30 Aug 2013

Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney dies, aged 74

The Irish poet Seamus Heaney, winner of the Nobel prize for literature, has died at the age of 74. Poet Simon Armitage tells Channel 4 News “it feels like the end of an era”.

Heaney was celebrated in Ireland and beyond as one of the greatest poets of the 20th century.

A Nobel laureate, he won numerous awards for his writing, including the TS Eliot Prize, after leaving his career as a teacher to write full time. As well as being critically acclaimed, his success translated into book sales: he had sold more books in Britain than any living other poet in 2007.

Heaney was born in 1939, the eldest of nine children, and grew up in Bellaghy, county Derry. Ireland’s traditions, landscape – and its politics – had a huge bearing on his poetry.

In the span of his hand, he could hold the local and the universal – Poet Simon Armitage

He died after a period of ill health in Dublin, where he passed away on 30 August.

In a statement, his family said: “The death has taken place of Seamus Heaney. The poet and Nobel laureate died in hospital in Dublin this morning after a short illness. The family has requested privacy at this time.”

His most famous poems include Digging, from the 1966 breakthrough collection, Death of a Naturalist, which recalled the Irish tradition of digging for turf, and Mid-term Break, from the same collection, which is about the death of his younger brother.

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

The poet had donated his personal literary notes to the National Library of Ireland in December 2011, joining the ranks of Ireland’s revered literary greats James Joyce and WB Yeats. During his literary career, Heaney held prestigious posts at Oxford University and at Harvard in the US.

The Yorkshire poet Simon Armitage told Channel 4 News Seamus Heaney was a huge influence on his work, and that his death, along with that of Ted Hughes in 1998, felt like “the end of an era”.

“To me, as someone who grew up in a very rural area, (in a) not particularly bookish background, he made literature seem reachable,” he said.

“One of the things I really respected and took from his work, was the fact that you could write intelligently and with great depth about what we might think of as local or parochial things, in a language that would be from his locality, or family.

“In the span of his hand, he could hold the local and the universal.”

Read more from Jon Snow: ‘a great poet, full of light and life’

‘Wry Northern Irish dignity’

Irish President Michael D Higgins said Heaney’s contribution “to the republics of letters, conscience, and humanity was immense”.

A published poet himself, Mr Higgins 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.”

'An international treasure'

Northern Ireland's deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said he was shocked and very saddened by the death of local poet Seamus Heaney.

"I have described Seamus as Ireland's national treasure, but he was an international treasure. He was a colossus of literature but very much a Bellaghy man, of that land and of that soil."

Mr McGuinness is also from the Derry area in the north-west of Northern Ireland where Heaney was born. The deputy first minister said he had spoken to him there only a few weeks ago.

Mr McGuinness - whose journey from IRA commander to deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland's Assembly has marked Northern Ireland's shift away from the Troubles - hailed Heaney as a cross-community figure who had passionately supported attempts to bring peace.

"He was hugely supportive of the peace process. He was someone who understood the need for all of us to move forward to a shared future.

And credited Heaney with introducing him to a concept of inter-connectedness he hadn't come across before.

"At a lecture I attended, he used this word I hadn't heard before - "through-otherness". He was making the compelling point that whatever our persuasion we should be involved in building a better future."

Asked what his favourite works by Heaney were, Mr McGuiness cited Mid-Term Break, a story about Heaney returning home after the death of a younger brother in a car accident.

Mr McGuiness also liked more political A Constable Calls where Heaney describes a policeman visiting his Catholic father's farm.

Digging about his father, and a series Clearances written after the death of Heaney's mother were also favourites.

Earlier Mr McGuiness tweeted an extract from the poem

Heaney in 1995, after being awarded the Commandeur dans l’Ordre des Arts des Lettres