Heaney remembered

2013-09-03 00:00

DUBLIN — Seamus Heaney, one of the world’s best-known poets and winner of the 1995 Nobel Prize for literature, died last Friday, after a short illness, at the age of 74.

Northern Ireland-born Heaney’s poems evoke an Irish country childhood, with images of potato diggers and peat-bog cutters, and echo the deep political splits that have riven the island. They include his 1966 debut Death of a Naturalist , The Spirit Level , District and Circle and an acclaimed translation of the old English epic poem Beowulf.

Heaney was a rarity among poets, having won acclaim from critics while producing best-sellers. Born on a farm in County Londonderry in 1939, his poems recall nostalgically the sights and smells of a country childhood. The weaving of rural roots and modern realism helped him to become the most acclaimed Irish poet since William Butler Yeats, who won the Nobel prize in 1923.

A tousle-haired figure with a shy and subtle manner, he hated media hype and publishers’ publicity caravans, even as he became one of Ireland’s most famous figures. It once took him three hours to walk down Dublin’s main street, pursued by autograph hunters.

Heaney’s life was a cultural juggling act that began with his childhood in a Northern Ireland riven by sectarian tensions between Protestants and Catholics. He left at the height of the conflict in 1972, his departure hailed by one Belfast Protestant paper which called him “the well-known Papist propagandist”.

His move to the Irish Republic made headlines and those experiences allowed Heaney to bring to the fore a new sense of the pain and passion of being Irish, at a time when the island was torn apart by the Northern-Ireland conflict.

He always felt the tug of language between English and Irish, and acknowledged the dichotomy in The Haw Lantern, writing: “Two buckets were easier carried than one/ I grew up inbetween.”

He was acutely aware of the dilemma of being a “green” Irish nationalist in a province ruled by the British monarchy. When a London publisher sought to put his work in an anthology of British poetry, he swiftly replied: “Don’t be surprised if I demur, for be advised my passport’s green. No glass of ours was ever raised to toast the queen.” — Reuters

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