Irish Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney, author of ‘Digging,’ ‘Mid-term Break,’ dies at 74

Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet and Nobel laureate, died Friday in a hospital in Dublin at the age of 74 after a long and prolific career:

The Northern Ireland-born Heaney was widely considered Ireland’s greatest poet since William Butler Yeats. He wrote 13 collections of poetry, two plays, four prose works on the process of poetry, and many other works.

Heaney was the third Irishman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, joining Yeats and Samuel Beckett.

The eldest of nine children, Heaney went to Catholic boarding school in Northern Ireland’s second-largest city, Londonderry, a bitterly divided community that soon became the crucible of “the troubles,” the quaint local euphemism for a four-decade conflict over the British territory that has claimed more than 3,700 lives.

Life in 1950s Londonderry — where Catholics outnumbered Protestants two to one but were gerrymandered from power — provided Heaney his first real taste of injustice and ambiguity Irish-style.

His early work was rooted in vivid description of rural experience, but gradually he wedded this to the frictions, deceptions and contradictions rife in his conflicted homeland. . . .

“Whatever You Say Say Nothing,” [one of Heaney’s poems,] became a Northern Ireland catch phrase for the art of avoiding identifying one’s religion to probing strangers. Like much of his work, it suggested a sick society seemingly addicted to its troubles:

“Smoke-signals are loud-mouthed compared with us:

Maneuverings to find out name and school,

Subtle discrimination by addresses

With hardly an exception to the rule ...

Is there a life before death? That’s chalked up

In Ballymurphy. Competence with pain,

Coherent miseries, a bite and sup,

We hug our little destiny again.”

Associated Press

Along with “Whatever You Say Say Nothing,” other well-known poems of Heaney’s include “Digging” and “Mid-term Break.” He never fully recovered his vitality after a stroke in 2006, but he continued writing with undiminished confidence and poise. His final collection of poems, “Human Chain,” was published in 2010. Troy Jollimore wrote that the poems in the book “are pervaded by an awareness of mortality, of encroaching darkness.” Yet the poems also looked forward to what might be described as a new beginning, as in this scene in which an old man brings a gift to an infant:

So now, as a thank-offering for one

Whose long wait on the shaded bank has ended,

I arrive with my bunch of stalks and silvered heads

Like tapers that won’t dim

As her earthlight breaks and we gather round

Talking baby talk.

Seamus Heaney

See images from the poet’s life in the gallery below:

Max Ehrenfreund writes for Wonkblog and compiles Wonkbook, a daily policy newsletter. You can subscribe here. Before joining The Washington Post, Ehrenfreund wrote for the Washington Monthly and The Sacramento Bee.

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