throughout the district. His mother Margaret was a member of
the well-known McCann family from Castledawson, many of whom
worked in the local Clark’s linen factory. His family
were Catholic and he was raised in the Irish Nationalist tradition.
Like others of his age group and background he played underage
football for St. Malachy’s Gaelic Football Club in Castledawson
In 1953 his family moved to a bigger farm called The Wood near
Bellaghy a few miles away.
For information on tours of Heaney country go to www.laurel-villa.com
Seamus Heaney got his early education at Anahorish Primary
School a short distance from his home. His teachers Master Murphy
and Miss Walls were to feature in his poems Death of a Naturalist and Station Island. In 1951 he won a scholarship to St. Columb's
College, a Catholic Grammar boarding school in Derry. At St.
Columb’s he excelled at English, Irish (or Gaelic) and
Latin. The poem The Ministry of Fear in his collection North
refers to this period in his life. It was while studying here
as a young teenager that his family moved to Bellaghy. He spent
a summer in a Gaeltacht area of Donegal studying Irish which
is the first language in this area. One well-known poet of the
Donegal Gaeltacht is Cathal O’Searcaigh some of whose
poems have been translated by Seamus Heaney see Amazon.co.uk.
When he was fourteen, his four-year-old brother Christopher
was killed in a road accident, an event that he would later
write about in two poems, the first of which was Mid Term Break.
In 1957 Heaney travelled to Belfast to study English Language
and Literature at Queen's University of Belfast. He began to
write and during his third year at university his poems began
to appear in the Queen’s literary magazines Q and
Gorgon. The autumn 1959 edition of Q contains the poems:
Reaping in Heat
The sycamores shade, and naked sheaves
Are whitening on the empty stubble
(from Reaping in Heat)
and October Thought
Up through dry, dust-drunk cobwebs, like laughter
Flitting the roof of black-oak, bog-sod and rods of willow
(from October Thought)
Seamus Heaney used the pen-name Incertus when writing
in these magazines. Years later he wrote a poem – called
Incertus - about this early, insecure stage of his writing
I went disguised in it, pronouncing it with a soft
Church- latin c, tagging it under my efforts like a damp fuse.
graduated in 1961 with a First Class Honours degree. During
teacher training at St Joseph's Teacher Training College in
Belfast 1961-2 he was placed at St Thomas' Secondary Intermediate
School in Ballymurphy, West Belfast. After qualifying he took
up a teaching post at this same school in the autumn of 1962.
The headmaster was the writer Michael MacLaverty from County
Monaghan, who introduced Heaney to the poetry of Patrick Kavanagh,
also from Monaghan. Access in Belfast to the world of English,
Irish and American letters was “ a crucial experience,”
according to the poet. He was especially moved by poets who
created poetry out of their local and native backgrounds –
authors such as Ted Hughes and Robert Frost as well as Kavanagh.
That was the year of the Munich bother. Which
Was more important? I inclined
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer's ghost came whispering to my mind.
He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance.
(from Patrick Kavanagh’s Epic)
Heaney said: “ From them I learned that my local County
Derry childhood experience - which I had considered archaic
and irrelevant to the modern world - was to be trusted. They
taught me that trust and helped me to articulate it.”
Well, as Kavanagh said, we have lived
In important places
(from Singing School)
Patrick Kavanagh, author of "The Great Hunger", showed
Heaney “the kind of bare energy and bare speech"
that immediately sounded familiar. "Kavanagh released that
Ulster vernacular into the verse.” It was around this
time that he started to get his poems more widely published.
The poem Tractors was the first Heaney poem to be published
outside of University magazines.
They can not sweat in summer
Though their bonnets burn
This little-known poem was first published in the Belfast Telegraph
in November 1962. It has not appeared in any of his subsequent
collections. Heaney enthusiasts can however view this poem displayed
in full in the Seamus Heaney Exhibition at Laurel Villa Townhouse
Magherafelt, the recommended place of accommodation for all
visitors to Heaney country. For further information on Laurel
Villa - and to book accommodation and tours - go to www.laurel-villa.com
In 1963 Heaney became a lecturer at St Josephs Training college.
