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Career profile: Seamus Heaney

Quinton O’Reilly chronicles the achievements and career of the critically acclaimed writer and Nobel Prize winner, Seamus Heaney.

AS FAR AS CONTRIBUTIONS to literature are concerned, Ireland has carved out a reputation for itself as having some of the most critically acclaimed writers in the world not to mention four Nobel Prize winners.

One recipient of the Nobel Prize is poet, Seamus Heaney, who has also enjoyed a career as a teacher and lecturer. Before receiving the Law Society’s Honorary Life membership, Heaney spoke to The University Observer about his journey from his humble upbringing to a distinguished literary career.

Born in April 1939 in rural Northern Ireland, Heaney was the eldest of nine children. He described his early upbringing as a “small, secure, rural, Irish Catholic sub-cultural life. When I look back at it now, we lived in a thatched house, there was no central heating, the fire was lit every morning in the stove… I wouldn’t say [it was] middle ages but a touch of the nineteenth century [was there].”

Heaney developed his love for the English language at an early age when he won a scholarship to St Columb’s College, a Catholic boarding school in Derry. There, he studied English, Irish, French and Latin and he refers to his old English teacher as an important influence in shaping his literary career.

In 1957, Heaney went to Belfast to study English Language and Literature at Queen’s University. He stated that he was “susceptible” to most English poetry and recognised that “the deepest thing that came from Queen’s on the English side was the depth of the language,” said Heaney. “The sense of coming right up through from Anglo Saxon into Chaucer and having a vertical sense of the language as a historically evolving [concept].”

After he achieved a first class honours degree in 1961, Heaney then became a lecturer at St Joseph’s Teacher Training College in Belfast. While working there, Heaney was publishing poems in different publications such the Belfast Telegraph and The Irish Times and admits that he was “scrabbling the edges of hope to be a writer” in an effort to forge out a career.

“the appearance of a book half answers those questions [of doubt]. When you cross the line from unpublished to having your name on a book… that verifies something”

In1963, his work caught the attention of Philip Hobsbaum, who was then an English lecturer at Queen’s University. Hobsbaum had set up a young writer’s group earlier in London and at Cambridge University and created a similar group in Belfast. It was here that Heaney first met other Belfast poets such as Michael Longley and Derek Mahon.

Heaney summed up Hobsbaum role as a “talent scout” and spoke of how he would “chose six poems by you this week and six poems by me next week, six poems by somebody else the next week… and they were discussed as if you were in a seminar in an English Department, they were given serious attention and that was important [to our development]”

Heaney published his first book of poetry Eleven Poems in 1965 but it was 1966, when he published his first full volume, Death of a Naturalist that supplied him with critical acclaim and literary awards. Heaney stated that “the appearance of a book half answers those questions [of doubt]. When you cross the line from unpublished to having your name on a book… that verifies something.”

Soon after its success, Heaney realised that his next challenge was to continue to innovate and improve upon his original success and noted the difficulties involved in that alone.

“The first book is like a stepping stone to throw into the stream. So you throw down that stepping stone, you step out but you have to conjure up another one to keep going and each one is required to get further… you have to keep inventing. It’s an excitement and a test at the same time.”

In 1972, Heaney left his job and home in Belfast and moved to Wicklow where he worked as a freelance journalist. The poet views the moment to be one of the most doubtful moments of his career, explaining that “I was there for three years without a job, freelancing and then I went back [to Dublin] into the teaching career for the sake of my family. I often wonder if I shouldn’t have bogged on as a freelancer but I don’t think I could have survived much longer.”

Another aspect of Heaney’s career outside of his writing was his time as a lecturer. Originally working in Queen’s University, he had lectured in other universities such as the University of California, Berkley and Harvard University. He was elected to a five year term as Professor of Poetry at Oxford University in 1989 where he had to give three public lectures each year and described the position as a “rhetorical theatrical moment [where] the audience comes out and you have to deliver.”

His greatest achievement came in 1995 where he was awarded the Noble Prize for Literature which has been recognised as his greatest achievement of his career. Despite the difficulties he faced, Heaney reflects fondly on the achievements of his career in both personal and professional terms and believes that “it went as it had to go more or less.”

“I consider myself very lucky to know people who were idols to me as a young writer but also I’ve been lucky in the friendship of poets in this country…[I’ve been] extremely lucky in the acknowledgement the work had received and was completely beyond [my] imagination.”