Biography of Irish Writer Seamus Heaney : Visit the birth place and home land of Seamus Heaney : find out more about Seamus Heaney's early life and the places that inspired many of his works

Seamus Heaney Biography : Visit the home land of Irish Writer Seamus Heaney

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Seamus Heaney Biography : Visit the home land of Irish Writer Seamus Heaney


Biography of Irish Writer Seamus Heaney : Visit the birth place and home land of Seamus Heaney : find out more about Seamus Heaney's early life and the places that inspired many of his works


Seamus Heaney Biography : Visit the home land of Irish Writer Seamus Heaney


Biography of Irish Writer Seamus Heaney : Visit the birth place and home land of Seamus Heaney : find out more about Seamus Heaney's early life and the places that inspired many of his works


Biography of Irish Writer Seamus Heaney : Visit the birth place and home land of Seamus Heaney : find out more about Seamus Heaney's early life and the places that inspired many of his works

Cornstooks at Carricknakielt

Biography of Irish Writer Seamus Heaney : Visit the birth place and home land of Seamus Heaney : find out more about Seamus Heaney's early life and the places that inspired many of his works
Biography of Irish Writer Seamus Heaney

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 (see 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

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 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 career:

I went disguised in it, pronouncing it with a soft
Church- latin c, tagging it under my efforts like a damp fuse.

(from Incertus)

Biography of Irish Writer Seamus Heaney : Visit the birth place and home land of Seamus Heaney : find out more about Seamus Heaney's early life and the places that inspired many of his worksHe 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

(from Tractors)

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

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

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

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

Biography of Irish Writer Seamus Heaney : Visit the birth place and home land of Seamus Heaney : find out more about Seamus Heaney's early life and the places that inspired many of his worksIn 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 and history.

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.

(from Digging)

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 ( 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.

Biography of Irish Writer Seamus Heaney : Visit the birth place and home land of Seamus Heaney : find out more about Seamus Heaney's early life and the places that inspired many of his worksHe 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.

(from Anahorish)

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

(from Punishment)

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, Dublin.

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

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.

Biography of Irish Writer Seamus Heaney : Visit the birth place and home land of Seamus Heaney : find out more about Seamus Heaney's early life and the places that inspired many of his worksIn 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 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

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 US.

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

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)

Biography of Irish Writer Seamus Heaney : Visit the birth place and home land of Seamus Heaney : find out more about Seamus Heaney's early life and the places that inspired many of his worksDr. 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

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 is

“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

Seamus Heaney Tours & Accommodation, Northern Ireland

Click here for Laurel Villa Guesthouse website