Poet Seamus Heaney dies aged 74

Nick Higham looks back at the life of Seamus Heaney

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Seamus Heaney, acclaimed by many as the best Irish poet since WB Yeats, has died aged 74.

Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995 "for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past".

Over his long career he was awarded numerous prizes and received many honours for his work.

He recently suffered from ill health.

His 2010 poetry collection The Human Chain was written after he suffered a stroke and the central poem, Miracle, was directly inspired by his illness.

File photo dated 1/5/1970 of Irish poet, playwright and Nobel prize winner Seamus Heaney Heaney in 1970, two years before he gave up full-time academic work to become a freelance writer and poet

Recalling how he had been lifted up and down the stairs to his bedroom, the poet eulogised the biblical characters who carried a paralysed man to Jesus to be healed.

"Their shoulders numb, the ache and stoop deeplocked / In their backs, the stretcher handles / Slippery with sweat. And no let up."

'Profound sorrow'

"The death has taken place of Seamus Heaney," said a short statement issued by his family on Friday.

"The poet and Nobel laureate died in hospital in Dublin this morning after a short illness. The family has requested privacy at this time."

Heaney's publisher, Faber, said: "We cannot adequately express our profound sorrow at the loss of one of the world's greatest writers. His impact on literary culture is immeasurable.

"As his publisher we could not have been prouder to publish his work over nearly 50 years. He was nothing short of an inspiration to the company, and his friendship over many years is a great loss."

Andrew Motion, former Poet Laureate and a friend of Heaney, told The Telegraph that Heaney was "a great poet, a wonderful writer about poetry, and a person of truly exceptional grace and intelligence."

The Pulitzer Prize-winning Irish poet Paul Muldoon told BBC Radio 3: "One of his great gifts was to allow people in who were not necessarily that interested in poetry... and I think that's one of the reasons why he occupies such an extraordinary place in people's hearts."

Heaney was born in April 1939, the eldest of nine children, on a farm near Toomebridge in County Londonderry, Northern Ireland, but as a child moved to the village of Bellaghy.

He was educated at St Columb's College, Derry, a Catholic boarding school, and later at Queen's University Belfast, before training as a teacher. He settled in Dublin, with periods of teaching in the US.

Heaney was an honorary fellow at Trinity College Dublin and, last year, was bestowed with the Seamus Heaney Professorship in Irish Writing at the university, which he described as a great honour.

Poet Simon Armitage pays tribute

I'll remember him both as a poet and a person - an incredibly generous and open man. He was a great ambassador for poetry and I think that's recognised almost worldwide. People only had good things to say about his courtesy and his integrity.

He was the poet I encountered at school and he made me think it was possible for anybody who showed an interest in poetry to write it.

What made him so successful and so affirmed as a poet was the way he managed to straddle the intellectual rigors of poetry and the academic elements that come with that, with a lightness of touch that meant even people who weren't that interested in the art form would respond to his work. They're so deft and subtle and I suppose that was his ear for language.

I remember once being in a pub with him in Shropshire - he was a superstar in the world of literature but in that pub he was like a guy from the village. He just sat there in the corner chatting way.

His first book, Death of a Naturalist, published in 1966, reflected his rural upbringing, but as Ireland's troubles increased his work took a more political turn.

In 2011, Heaney donated a collection of his literary papers to the National Library of Ireland.

It included manuscripts of his poetry, a comprehensive and vast collection of loose-leaf, typescript and manuscript worksheets and bound notebooks.

The collection spanned Heaney's literary career, from the publication of Death of a Naturalist (1966), to volumes such as Wintering Out (1972) and North (1975), right through to Station Island (1984), Seeing Things (1991) and his most recent publications, District and Circle (2006) and Human Chain (2010).

The latter won the prestigious £10,000 Forward Prize in 2010.

Heaney described the collection, his 12th, as his most personally revealing collection of poems.

He had been nominated for the Forward Prize three times before, but this was his first win. Judge and author Ruth Padel described Heaney's volume as "painful, honest, and delicately weighted".

Over the course of his career, Heaney also won the TS Eliot Prize, and was made Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

He was also the professor of poetry at Oxford University between 1989 and 1994.

In an interview with the Today programme's James Naughtie in early 2013, Heaney remembered how he felt when he first discovered poetry.

"It was the voltage of the language, it was entrancing," he said.

"I think the first little jolt I got was reading Gerard Manley Hopkins - I liked other poems... but Hopkins was kind of electric for me - he changed the rules with speech and the whole intensity of the language was there and so on."

Irish President Michael D Higgins said Heaney's contribution "to the republics of letters, conscience, and humanity was immense".

Northern Irish poet Michael Longley said: "I feel like I've lost a brother and there are tens of thousands of people today who will be feeling personally bereaved because he had a great presence.

"Just as his presence filled a room, his marvellous poems filled the hearts of generations of readers."

Australian author Kathy Lette posted on Twitter: "RIP Seamus Heaney. I once introduced him to my son as the world's greatest poet. My son frowned. 'No, that would be Bob Dylan.' Seamus roared."

Queen's University Belfast also paid tribute to its former student, staff member and honorary graduate, calling him a "true friend of the university".

"Generous with his scholarship and his time, his warmth, humour and brilliance will be sorely missed," professor James McElnay, acting president and vice-chancellor, said.

"His contribution to the world of literature has introduced millions of people around the globe to the enjoyment of poetry and enhanced it for many more."

Mr Heaney is survived by his wife, Maire, and three children Christopher, Michael and Catherine Ann.

A funeral mass for the poet will take place on Monday at the Church of the Sacred Heart in Donnybrook, Dublin.

This will be followed by interment in Bellaghy.

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