Heaney, an Irish patriot who scaled the world's peak


Arts Reporter

Seamus Heaney has risen to literature's Olympian heights from the simplest of beginnings - a small farm called Mossbawn in Co Londonderry where he was born the eldest of nine children in 1939.

He was brought up a Catholic on the farm sprawled on the long, flat road between Toomebridge in Co Antrim - famous for eels and the hanging of the Catholic republican patriot Roddy MacCorly - and Castle Dawson in Co Londonderry, a Protestant loyalist town. There he learned to avoid Protestant boys attempting to run him over with their bicycles.

One of Heaney's earliest memories is of his father, a cattle dealer, nearly drowning because his horse reared up and overturned his cart on a river-bank. But it was this rural childhood which shaped Heaney's languorous early poetry, with its sensuous evocations of blackberry picking, milk churning, thatching and threshing.

He was educated at St Columb's College, Londonderry, then at Queen's College, Belfast, where he was a brilliant scholar. He longed to be a full-time poet but elected to lecture there initially because of distrust of his ability.

It was in the 1960s that the poet began to emerge. Heaney became part of a group in Belfast who, he recalled, "used to talk poetry day after day with an intensity and prejudice that cannot but have left a mark on all of us".

In 1966 he published his first major collection of poetry, which arrived on the literary landscape like a thunderclap. Later, during the Troubles, he described the atmosphere in which he and the other Belfast poets worked as a reality of "explosions, road blocks and rhetoric" which made writers feel "socially called upon" and "answerable". He has never lost sight of this Irishness. "Be advised my passport's green. No glass of ours was ever raised to toast the Queen," he warned the editors of the Penguin Anthology of British Poetry when they included his work in the collection.

With the publication of each successive collection of poetry from the early Death of a Naturalist to Seeing Things of 1991, Heaney's reputation has grown until he is now considered the major poet in the English speaking world.

With fame has come responsibility and possessions. Heaney, his wife Marie and his children move between a battered family house in Dublin, a country cottage at Glanmore, 50 miles from the city, and a flat at Harvard (where he is Boylston Professor). Until last year he was also Professor of Poetry at Oxford University, and his life is one of a globe-trotter for much of the year until he can retire to phone-less cottage at Glanmore and write.

He says he was first inspired by the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, was "Eliotised" at university and admires Emily Dickinson and Ted Hughes. A poem 11 years ago spoke of the vulgarity of the artist "expecting ever gratitude or admiration, which would mean a stealing from him". If that is so, then the Nobel award is the greatest theft of all.