Tributes paid to ‘keeper of language’ Seamus Heaney

Poet's death has brought a 'great sorrow' to Ireland

Taoiseach Enda Kenny has said the death of Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney today has brought a "great sorrow to Ireland" and only the poet himself could describe the depth of his loss to the nation.

Mr Kenny said: “For us, Seamus Heaney was the keeper of language, our codes, our essence as a people”.

Heaney died this morning at the Blackrock Clinic aged 74 after a short illness.

He was admitted to the clinic for a procedure but died prior to the operation.


President Michael D Higgins said Heaney's contribution "to the republics of letters, conscience, and humanity was immense".

"As tributes flow in from around the world, as people recall the extraordinary occasions of the readings and the lectures, we in Ireland will once again get a sense of the depth and range of the contribution of Seamus Heaney to our contemporary world, but what those of us who have had the privilege of his friendship and presence will miss is the extraordinary depth and warmth of his personality," he said.

Mr Higgins, himself a published poet, described Heaney as warm, humourous, caring and courteous.

“A courtesy that enabled him to carry with such wry Northern Irish dignity so many well-deserved honours from all over the world,” he said.

“Generations of Irish people will have been familiar with Seamus’ poems. Scholars all over the world will have gained from the depth of the critical essays, and so many rights organisations will want to thank him for all the solidarity he gave to the struggles within the republic of conscience.”

Both men alluded to the loss of confidence brought about by the implosion of the economic bubble.

Just before lunchtime today, actor Adrian Dunbar led a round of applause at the bust of Heaney in the Lyric Theatre in Belfast, while a book of condolences is to be opened in the Guildhall in Derry.

Heaney’s work has been taught in schools in the Republic, in Northern Ireland and in Britain with lines of verse still resonating years later from the likes of Digging and Tollund Man.

The poet is survived by his wife, Marie, and children, Christopher, Michael and Catherine Ann.

A funeral mass will take place on Monday at the Church of the Sacred Heart in Donnybrook, south Dublin followed by burial in his birthplace of Bellaghy, Co Derry.

The Nobel prize-winner was born in April 1939, the eldest of nine children, on a small farm called Mossbawn near Bellaghy in Co Derry, Northern Ireland, and his upbringing often played out in the poetry he wrote in later years.

He was educated at St Columb’s College, Derry, a Catholic boarding school, and later at Queen’s University Belfast, before making his home in Dublin, with periods of teaching in the US.

Heaney was an honorary fellow at Trinity College Dublin and last year was bestowed with the Seamus Heaney Professorship in Irish Writing at the university, which he described as a great honour.

His world renowned poetry first came to public attention in the mid-1960s with his first major collection, Death Of A Naturalist, published in 1966. As the Troubles took hold later that decade, his experiences were seen through the darkened mood of his work.

Heaney was the most significant Irish poet of his generation and described by fellow poet Robert Lowell as the "most important Irish poet since Yeats".

Along with being a poet of immense stature, he was also a well-known public figure and a member of Aosdana since its foundation.

Heaney said writers had a detached attitude to the “forms of success that have failed spectacularly and disastrously.

“We have seen how little it profited so many men to gain the whole world.”

Former US president Bill Clinton described Heaney as "one of the world's favourite poets" and joked that he even called his dog Seamus after Heaney.

“Your poetry has been a gift to the people of Ireland and to the world and a gift to me in difficult times,” Mr Clinton said.

Minister for the Arts Jimmy Deenihan praised Heaney for his work as a literary great but also for promoting Ireland. "He was just a very humble, modest man. He was very accessible," he said. "Anywhere I have ever travelled in the world and you mention poetry and literature and the name of Seamus Heaney comes up immediately."

Mr Deenihan recently joined Heaney at an event at the Irish Embassy in Paris where the poet gave readings to an audience of 1,000 invited guests. “He was a huge figure internationally, a great ambassador for literature obviously, but also for Ireland,” the Minister said.

Heaney donated his personal literary notes to the National Library of Ireland in December 2011, joining the ranks of James Joyce and fellow Nobel winner WB Yeats. During his literary career he held prestigious posts at Oxford University and at Harvard in the US.

Among the many honours Heaney received in his lifetime were the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995, and the following year he was made a Commandeur de L’Ordre des Arts et Lettres by the French ministry of culture.

His profile and the high regard he was held in was evidenced when he sat at the Queen’s table for a banquet on her state visit to the Republic in 2011, the first such trip for a ruling British monarch.

He was due to deliver a speech at the Linen Hall Library in Belfast next Tuesday and make an address next month at Amnesty International’s ambassador of conscience award, named after a poem he wrote for the organisation in 1985.

Those who knew him remarked on how he was renowned for always accepting invites to speak. Patrick Corrigan, the organisation’s Northern Ireland director, said he connected not just with people in Ireland but across the world.

“Through the beauty and elegance of his writing, Seamus Heaney reminded us of the bonds which unite and our duty to uphold the dignity of all,” he said. “Ireland has lost a legendary man of letters. The world has lost a towering giant of humanity.”

Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore, said Heaney’s legacy would be as one of the finest Irish poets of all time. “His work reflected his deep love and knowledge of the Irish land and the Irish people. His poetry explained us to ourselves. In his work, the dignity and honour of the everyday lives of people came to life,” he said.

“Yet his poetry was also universal in nature, as can be seen by the wonderful tributes being paid to him by people across the globe today and by his incredible achievement in winning the Nobel Prize for Literature.”

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times