Fintan O’Toole to write Seamus Heaney’s official biography

Faber announces ‘Irish Times’ columnist to write Nobel Prize-winning poet’s authorised life

Fintan O’Toole has been commissioned to write the official biography of Seamus Heaney, Ireland’s Nobel Prize-winning poet, who died in August 2013 after a career spanning seven decades.

O'Toole, an Irish Times columnist for nearly 30 years, has written almost 20 books, including studies of playwrights Richard Brinsley Sheridan and Tom Murphy, and most recently Judging Shaw, a biography of George Bernard Shaw.

This year, he has won the Orwell Prize for Journalism, the European Press Prize Commentator Award and Broadsheet Columnist of the Year at the Newsbrands Ireland Journalism Awards .

Heaney’s family and his publisher, Faber & Faber, welcomed the news. O’Toole will engage in years of original research, interlacing archive, oral and literary work, and correspondence to create a portrait of, in his words, “the personal, the political and the poetic”.


“James Joyce said that ‘the supreme question about a work of art is out of how deep a life does it spring’. Seamus Heaney’s work touches people so profoundly because it seems to spring from a very deep life indeed, from complex political and historical roots and from an extraordinary reservoir of memory, hope and humanity,” O’Toole said. “It has been a great companion to me for many decades. I am very honoured to have the opportunity to try, not just to bring that work to life but to bring Seamus’s life back in touch with his luminous work.”

‘Uniquely qualified’

The poet’s son Mick (who is The Irish Times’ radio columnist) said: “The family of Seamus Heaney wholeheartedly welcome the announcement of Fintan O’Toole as his biographer. We have long been great admirers of Fintan’s astute and wide-ranging work – as was my father – whether as a critic, a biographer or an observer of Irish society, so when he approached us with his proposal for a biography, we felt he was uniquely qualified to chronicle the life and work in a new light. We look forward to helping Fintan in working on this new biography, which enjoys the approval and co-operation of the Heaney family.”

Matthew Hollis, Faber’s poetry editor, said: “Seamus Heaney was the head of our poetry household. The story of his literary life will be of real importance to us all. We are therefore thrilled that it should be Fintan O’Toole who has agreed to undertake a portrait of this most cherished author. Fintan himself is a writer of principle and distinction, and a researcher of tireless fortitude. He will tell the story of Seamus’s life and the great development of his art using original interviews, archive research and his uncanny instinct for reaching the true heart of any story. His life of Seamus Heaney promises to be a major portrait of the poet, of the man and of our times.”