Seamus Heaney, who has died aged 74, was widely regarded as the greatest Irish poet since William Butler Yeats, who like Heaney was a recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Born and raised in Northern Ireland, Heaney was renowned for his mastery of Irish and Gaelic sources, as well as Old English, the Anglo-Saxon tongue from which he translated in 1999 a much-praised version of the medieval epic “Beowulf”.
Although wary of being compared to Yeats — who died in 1939, the year Heaney was born — he acknowledged his kinship with a compatriot who also dug deep into ancient Irish traditions while reflecting his country’s modern conflicts.
Seamus Heaney was born on April 13, 1939 into a Catholic farming family in County Derry, Northern Ireland. His father was a farmer, while his mother’s family had been workers in the local linen industry.
The eldest of nine children, Seamus grew up on the family farm of Mossbawm, before becoming a boarder at St Columb’s College in the city of Derry, where he studied both Latin and Gaelic.
He went on to take English language and literature at Queen’s University in Belfast, which became his home until 1972 and where he came under the influence of the British writer and teacher Philip Hobsbaum, who helped confirm his vocation as a poet.
His first published work was “Eleven Poems” in 1965, the year in which he married Marie Devlin, a fellow writer about whom he penned some of his finest poems and with whom he had two sons and a daughter.
Other collections include “Death of a Naturalist” (1966), “Door into the Dark” (1969), “North” (1975), “The Haw Lantern” (1987), “Seeing Things” (1991), “The Spirit Level” (1996) and “District and Circle” (2006).
In 1972, at the height of the violence involving British troops and Catholic and Protestant paramilitaries over Northern Ireland’s status, Heaney moved to Dublin, which was to be his home base for the rest of his life.
After a spell devoted only to writing, he resumed teaching activities in 1975, speaking as a guest lecturer in US universities and in Britain.
Between 1989 and 1994 he held the coveted post of Professor of Poetry at England’s prestigious Oxford University.
The following year he became the fourth Irish writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, the three others having been Yeats (1923), George Bernard Shaw (1925) and Samuel Beckett (1969).
In March 2009, Heaney was awarded the £40,000 ($62,000, 47,000-euro) David Cohen Prize for Literature for his lifetime of work.
“For the last 40-odd years, Heaney’s poems have crystallised the story of our times, in language which has bravely and memorably continued to extend its imaginative reach,” said Andrew Motion, Britain’s then-poet laureate and the chairman of the judges.
“At the same time, his critical writing, his translations and his lecturing have invigorated the whole wider world of poetry.”
In 2003 the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry was opened at Queen’s University, housing a unique record of Heaney’s entire works.