Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney is one of the best-known poets hailing from Northern Ireland. Seamus Heaney wrote numerous books and poems about Irish life, farming, and landscapes. Seamus Heaney lived most of his life on the island of Ireland and his nationality was the basis for much of his poetry.

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Table of contents

    Seamus Heaney, Portrait, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Seamus Heaney is one of the most celebrated Northern Irish poets ever.

    Seamus Heaney: life

    Let's look at a summary of Seamus Heaney's biography.

    Seamus Heaney's Biography
    Birth:13th April 1939
    Death:30th August 2013
    Father:Patrick Heaney
    Mother:Margaret Kathleen McCann
    Spouse/Partners:Marie Devlin (m. 1965-2013)
    Cause of death:Natural causes
    Famous Works:
    • Death of a Naturalist
    • Wintering Out
    • 'Blackberry Picking'
    • 'The Tollund Man'
    • 'Harvest Bow'
    • 'Punishment'
    Nationality:Northern Irish
    Literary Period:Postmodernism

    Early life and education

    Seamus Heaney was born on the 13th of April 1939 in County Derry in Northern Ireland. He was the oldest of nine children and was born in the family farmhouse of Mossbawn. When Heaney was fourteen (in 1953), his family relocated to a farm in the village of Bellaghy. Heaney's family were Catholic farmers, so he grew up in a rural environment. This childhood experience in the countryside would be a key theme in Heaney's poetry as much of his work is based there.

    When Heaney was twelve, he began attending St. Columb's College, a Catholic boarding school in the city of Derry. At St. Columb's, Heaney would be taught in English, Latin, and Irish, which influenced for his later poetry. In 1953, while Heaney was at school, his four-year-old brother Christopher was killed in a car accident. This experience would become the basis of Heaney's 1966 poem, 'Midterm Break',

    Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple,He lay in the four-foot box as in his cot.No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.A four-foot box, a foot for every year.

    Seamus Heaney would go on to study English Literature at the Queen's University of Belfast (QUB). There, he studied Anglo Saxon Literature and was also introduced to the poetry of Ted Hughes, Robert Frost, and Patrick Kavanagh. While in Belfast, Heaney joined the Belfast Writers' Group, where he met contemporaries Michael Longley and Derek Mahon. Following his time at QUB, Heaney trained to become a teacher and during this period met and married his wife, Marie Devlin.


    Let's look at his career.


    In 1966, Heaney published his first collection of poetry, Death of a Naturalist, with Faber & Faber. The collection was met with success and widespread critical acclaim. In the following years, Heaney would work as a lecturer at QUB, and also release his second poetry collection, Door into the Dark, in 1969.

    This period would see Heaney work as a lecturer and teacher at Berkeley College (California), Queen's University of Belfast, and Carysfort College, Dublin. He would also release works such as Wintering Out (1972), North (1975), Field Work (1979), and Station Island (1984). Heaney garnered much success during this period and quickly became one of Ireland's most prominent literary voices.

    The Troubles

    One of the defining points of Irish history in the 20th century was a civil conflict called 'The Troubles'. The Troubles took place in Northern Ireland from 1968 to 1998 and was an ethnic-nationalist conflict.

    During the period much of the violence took place between the Loyalist community (who were majority Protestant) and the Republican community (who were majority Catholic). Approximately 3,000 civilians were killed in Northern Ireland during this conflict.

    During this period, Heaney received criticism from some of his Northern Irish contemporaries, as his work did not address the conflict occurring in his country. Heaney's poetry and books focused instead on rural life and identity instead of the violence itself. This was partially addressed in his 1975 poem, 'Whatever you say, say nothing', which was written about Northern Irish culture and language during the Troubles.

    Smoke-signals are loud-mouthed compared with us:Manoeuvrings to find out name and school,Subtle discrimination by addressesWith hardly an exception to the rule

    In 1981, Heaney joined the Board of Directors for the Field Day Theatre Company. He would go on to write for the troupe as well as provide input on its operations.

    Field Day Theatre Company

    In 1980, the Field Day Theatre Company was established by playwright Brian Friel and actor Stephen Rea in Derry, Northern Ireland. The company originally aimed to create a major theatre group for Northern Ireland, however, this idea quickly expanded to become more political. One of the founding ideas of Field Day was that it would serve as a cross-community project to develop relations between Catholics and Protestants across Northern Ireland. The company's first performance was Brian Friel's Translations (1981).