In spring of that year, after various articles had appeared
in local magazines, he came to the attention of Philip Hobsbaum,
then an English lecturer at Queen's University. Hobsbaum set
up the Belfast Group of local young poets (to mirror the success
he had earlier with the London group) and this brought Heaney
into contact with other Belfast poets such as Derek Mahon and
Michael Longley. These three Ulster poets are among those featured
in the Queen’s University Anthology called The Blackbird’s
Nest published in 2006 by Blackstaff Press Belfast. For further
information visit www.blackstaffpress.com
In August 1965 he married Marie Devlin, a school teacher who
was originally from Ardboe, County Tyrone. Marie Heaney is a
writer herself and, in 1994, she published Over Nine Waves,
a collection of traditional Irish myths and legends (see www.faber.co.uk)
Seamus Heaney’s first book of poetry, Eleven Poems, was
published in November 1965 to coincide with his appearance at
The Queen's University Festival. To see an image of this rare
pamphlet go to www.laurel-villa.com
spring 1966, Faber and Faber published his first full volume
called Death of a Naturalist. This collection met with much
critical acclaim and went on to win a host of awards including
the Eric Gregory Award. Most of these poems deal with the young
Heaney’s responses to beautiful and threatening aspects
of nature, the loss of childhood innocence and his initiation
into adulthood. In the first poem of the volume, Digging, Heaney
evokes the rural landscape where he was raised and comments
on the skill and care with which his father and grandfather
farmed the land. Heaney announces that as a poet he too will
dig, but with a pen, uncovering layers of both personal memory
But I’ve no spade to follow men like that
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
Heaney was now 27 years of age. In that same year he was appointed
as a lecturer in Modern English Literature at Queen's University
Belfast and his first son, Michael, was born. A second son,
Christopher, was born in 1968. Both sons were later to feature
in his poem A Kite for Michael and Christopher, as was his daughter
in A Hazel Stick for Catherine Ann. In 1968, with Michael Longley,
Heaney took part in a reading tour of N. Ireland sponsored by
the Arts Council of Northern Ireland (www.artscouncil-ni.org)
called Room to Rhyme, which led to quite a lot of exposure for
both poets’ work.
In 1968-69 serious disturbances broke out in Northern Ireland.
What became known as the Troubles had started and were to go
on for over 30 years. At times it seemed as if Northern Ireland
was on the brink of outright civil war. Heaney, like many others,
was to be greatly affected by the conflict.
In 1969 Door into the Dark was published. The title is taken
from the opening line of The Forge, one of the poems in the
collection. Guests at Laurel Villa accommodation in Magherafelt
can have an opportunity to visit the site of The Forge themselves.
For information go to Seamus Heaney Exhibition and Tours
Another poem from this collection is A Lough Neagh Sequence which tells the story of Lough Neagh, its legends and the fishing
families who lived in the shadow of The Old Cross of Ardboe:
The lough will claim a victim every year.
It has virtue that hardens wood to stone.
There is a town sunk beneath its water.
It is the scar left by the Isle of Man.
(from A Lough Neagh Sequence)
He spent the academic year 1970-71 as a visiting Professor
at the University of California in Berkeley and returned to
Queen's University for another year.
In the summer of 1972 Heaney left his job and his home in Belfast.
His house off the Lisburn Road was later to be bulldozed to
make way for an apartment development, despite the protests
of objectors. He moved to a rented cottage in Glanmore, Co.Wicklow
in the Republic of Ireland. For the next three years he made
his living as a freelance writer, presenting a radio programme
called Imprint for RTE and doing occasional work for the BBC
and for various journals.
was also writing poems and in 1972 his third collection Wintering
Out was published. Several of the poems relate to places close
to his birthplace at Mossbawn and the Gaelic origin of their
names is explored, as in Anahorish:
My place of clear water,
the first hill in the world
where springs washed into
the shiny grass
and darkened cobbles
in the bed of the lane.
