(© Simon Garbutt)[/caption]
The outpouring of tributes to Seamus Heaney, who died at the age of 74 on 30 August following a short illness, are befitting of a man possessed of both a down-to-earth character and a towering intellect. The praise justifiably heaped on him - from figures as diverse and high profile as former US President Bill Clinton, rock star Bono, and fellow Irish writers Colm Tόibín, Paul Muldoon and Roy Foster – all speak of his manifesto, of digging with his pen, as his father and grandfather had dug the turf around his rural boyhood home. The Nobel Laureate’s sentiments never strayed far from his County Derry roots and his palpable sense of the wild beauty of the area from which he came, as well as its harsh political realities, lie at the heart of his poems.
Heaney was born in April 1939 near the village of Castledawson, Country Derry, the eldest of nine children. He studied English Literature and Language at Queen’s University, Belfast, graduating in 1961, and was appointed a lecturer there in 1966. That same year, Heaney’s first book of poetry, Death of a Naturalist, was published by Faber and Faber, the beginning of a long and fruitful association.
As a Northern Irish Catholic who moved his family across the border to the Republic of Ireland at the height of the Troubles in the early 1970s, Heaney was keenly aware of a perceived dichotomy in his loyalties. His collection North (1975) obliquely refers to these, and is described by Roy Foster as ‘an exploration of the archaeology of atrocity’; in the poem ‘Exposure’ Heaney acknowledges with some ruefulness his position of ‘inner émigré’.
While his early works concentrate more wholly on his origins, the dreamlike incantations of his epic Station Island (1984) extend these by incorporating and transcending the local landscape of Donegal to embrace more universal aspects of love, loss and language. Perhaps Heaney’s greatest achievement, certainly in terms of a bestseller, is his translation of the anonymous Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf (2002), which won him the Whitbread Book of the Year and has to date sold over 100,000 copies. Folio was delighted to publish an edition in 2010.
Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995. I was privileged not long afterwards to hear him give a talk on Robert Burns at the British Library in London. After the lecture, Heaney accompanied a group of us to the nearest pub, eager to hear our views on Scotland’s national poet. It seems typical of such a generous man that this form of interaction was what he loved and excelled at the most.