Seamus Heaney was born the eldest of nine children at the family farmhouse called Mossbawn, between Castledawson and Toomebridge in Northern Ireland. When he was a young boy his family moved to Bellaghy, a few miles away, which is now the family home.
He was educated initially at Anahorish Primary School nearby where he won a scholarship to St Columb's College, then a Catholic boarding school in Derry. While studying at St Columb's his four-year-old brother Christopher was killed in a road accident, an event that he would later write about in two poems, "Mid-Term Break" and "The Blackbird of Glanmore".
In 1957, Heaney travelled to Belfast to study English Language and Literature at the Queen's University of Belfast. He graduated in 1961 with a First Class Honours degree. During teacher training at St Joseph's Teacher Training College in Belfast, he went on a placement to St Thomas' secondary Intermediate School in west Belfast. The headmaster of this school was the writer Michael MacLaverty from County Monaghan, who introduced Heaney to the poetry of Patrick Kavanagh. It was at this time that he first started to publish poetry, beginning in 1962. In 1963 he became a lecturer at St Joseph's. In the spring of 1963, after contributing various articles to local magazines, he came to the attention of Philip Hobsbaum, then an English lecturer at Queen's University. Hobsbaum was to set up a Belfast Group of local young poets (to mirror the success he had with the London group) and this would bring Heaney into contact with other Belfast poets such as Derek Mahon and Michael Longley.
In August 1965 he married Marie Devlin, a school teacher and native of Ardboe, County Tyrone. (Devlin is a writer herself and, in 1994, published Over Nine Waves, a collection of traditional Irish myths and legends.) Seamus Heaney's first book, Eleven Poems, was published in November 1965 for the Queen's University Festival. In 1966, Faber and Faber published his first major volume, called Death of a Naturalist. This collection met with much critical acclaim and went on to win several awards. Also in 1966, he was appointed as a lecturer in Modern English Literature at Queen's University Belfast and his first son, Michael, was born. A second son, Christopher, was born in 1968. In 1968, with Michael Longley, Heaney took part in a reading tour called Room to Rhyme, which led to much exposure for the poet's work. In 1969, his second major volume, Door into the Dark, was published.
After a spell as guest lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, he returned to Queen's University in 1971. In 1972, Heaney left his lectureship at Belfast and moved to Dublin in the Republic of Ireland, working as a teacher at Carysfort College. In 1972, Wintering Out was published, and over the next few years Heaney began to give readings throughout Ireland, Britain, and the United States. He was appointed to the Arts Council in the Republic of Ireland in 1974. He became an elected Saoi of Aosdána. In 1975, Heaney published his fourth volume, North. He became Head of English at Carysfort College in Dublin in 1976, and moved his family to Dublin the same year. His next volume, Field Work, was published in 1979.
Selected Poems 1965-1975 and Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-1978 were published in 1980. In 1981, he left Carysfort to become visiting professor at Harvard University. He was awarded two honorary doctorates, from Queen's University and from Fordham University in New York City, in 1982. At the Fordham commencement ceremony in 1982, Heaney delivered the commencement address in a 46-stanza poem entitled "Verses for a Fordham Commencement".
As he was born and educated in Northern Ireland, Heaney has felt the need to emphasise that he is Irish and not British. For example, he objected to his inclusion in the 1982 Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry by writing: "Be advised, my passport's green / No glass of ours was ever raised / To toast the Queen."
Following the success of the Field Day Theatre Company's production of Brian Friel's Translations, Heaney joined the company's expanded Board of Directors in 1981, when the company's founders Brian Friel and Stephen Rea decided to make the company a permanent group. In 1984, Heaney was elected to the Boylston Chair of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard. Later that year, his mother, Margaret Kathleen Heaney, died. His father, Patrick, died soon after publication of the 1987 volume, The Haw Lantern. In 1988, a collection of critical essays called The Government of the Tongue was published.
In 1989, he was elected Professor of Poetry at the University of Oxford, which he held for a five-year term to 1994. The chair does not require residence in Oxford, and throughout this period he was dividing his time between Ireland and America. He also continued to give very popular public readings. In 1986, Heaney received a Litt.D. from Bates College. So well attended and keenly anticipated were these events that those who queued for tickets with such enthusiasm have sometimes been dubbed "Heaneyboppers", suggesting an almost pop-music fanaticism on the part of his supporters.
In 1990, The Cure at Troy, a play based on Sophocles' Philoctetes, was published to much acclaim. In 1991, Seeing Things was published. Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995 for what the Nobel committee described as "works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past". In 1996, his collection The Spirit Level was published and won the Whitbread Book of the Year Award. He repeated that success with the release of Beowulf: A New Translation.
In 1998, Heaney officially opened the library of Saint Catherine's College, Armagh.
In 2002, Heaney was awarded an honorary doctorate from Rhodes University and delivered a public lecture on “The Guttural Muse”.
In 2003, the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry was opened at Queens University, Belfast. It houses the Heaney Media Archive, a unique record of Heaney's entire oeuvre, along with a full catalogue of his radio and television presentations. That same year Heaney decided to lodge a substantial portion of his literary archive at Emory University. He also composed a poem called Beacons of Bealtaine for the 2004 EU Enlargement. The poem was read by Heaney at a ceremony for the twenty-five leaders of the enlarged European Union arranged by the Irish EU presidency.
Heaney suffered a stroke from which he recovered in August 2006, but cancelled all public engagements for several months.
In 2008 Heaney became artist of honour in Østermarie, Denmark. Seamus Heaney Stræde was therefore named after him in the center of Bornholm, another green island.
But despite the inherently Irish flavour of his language, Heaney is a universal poet, admired in every country and every other linguistic tradition. His influence on contemporary poetry is immense. Robert Lowell called him "the most important Irish poet since Yeats." A good many others have echoed the sentiment. His books make up two-thirds of the sales of living poets in the UK.
My father worked with a horse-plough,
His shoulders globed like a full-sail strung
Between the shafts and the furrow.
The horses strained at his clicking tongue.
An expert. He would set the wing
And fit the bright steel-pointed sock.
The sod rolled over without breaking.
At the headrig, with a single pluck
Of reins, the sweating team turned round
And back into the land. His eye
Narrowed and angled at the ground,
Mapping the furrow exactly.
I stumbled in his hob-nailed wake,
Fell sometimes on the polished sod;
Sometimes he rode me on his back,
Dipping and rising to his plod.
I wanted to grow up and plough,
To close one eye, stiffen my arm.
All I ever did was follow
In his broad shadow round the farm.
I was a nuisance, tripping, falling,
Yapping always. But today
It is my father who keeps stumbling
Behind me, and will not go away.
2007: Seamus Heaney: Creating Irelands of the Mind by Eugene O’Brien, Liffey Press, Dublin, ISBN 1-904148-02-6 2004: Seamus Heaney Searches for Answers by Eugene O’Brien, Pluto Press: London, ISBN 0 7453 1734 0 2003: Seamus Heaney and the Place of Writing by Eugene O’Brien, University Press of Florida, ISBN 0-8130-2582-6