Over the next few years Heaney began to give readings throughout
Ireland, Britain and U.S.A. He was appointed to the Arts Council
in the Republic of Ireland in 1974 and became an elected member
of Aosdána. In 1975 Heaney published his fourth volume,
North. In it he addressed the ongoing civil strife in
N.Ireland using images of the two-thousand years old bog bodies
found in Denmark in the 1950’s.
I can see her drowned
Body in the bog,
The weighting stone,
The floating rods and boughs
In this collection - and others - Heaney commented on political
and social issues while seeking to resist the pressures to become
a spokesperson for anybody other than himself. Nevertheless,
he was the subject of severe criticism from a number of important
commentators. The poet Ciaran Carson, now Director of The Seamus
Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queen’s University, criticised
what he saw as a tendency to glorify the Troubles – “
noble barbarity” he called it in the Honest Ulsterman
(no.50). And Edna Longley in an 1982 piece titled “North:
Inner Émigré or Artful Voyeur” regretted
that the rites Heaney wrote of in North were “profoundly
Catholic in character”.
In October 1975 he took up an appointment at Carysfort Teacher
Training College in Dublin and in the following year he became
Head of English, a post he was to hold until 1981. In 1976 he
and his family moved from County Wicklow to the capital city,
In May 1977 the Arts Council of Northern Ireland sponsored
a reading tour of the North by Heaney and fellow poet Derek
Mahon. The itinerary included an appearance in Magherafelt,
regarded as a local venue by Heaney. You can view a copy of
the programme from that special evening called “ In their
element ” in the Heaney exhibition at Laurel Villa Townhouse
Magherafelt (see www.laurel-villa.com)
His next volume, Field Work, was published in 1979.
Selected Poems and Preoccupations: Selected Prose was
published in 1980. In 1981 he left Carysfort to become visiting
professor at Harvard University – teaching one semester
per year, to include workshops in creative writing. In 1982
he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from Queen's University.
Heaney was also awarded an Honorary Doctorate from Fordham University
in 1982. At the Fordham commencement ceremony in 1982 Heaney
delivered the commencement address in a 46-stanza poem entitled
"Verses for a Fordham Commencement".
In 1983, along with the playwright Brian Friel and actor Stephen
Rea he co-founded Field Day Publishing through which “the
nature of the Irish problem could be explored and, as a result,
more successfully confronted than it had been hitherto"
(Ireland's Field Day viii). In 1983 Field Day published An Open
Letter, Heaney’s “lyrical sideswipe” at Penguin
Books for including his work in an anthology of Contemporary
British poetry. In the same year Field Day also published Sweeney
Astray, his translation of a medieval Irish poem about a
king who went mad during a battle and was turned into a bird.
A strong individualistic and meditative mood became evident
in his work. In 1984 he published Station Island. He
was elected to the Boylston Chair of Rhetoric and Oratory at
Harvard. Also in that year he received the first of two civic
receptions given by Magherafelt District Council. On that occasion
the then Council Chairman, the late Paddy Sweeney, remarked
that he felt it necessary to point out - to much laughter -
that he was not the Mad Sweeney who was the subject of the poet’s
recent work Sweeney Astray. Later that year his mother, Margaret
Kathleen Heaney, passed away. He started work on The Haw
Lantern which was published in 1987. Much of this book deals
with the loss of his mother. The normally mundane exercise of
peeling potatoes is transformed into lyrical form in one a sequence
of sonnets called Clearances. It captures beautifully the unspoken
intimacy of mother and son.
When all the others were away at Mass
I was all hers as we peeled potatoes
(from Clearances 3)
Heaney won the Whitbread Award for The Haw Lantern.
“One thing I try to avoid ever saying at readings
is “my poem” because it sounds like a presumption.
The poem came, it came. I didn’t go and fetch it. To
some extent you wait for it, you coax it in the door when
it gets there. I prefer to think of myself as the host to
the thing rather than the big-game hunter .... You write books
of poems because it is a fulfillment, a making; it’s
a making sense of your life and it gives achievement, but
it also gives you a sense of growth.”
