Nobel prize-winning Northern Irish poet died this morning in a Dublin hospital after a short illness
Seamus Heaney, Ireland's first Nobel prize-winning poet since WB Yeats, has died aged 74 in hospital in Dublin after a short illness, his publisher announced this morning.
Heaney won the Nobel prize for literature in 1995 and was celebrated for his many collections of poetry during his lifetime. He won the TS Eliot Prize in 2006 for his collection District and Circle. In 2010 he won the Forward poetry prize for Human Chain, a volume of verse inspired by his experiences after a stroke; his earlier collection The Spirit Level was shortlisted in 1996, as was District and Circle in 2006.
Heaney was born on a small farm near Toomebridge in County Derry, Northern Ireland, in 1939, "the eldest child of an ever-growing family". In his Nobel address in Stockholm he spoke lovingly of his childhood in a three-roomed thatched farmhouse at Mossbawn where, in their early years, he and his siblings passed "a kind of den-life which was more or less emotionally and intellectually proofed against the outside world".
After attending boarding school at St Columb's College in Derry city as a scholarship boy – a transition, as he has said, "from the earth of farm labour to the heaven of education" – Heaney went on to study at Queen's University Belfast, where he joined a generation of "Northern poets" that included Michael Longley and Derek Mahon. He published his first major collection, Death of a Naturalist, in 1966.
He contributed a first edition of Death of a Naturalist to a recent auction in aid of the writers' charity Pen, writing in pencil, above the poem "At a Potato Digging", that the critic 'Anthony Thwaite once described me (to my face) as "laureate of the root vegetable"'.
On another page, he wrote: "These two poems (along with 'Digging') were published by Karl Miller in the Christmas issue of The New Statesman, 1964 - and the poems caught the eye of the editors at Faber. Whence this volume."
Many of the poems he wrote in the 1970s and the 1980s, during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, are unflinching threnodies for a terrible time.
On receiving the David Cohen prize for lifetime excellence in writing in 2009, Heaney chose to sum up his achievement in poetry by reading his lyrical evocation of a moment during his honeymoon, The Underground, and his sonnet A Drink of Water.
The Underground sees him and his wife, Marie, "Honeymooning, moonlighting, late for the Proms", running down the corridor from the underground to the Royal Albert Hall. Heaney imagines himself as an Orpheus who won't look back, and therefore keeps his bride. A Drink of Water recalls a memory from his childhood, of an old woman who drew water every morning, "Like an old bat staggering up the field", who is revealed later as a muse of sorts to the poet. Heaney said it was "about receiving a gift and being enjoined to 'remember the giver'" – something he said he would always do when remembering that evening.
At the close of his Nobel address he spoke of "poetry's power to do the thing which always is and always will be to poetry's credit": "the power to persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness in spite of the evidence of wrongness all around it, the power to remind us that we are hunters and gatherers of values, that our very solitudes and distresses are creditable, in so far as they, too, are an earnest of our veritable human being".