Heaney an intensely international and European poet

Seamus Heaney at the Lincoln Centre in New York in 2001. “For all his Irishness, Heaney was always inclusive, outward-facing and open.” Photograph: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Seamus Heaney at the Lincoln Centre in New York in 2001. “For all his Irishness, Heaney was always inclusive, outward-facing and open.” Photograph: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times


In Summer 1969, a poem from his acclaimed 1975 collection North, Seamus Heaney recalls how he was in Spain when the Troubles broke out in Northern Ireland. Caught under the “bullying sun of Madrid”, the young poet “retreated to the cool of the Prado” museum, where he was drawn to two paintings by Goya, including a dark, nightmarish depiction of Saturn devouring his son.

The paintings at once become an analogy for the violence erupting in Northern Ireland.

The poem captures one of the recurring themes of Heaney’s poetry – the complex feelings of guilt and responsibility that underpin the artist’s relationship with war. However, it also shows the deep connections between cultures, civilisations and traditions that characterised Heaney’s work. While many will remember Heaney as a purveyor of Irish identity, he was also an intensely international, and particularly European, poet.

European culture
Heaney was acutely aware of the presence of a shared, European cultural inheritance. As a poet, he saw himself as the inheritor of not just ancient Irish literature and language, but also the rich palette of European culture.

Throughout his work he refashioned ancient Greek and Roman myths, like Joyce, re-jigging the ancient tales of early European consciousness to fit contemporary Irish contexts. His poetry is replete with classical allusions, while plays such as the Cure of Troy and the Burial at Thebes, a translation of Sophloces’ Antigone written to celebrate the centenary of the Abbey Theatre, offer reflections on contemporary Ireland.

Heaney’s preoccupation with the Nordic sagas and fascination with the preserved bodies found in the bogs of modern-day Scandinavia provided endless material for his own reflections on contemporary Northern Ireland. Poems such as Tollund Man and Punishment are built around these links between different times and cultures, delving into parallels in order to reach a better understanding of the present.

Outward looking
Seamus Heaney was always outward looking. In later years he became a champion of modern east European poets and thinkers, such as Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz.

One of Heaney’s most recent appearances was at the Irish College in Paris in April to mark the Irish EU presidency where he read his translation of the Breton poet Guillevic to a hushed crowd.

In this sense Heaney encapsulated a theme picked up by President Michael D Higgins in a speech to the European Parliament in April when he spoke of Ireland’s role in the European intellectual tradition, and the deep cultural connections between Irish writers and the Continent.

Heaney’s connections with a wider Europe were not limited to the cultural realm, he was also avowedly pro-European.

In 2004, he marked the accession of 10 new member states on May 1st during Ireland’s presidency of the Council of the European Union, with a poem, Beacons of Bealtaine, which he recited at the enlargement ceremony at the Phoenix Park:

“The May Day hills were burning, far and near/ When our land’s first footers beached boats in the creek/In uisce, fionn, strange words that soon grew clear;/So on a day when newcomers appear./Let it be a homecoming and let us speak/The unstrange word, as it behoves us here/Move lips, move minds and make new meanings flare.”

Lisbon debate
In 2009 Heaney publicly intervened in the Lisbon II debate, urging a yes vote. Europe, he told the Observer newspaper was “more than a bureaucracy, it’s an ideal”.

“The word ‘Europe’ is one of the first cultural underpinnings to our lives in this part of the globe.”

Poetic vision
Although extremely well-known in the US, Heaney travelled extensively in Europe, and will be remembered as one of the great public intellectuals. Through his lectures and prose works, Heaney provided a cultural commentary, as much as a poetic vision, to his contemporaries.

Just as he recalled the experience of hearing about the outbreak of violence in Northern Ireland in Madrid during the summer of 1969, he often recalled experiencing significant moments at a remove from Ireland.

In 2009, he spoke of having been in Italy for the result of the first Lisbon referendum; when he was awarded the Nobel Prize he was holidaying on a remote island in Greece. For all his Irishness, Heaney was always inclusive, outward-facing and open; in this sense he was the true inheritor of literary predecessors such as Joyce and Beckett.