(from Viewpoints: Poets in conversation with John Haffenden)
In 1986 his father Patrick died. He is commemorated in the
poem The Stone Verdict. In 1988 a collection of critical
essays called The Government of the Tongue was published
in which Heaney questioned the role of poetry in modern times.
1989, he was elected to a five-year term as Professor of Poetry
at the Oxford University, to give three public lectures each
year. His inaugural lecture was published as The Redress
of Poetry. The chair did not require residence in Oxford,
and throughout this period he was dividing his time between
Ireland and America. He also continued to give public readings,
which were very popular. In 1986 Heaney received a Litt.D. from
Bates College in Maine U.S.A. So well attended and keenly anticipated
were these events that those who queued for tickets with such
enthusiasm were dubbed "Heaneyboppers", suggesting
an almost pop-star devotion on the part of his followers.
In 1990 The Cure at Troy, a play based on Sophocles'
Philoctetes, was published to much acclaim. Visitors to Laurel
Villa guesthouse in Magherafelt can view an actual programme
from the World Premier of this play which was staged at the
Guildhall in Derry.
In 1991, Seeing Things, was published. In 1994 a ceasefire
was declared in N.Ireland and this is commemorated in Tolland.
Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995 for
what the Nobel committee described as "works of lyrical
beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and
the living past".
In January 1996 he was given a Civic Reception by Magherafelt
District Council in recognition of his achievement. Also in
1996, his collection The Spirit Level was published and
won the Whitbread Book of the Year Award. In the same year he
was appointed Emerson Poet in Residence to visit Harvard in
non-teaching status every other autumn for six weeks. This was
also the year Bellaghy Bawn Visitor Centre was opened to the
public. This was originally a 17th. Century fortified house
which was built by the Vintner’s Company of London. There
are exhibitions on local natural history and history. For Heaney
enthusiasts there is a Seamus Heaney exhibition. For further
information visit www.ehsni.gov.uk/bellaghy
This visitor centre is one of the places that guests can visit
as part of their Heaney Break at Laurel Villa guesthouse Magherafelt.
To book your stay and tour visit www.laurel-villa.com
In 1999 came the publication of Beowulf: A New Translation
which achieved much critical and popular success. Paul Gray
in Time Magazine was greatly impressed by the “marvelous
language that Heaney has found to set this old warhorse of a
saga running again.” He added, “Much that seemed
off-putting about Beowulf to modern readers becomes, in Heaney’s
retelling, eerily intriguing instead.” The epic records
the great deeds of the heroic warrior Beowulf and ends with
his funeral pyre. It’s central theme is the workings of
fate in human lives.
“You have won renown: you are known to all men
far and near, now and forever.
Your sway is wide as the wind’s home,
as the sea around cliffs.”
(from Beowulf, trans. By Heaney)
This retelling of this 1,000 year old Anglo-Saxon poem was
to win the Whitbread Award once more for Heaney, beating off
stiff competition from J.K.Rowling’s Harry Potter and
the Prisoner of Azkaban. In March 2000, Beowulf was the No.1
Bestseller in the UK and 60,000 copies were in print in the
Although most commentators describe him as Bellaghy-born, Seamus
Heaney was in fact born in the Townland of Tamniarn near Castledawson.
His family farm was called Mossbawn and it was there that he
spent his formative years before the family moved to a farm
called The Wood outside Bellaghy. Many of Heaney’s poems
relate to his early years spent in the area around Mossbawn.
The poem Mossbawn Sunlight gives an indication of the happiness
and sense of security he felt growing up in these surroundings.
His collection of prose, called Preoccupations, also emphasises
the importance of Heaney’s childhood memories of Mossbawn,
Anahorish, the Broagh, Lagan’s Road and other local places
in the making of the poet. For information on guided tours of
this area and how to walk in Heaney’s footsteps go to
These tours are individually tailored to meet your own requirements
and to take account of your own personal Heaney favourites.