    Heaney spent five years from 1989 to 1994 as a Professor of Poetry at Oxford University. He also worked as the Poet in Residence at Harvard University, where he became a tenured professor. During this time, Heaney split his time between Ireland, England and America.

    In 1995, Seamus Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He was given the prize for "works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalted everyday miracles and the living past" (Nobel Prize for Literature 1995). Heaney would be the fourth Irishman to win the award, following George Bernard Shaw, W.B Yeats, and Samuel Beckett.

    In the period between 1988 and 2000, Seamus Heaney published a play, The Cure of Troy (1991) and two volumes of poetry entitled, Seeing Things (1991) and The Spirit Level (1996).


    In 2006, while at his friend Brian Friel’s home, Heaney had a stroke that left the poet partially paralysed on his left side. This incident became the basis of his poem ‘Chanson d’Aventure’ which featured in his final poetry collection, Human Chain (2010).


    Seamus Heaney died aged 74 in 2013. The poet died following a short illness after he was admitted to the hospital for a medical procedure.

    Seamus Heaney: poems and books

    Here are some of Heaney's best-known poems.


    'Punishment' was written in 1975 and first published in the collection North (1975). This is a lyric poem that is divided into eleven quatrains, with no set rhyme scheme.

    I can see her drownedbody in the bog,the weighing stone,the floating rods and boughs.

    The poem is split into two sections, as the first half details the discovery of a bog body in Germany in 1951.

    The body is identified as a fourteen-year-old girl, who had been killed for committing adultery. The second half of the poem compares this brutal killing to the violence of the Troubles. Heaney uses the two different time frames to compare the brutal acts.

    'Tollund Man'

    'Tollund Man' was included in Seamus Heaney's 1972 poetry collection, Wintering Out.

    Some day I will go to AarhusTo see his peat-brown head,The mild pods of his eye-lids,His pointed skin cap.

    The poem is divided into three parts, with the first section detailing the speaker's wish to visit the bog body that was found in Aarhus, Denmark. The second section continues his idea, as it discusses how the speaker fantasises about resurrecting the man and asking him to revive anyone who died during the Troubles.

    Seamus Heaney, The Tollund Man, StudySmarterFig. 2 - The Tollund Man is a naturally mummified corpse that was found in a peat bog in Denmark. Heaney drew inspiration from the Peat bogs in Northern Ireland for this poem.

    The poem finishes with the speaker imagining himself taking the same journey as the Tollund Man, and feeling familiar with the environment. In this poem, Heaney explores themes of violence, history and religion.

    Did You Know? 'Bog bodies' are corpses that have been naturally preserved in peat bogs! They can be found in The Netherlands, Denmark, and Ireland, with many dating back to the 1700s!

    'Out of the Bag'

    'Out of the Bag' was published in his collection, Collected Poems (2013).

    All of us came in Doctor Kerlin's bag.

    He'd arrive with it, disappear to the room

    And by the time he'd reappear to wash

    The poem has four parts, with each stanza comprising three lines (tercets). This part of the poem discusses birth from the perspective of a child, with the young speaker imagining that babies come from the doctor's bag.

    The second section uses metaphors and analogies of Ancient Greece to discuss medicine. The speaker here is more mature than he was in the first section. The third section of the poem is set in the 1950s, and continues the Ancient GreeK imagery. The final segment of the poem returns to the setting of the first section, as the speaker sees his mother and new sibling. This poem centres on themes of childhood, life and family.

    Beowulf (1999)

    Seamus Heaney produced translations as well as poems. His most famous piece of translation was of the story of Beowulf (1999).

    Whichever one death fellsmust deem it a just judgement by God.

    Beowulf (975-1025) is an Anglo-Saxon text which tells the story of the titular hero, and how he defeated three different monsters. It is widely viewed as one of the most important pieces of literature to come from the Anglo-Saxon period. The story was originally written in Old English and Heaney spent much of the 1990s translating the text.

    Heaney's translation of Beowulf (975-1025) has been praised for its use of music and language, while also keeping close to the original source. An excerpt from Beowulf (1999) can be found above).

    Seamus Heaney: themes and quotes

    Some of the main themes and important quotes from Heaney's works are below.


