Seamus Heaney was born in April of 1939 in Castledawson, Northern Ireland. He was the oldest of nine children, born to parents Patrick and Margaret. His father was a farmer and cattle dealer who was also born into a large family. His mother’s family were also of the labouring lower class and came from a line of linen and mill workers. These two, similar in class, but different in period, parts of his heritage, created a dichotomy in Heaney’s life that he was well aware of as he grew up. He was a child of Ireland’s past and future.
As a young boy he attended Anahorish Primary school and later, when he was twelve, St. Columb’s College. This institution was a Roman Catholic boring school in Derry, Ireland. It was during this time period that Heaney’s younger brother, Christopher, died in a tragic road accident. This incident would spawn a number of poems dedicated to his brother’s life and death. Heaney would go on to continue his education at Queens University in Belfast. While there, he first became truly interested in writing poetry, this would lead to a First Class Honours degree in English and his graduation in 1961.
After leaving university, Heaney went on to work as a school teacher at St Thomas’ Secondary Intermediate School in West Belfast. He would begin to publish poetry, under the tutelage of Michael McLaverty, a school master from County Monaghan, in 1962. McLaverty was greatly influential in the life of the young poet, serving as a kind of father figure and mentor. Heaney would eventually dedicate a piece of poetry, ‘Singing School,’ to McLaverty.
Heaney went on to find work as a lecturer at Queens University and to marry in 1965 to a school teacher, Marie Devlin. She was a writer in her own right, (publishing a collection of traditional Irish myths during her lifetime).
It was in that same year, 1965, that Heaney published his first collection of poetry, Death of a Naturalist. The work was received quite well and won a number of awards including the Gregory Award for Young Writers. The following year he was appointed as a lecturer in Modern English at Queens University, and his first son was born. He then embarked on a reading tour which was called, Room to Rhyme. This took the poet around the country, spreading awareness of, and appreciation for, his work
In 1969, Heaney’s second volume, Door into the Dark, was published. Three years later, Heaney moved to Wicklow, in the Republic of Ireland and published Wintering Out. His reputation was now well established and he traveled throughout Ireland, Great Britain and the United States. His fourth volume was released in 1975, and the following year he was appointed as Head of English at Carysfort College, in Dublin. Four years later, Field Work, was released and two more collections followed the next year.
Around this same period Heaney traveled to the US to teach as a visiting professor at Harvard University. While there he was awarded as honorary doctorate from Fordham University. After teaching in the United States for a time he received a tenure position and became Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard. His career was going well, but his personal life took a hit when both his parents died within two years.This loss made its way into the poems he wrote soon after.
In the mid-1980s he was awarded the Ambassador of Conscience Award after writing ‘From the Republic of Conscience,’ for United Nations Day. He also published his volume, Station Island.
More recently, he was made a member of the Irish Academy of Arts and Writers, as well as a Foreign Member of The American Academy of Arts and Letters. These awards were followed by the 1995 Nobel Prize in Literature. His career continued into the 2000s and he was awarded two more honorary doctorates. In August of 2006, Heaney suffered a stroke. He recovered quickly though and was soon to returned to what was almost his normal state.
It was in 2010 that Heaney published his final book, Human Chain. The volume won the Forward Poetry Prize for Best Collection. At the time of his death he was compiling an anticipated collection, Selected Poems 1988-2013. He passed away in Dublin, Ireland in August of 2013. He is buried in his home village of Bellaghy alongside his other family members.