Seamus Heaney elected Saoi of Aosdana


The poet and Nobel laureate, Dr Seamus Heaney, has been elected to the office of Saoi of Aosdana, the highest award open to an Irish artist.

The President, Mrs McAleese, presented Dr Heaney with a gold torc, the symbol of the office of Saoi, at a special ceremony in Dublin yesterday. Mrs McAleese paid tribute to her fellow Northerner, whom she described as "the single most important figure in modern Irish literature".

"If we are a proud Irish people today, if we are self-confident, if there is a purposiveness and a spring in our step, if there is a cultural renaissance at the heart of today's Ireland, Seamus Heaney it was who placed the seed," she said.

The honour of Saoi within Aosdana recognises creative work which has made an outstanding contribution to the arts in Ireland and abroad. At any one time there can be no more than five Saoithe, and with the election of Dr Heaney there are now five.

The President recalled how she wept on hearing that Dr Heaney had won the Nobel Prize in 1995. "I felt such an extraordinary sense of things opening up, a sense of rightness and vindication.

"The confusion and frustration of the divided society into which he was born - and his emergence from that society - through his schooling and his career as an educator and a writer is plotted throughout the course of his works."

Yet, in spite of his fame Dr Heaney, "a humble man who never sought the limelight", had managed to preserve the special space needed to continue his craft, Mrs McAleese said.

In a brief acceptance speech, Dr Heaney paid tribute to his colleagues, the 167 other artists who are members of Aosdana. He praised the President for singling out the contribution of teachers to the arts.

The other four Saoithe are the artists Louis le Brocquy and Tony O'Malley and the writers Benedict Kiely (who attended yesterday's ceremony) and Francis Stuart. Past Saoithe have included Samuel Beckett, Sean O Faolain, Patrick Collins and Mary Lavin.

Dr Heaney was a founder member of Aosdana when it was established in 1981. Born in Co Derry in 1939, he began his writing career in Irish magazines in 1962. The author or editor of almost 20 poetry collections, anthologies and other works, he has won numerous awards for his writing. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in October 1995.

Aosdana was established by the Arts Council with government support in 1981. Members receive a subsidy of £8,000 a year to help them work full-time at their art. Membership is limited to 200, and there are currently 168 members.