    Nature is a key theme in much of Seamus Heaney's poetry. His childhood in rural Derry influenced how he depicted the countryside in his work, and rural landscapes became a key image in Heaney's works. Nature is presented in Heaney's work through imagery, metaphors and analogies.


    I can see her drownedbody in the bog,the weighing stone,the floating rods and boughs.


    I loved the dark drop, the trapped sky, the smellsOf waterweed, fungus and dank moss.

    Harvest Bow

    Into an evening of long grass and midges,Blue smoke straight up, old beds and ploughs in hedges,An auction notice on an outhouse wall—You with a harvest bow in your lapel,


    Identity is also a key theme throughout Heaney's work. Seamus Heaney's was born in Northern Ireland, and wrote much of his works during The Troubles, and identity shaped much of his work. Heaney uses the imagery of Irish life to universalise themes of identity, family and nature.


    who would connivein civilized outrageyet understand the exactand tribal, intimate revenge.

    Tollund Man

    I will feel lost,Unhappy and at home.

    Out of the Bag

    The room I came from and the rest of us all came from

    Stays pure reality where I stand alone,

    Standing the passage of time, and she's asleep

    Seamus Heaney: facts and impact

    Seamus Heaney had a significant impact on Irish life and literature. His writings were centred on Irish life, and in doing so, Heaney brought Irish culture to the wider world while putting Northern Ireland on the map. Heaney's few poems focusing on the Northern Irish The Troubles also had a great impact on the country.

    Works such as 'Whatever You Say, Say Nothing' (1975) and 'The Tollund Man' (1972) indicated Heaney as an advocate for peace in the North of Ireland. These works also emphasised the effects of The Troubles on Northern Ireland. Heaney's work has had a lasting impact due to how it universalises specific themes of war, Irish culture and rural life.

    12 facts about Seamus Heaney are:

    1. He was the eldest of nine siblings and was raised in a Catholic family.

    2. He studied English language and literature at Queen's University in Belfast, where he developed an interest in the work of poets such as Ted Hughes and W.B. Yeats.

    3. Heaney's early poetry was influenced by his upbringing on the farm and often explored themes of rural life and the natural world.

    4. Heaney's breakthrough collection of poems was Death of a Naturalist, which was published in 1966 and won critical acclaim.

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

    6. Heaney was a professor of poetry at both Harvard University and Oxford University.

    7. In addition to poetry, Heaney also wrote plays, essays, and critical works on literature.

    8. Heaney had a fascination with archaeology and was an amateur archaeologist himself. He wrote a poem about the discovery of an Iron Age body in a bog, titled 'The Tollund Man'.

    9. Heaney was known for his love of mushrooms and even dedicated a poem to the 'quiet gathering' of mushrooms in his collection, 'Wintering Out'.

    10. Heaney was a fan of the Irish sport of hurling and even wrote a poem about the game titled 'Casualty'.

    11. Heaney was an avid reader of detective novels and reportedly enjoyed Agatha Christie's works in particular.

    12. Heaney was a fan of the band ABBA and once expressed his admiration for their music in an interview.

    Seamus Heaney - Key takeaways

    • Seamus Heaney was born in 1939 in Mossbawn, Derry, Northern Ireland. Heaney was raised in rural Northern Ireland, before attending university in the country's capital, Belfast.
    • Many of Heaney's poems centre around Irish landscapes and life, and some reference The Troubles.
    • Themes such as nature, and identity can be found in Heaney's poetry.
    • In 1994, Seamus Heaney won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
    • Seamus Heaney died in 2013, following a short illness.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Seamus Heaney

    Where was Seamus Heaney born?

    Seamus Heaney was born in County Derry in Northern Ireland in 1939.

    How did Seamus Heaney die?

    Heaney died in 2013 following a short illness after entering the hospital for a medical procedure. 

    What school did Seamus Heaney go to?

    Heaney attended high school at St Columb's College, before going to the Queen's University of Belfast.

    Did Seamus Heaney speak Irish?

    Yes, Seamus Heaney spoke Irish as he was taught the language while at St Columb's College.

    What was Seamus Heaney famous for?

    Seamus Heaney was a famous poet and translator who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What age was Heaney when his family moved to Bellaghy?

    What county did Seamus Heaney grow up in?

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