All guided tours are taken by a locally-born professional guide
who is also a long-standing admirer of Seamus Heaney and his
work. The overall aim of these tours is to provide a geographic and cultural context
for Heaney’s work. If you want to get really close to
the writings of Heaney then you should consider staying for
a few days in Magherafelt, South Derry, just 2-3 miles from
Mossbawn. There you will find a permanent Seamus Heaney exhibition,
poetry readings and the company of kindred spirits. Renowned
Irish language poet Cathal O’Searcaigh has described this
boutique hotel-style guesthouse as "Tearmann na hEigse
– where Heaney keeps your spirit level"
For further information on this Heaney themed B+B and to book
your Heaney Break go to www.laurel-villa.com/reservations
In 2001 a new Heaney collection – his eleventh - appeared,
entitled Electric Light. One of the best-known poems
is called Out of the Bag
All of us came in Doctor Kerlin's bag.
He'd arrive with it, disappear to the room
And by the time he'd reappear to wash
Those nosy, rosy, big, soft hands of his
In the scullery basin, its lined insides
(The colour of a spaniel's inside lug)
(from Out of The Bag)
Kerlin was a local doctor who “delivered” safely
Seamus and his siblings. His home and surgery was located in
Magherafelt and he was married to Miss Mary Kilroe who was reared
at Laurel Villa in Magherafelt. For a history of Laurel Villa
go to www.laurel-villa.com/aboutus
The following year (2002) saw the publication of Finders
Keepers: Selected Prose 1971-2001. As well as being a selection
from the poet’s three previous collections of prose (Preoccupations,
The Government of the Tongue and The Redress of Poetry),
Finders Keepers includes material from The Place of Writing,
a series of lectures at Emory University in 1988. There are
also pieces not previously collected such as Place and Displacement
,an essay from 1984 which dealt with recent poetry from Northern
Ireland. Among those poets discussed were Mahon, Muldoon and
Longley. The title of the collection is taken from an old saying
common among local children in South Derry and elsewhere, that
“Finders keepers! Losers weepers!”
As Heaney states in his introduction, the above phrase still
expresses glee and stakes a claim, so in that sense it can apply
as well to the experience of a reader of poetry: the first encounter
with work that excites and connects will induce in the reader
a similar urge to celebrate and take possession of it. Poets
themselves, he argues, are also finders and keepers with a vocation
to discover and be custodians for art and life. Heaney won the
Truman Capote Literary Award – the world’s most
coveted prize for literary criticism - in 2003 for this book.
In 2004 Heaney published The Burial at Thebes –
a Version of Sophocles’ Antigone. In this most recent
translation, commissioned by the Abbey Theatre Dublin to commemorate
its centenary, Seamus Heaney exposes the darkness and the humanity
of Sophocles’ masterpiece and enriches it with his own
modern and mastery touch.
The fortieth anniversary of the publication of Death of
a Naturalist in the spring of 2006 was marked by widespread
interest in Seamus Heaney and his poems and commanded massive
media coverage. This coincided with the publication of his twelfth
major collection, District and Circle. In many of the
poems of this collection, including Anything Can Happen
we get a sense of the new dangers that confront people at the
beginning of the twenty-first century.
Anything can happen, the tallest towers
Be overturned, those in high places daunted,
Those overlooked regarded
(from Anything Can Happen)
Heaney also does the rounds of the district in this volume,
its roads, trees and rivers, its familiar and unfamiliar ghosts.
There is a moving poem about a sister whose life and death is
celebrated in The Lift:
A lifetime, then the deathtime; reticence
Keeping us together when together,
All declaration deemed outspokenness
(from The Lift)
Seamus Heaney was unwell in the latter part of 2006
and was forced to curtail his heavy schedule of public engagements.
Thankfully he is now back to full health. He continued
writing during his convalescence and in June 2007 Gallery Press
published a special limited edition of poems called The Riverbank
Field. The Riverbank Field includes a sequence of beautiful
new poems by Seamus Heaney which begins in autobiography, visits
the world of the Aeneid and culminates in the birth of his first
grandchild. One poem recalls a sports day in Bellaghy:
And teams of grown men stripped for action
Going hell for leather until the final whistle,
Leaving stud-scrapes on the pitch and on each other.
(from The Riverbank Field X)
For further information see www.gallerypress.com