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Seamus Justin Heaney has had a very astounding literary career and has created many great works that readers enjoy today. Being a well decorated and elite writer who won the Nobel Prize and countless other awards throughout his life, he is not one to boast with his accomplishments. He has had a long lived life and still to this day continues to write for the current generation. His life and work has inspired many with its "rise to greatness"2 theme with its rural small town beginnings to his now great stature. He is truly a unique author who has in many ways shaped the world with his literature.
Seamus Heaney was born on April 13, 1939 in the town Tamniarn near Castledawson in Northern Ireland. He is the eldest of nine children born to Patrick and Margaret Heaney. His father Patrick was both a farmer and a cattle dealer who was well known by many throughout the area they lived in. His mother Margaret is a descendant of the McCann family and worked at a linen factory. He was raised as a Catholic in the Irish Nationalist tradition. When he was young he played football for St. Malachy's Gaelic Football Club in Castledawson and very much enjoyed the activity. When he was fourteen, his four year old brother was killed in a road accident causing him a lot of grief.
He lived in Tamniarn on the family farm for most of his early life and moved with them in 1953 to Bellaghv. He got his early education at Anahorish Primary school and later used two of his school teachers, Master Murphy and Miss Walls, as features in his poems Death of a Naturalist and Station Island. Continuing with his education he received a scholarship for his academics to St. Columb's College in Derry and greatly excelled in his studies of Gaelic, Latin, Irish, and English. He later wrote the poem The Ministry of Fear to reflect about his education there. While attending St. Columbs, Seamus spent a summer in Donegal which later gave his the ability to translate the poems of Cathal O'Searcaigh who lived in the area.
In 1957 he went to study English Language and Literature at Queen's University of Belfast where he first started to publish his poetry. His first two poems were published in 1959 in the Queens University magazine under the title Reaping in Heat and October Thought. When writing for the magazine he used the pen-name Incertus. He later tells fans in his poem called Incertus that he used this name because he was still unsecure about his writing. In his exact words," I went disguised in it, pronouncing it with a soft
Church- latin c, tagging it under my efforts like a damp fuse."6 In 1961 he graduated from Queen's University with a First Class Honor degree and went to St. Joseph's Teacher's Training College in Belfast for two years. While there he served as a teacher's aide at St. Thomas' Secondary Intermediate School. He very much liked teaching at the school and after finishing his requirements went back and took a full time teaching position.
Teaching at St. Thomas' College gave him many unique opportunities. Being under Michael MacLaverty, a accomplished writer, he was constantly influenced and taught new things. One of the main influences that he had was being exposed to the works of poet Patrick Kavanagh and said that it was "a crucial experience."5 Two other particular poets who moved him were Ted Hughes and Robert Frost who gained his respects through nationalistic poems. Heaney said "From them I learned that my local County Derry childhood experience - which I had considered archaic and irrelevant to the modern world - was to be trusted. They taught me that trust and helped me to articulate it."7
At the same time Heaney began to get his poems more widely published. Tractors, one of these poems, was the first to be published beyond the universities magazine.
He continued to teach at St. Thomas's College, became a lecturer, then in the August of 1965 he married the love of his life Marie Devlin, a teacher from Ardboe, Ireland. His first book of poetry, Eleven Poems, published in 1965, appeared in the Queen's University Festival and in 1966 Faber and Faber published his first publically acclaimed volume, The Death of a Naturalist, which won him the Eric Gregory Award. During the same year his first son, Michael, was born.
A year later, in 1968, Heaney's second son, Christopher was born and with the inspiration of both of his sons, he wrote the poem A Kite for Michael and Christopher. To follow this, two years later his third child, Catherine Ann, was born. In 1969, with the break out of serious disturbances in Northern Ireland and the threat of civil war, Heaney came out with his new work Door into the Dark. With conflicts continuing and Heaney tired of all the fighting he searched for work outside of Ireland. He found a job as a visiting professor for the 1970-71 school year at the University of California in Berkeley. After the school year there he returned to Ireland and taught at Queens University for one year. In 1972 he moved to Glanmore in the Republic of Ireland and made his money as a freelance writer and radio programmer for RTE and BBC. Though he became a freelance writer, he still wrote poetry and even had his third volume, Wintering Out, published.
In the following years he began giving literary speeches throughout Britain, Ireland, and the United States. In 1974 he was elected to the Arts Council in the Republic of Ireland and in 1975 published his fourth volume of poetry, North. In this fourth volume Heaney specifically targeted political and social issues and because of this was subject to harsh criticism. In 1975 he became started work at Carysfort Teacher Training Academy and became head of the English Department until 1981. After Carysfort, he became a visiting professor at Harvard University where he taught one semester out of the year. He was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from both Queen's University and Fordham University and in 1984 was elected to the Boylston Chair of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard.
In 1985 the tragic death of his mother impacted him greatly and inspired him to write The Haw Lantern which dealt with how the loss of his mother affected him. This work won him the Whitbread award and at his reception speech said one of his most memorable lines "You write books of poems because it is a fulfillment, a making; it's a making sense of your life and it gives achievement, but it also gives you a sense of growth." 3 Following the death of his mother soon came the death of his father in 1986 who later was commemorated in Heaney's The Stone Verdict.
Heaney was elected to the position of Professor of Poetry at Oxford University in 1989 for a five year term. The following year he published his play The Cure at Troy which became well commended. For the next few years Heaney continually traveled between America and Ireland until in 1995 he received, what he and many say is the highest award a writer can receive, the Nobel Prize. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature for what they said was "works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past". With so many great works already produced by him, Heaney was moving towards the highpoint of his career and with the publication of Beowulf: A New Translation in 1999. This translation won him his third Whitbread award and even beat J.K.Rowling's Harry Potter as the best seller in the United Kingdom in 2000.
In 2001 Heaney published his eleventh collection of poems called Electric Light and in 2002 published Finders Keepers: Selected Prose 1971-2001. In 2003 he won the Truman Capote Literary Award one of "the world's most coveted prizes for literary criticism" for his book Place and Displacement. Heaney became very ill in 2006 and was forced to stop his literary lectures and travels for 2 years, until in 2007 he finally made a full recovery and published his most recent work The Riverbank Field to commemorate the birth of his first grandchild.
So far over his years as a writer Heaney has published more than fifty works and is continuing on with his writings. He is one of the most decorated authors alive which puts him into an elite group of people. "In the course of his career, Seamus Heaney has always contributed to the promotion of artistic and educational causes, both in Ireland and abroad."5 From his roots in Ireland to his life now in America he has carried his same message of "service"1 throughout. Many have compared him to a character from one of his translation. The character Beowulf, the hero of the Geats, from Beowulf: A New Translation is said to be just like Heaney. "Beowulf fought monsters and saved many people by being a hero"4, just as Heaney who with his works saves many people from literary plainness and is a hero to them.