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The 100 best nonfiction books: No 11 – North by Seamus Heaney (1975)

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This raw, tender, unguarded collection transcends politics, reflecting Heaney’s desire to move ‘like a double agent among the big concepts’

Alongside his friend Ted Hughes (No 4 in this series), Seamus Heaney was among the finest late-20th century poets writing in the English language. Heaney’s greatness was cultural as well as lyrical: he saw it as his inescapable duty to attempt a mood of reconciliation among his community. His work, rooted in his native Ireland, always had to navigate the murderous vicissitudes of the Troubles, the civil war that traumatised Northern Ireland for 30 terrible years, from the civil rights march of October 1968 to the Good Friday agreement of April 1998.

To be a writer, especially a famous poet, in this war zone was to confront a challenge that was political, artistic and tribal. Both Heaney’s parents came from Roman Catholic families in Protestant Ulster. Throughout his life, his origins placed him at the lethal crossroads of sectarian conflict and Irish nationalism. That was an unenviable and dangerous location at the best of times, and he learned to become highly attuned to the history and heritage of oppression. He always contrived to move, as he put it, “like a double agent among the big concepts”.

Whatever his deepest feelings, Heaney is never strident. Throughout this volume there’s a steady undertow of irony

Related: Seamus Heaney talks to his fellow Irish poet Dennis O'Driscoll

He linked the darkness of his own times to memories of English and Scandinavian invasions from the past

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