Five of the best essays on the late, great Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney (Photo: Jon Parker Lee)

Seamus Heaney (Photo: Jon Parker Lee)

There has been no shortage of published work on Seamus Heaney over the last few days. Here are some of the best I’ve read – please feel free to let me know of any other must-read reflections on the life, work and legacy of Seamus Heaney in the comments.


Belinda McKeon (Picture: Hiroki Kobayashi)

Belinda McKeon (Picture: Hiroki Kobayashi)

Belinda McKeon (The Paris Review)

“He was loved. Beloved. Whether he was met with as a name on a page, or as a voice from a podium, or as a cherished friend or fellow artist, Seamus Heaney moved into the lives of those who encountered him—those countless lives—and he made a difference that will matter forevermore. The difference, for many, was poetry itself. The difference is in those lines, the way they come to mind at moments of worry, or of beauty, or of heartache and of sorrow; today they come to mind like prayers learned in childhood, his lines, so many of them, rushing in as breath is caught, as mind reels and whirls.”

Read Belinda McKeon’s personal essay on Seamus Heaney in The Paris Review here


Roy Foster (The Guardian)

“Whereas Yeats’s shadow was seen, by some of his younger contemporaries at least, as blotting out the sun and stunting the growth of the surrounding forest, Heaney’s great presence let in the light.”

Read Roy Foster on Seamus Heaney in the Guardian here


Colm Tóibín (The Guardian)

“In a time of burnings and bombings he used poetry to offer an alternative world; he gave example by his seriousness, his honesty, the tact in his phrasing, the care with language, the thoughtfulness, the scrupulousness.

“He carried his fame lightly, easily. He preferred shadow to light; he preferred the half-said, careful, ambiguous remark to the big statement; he liked the slow smile rather than the easy laugh. He enjoyed company, but I always felt he had one eye on the door, and would be happy when the night was over and he could go home.”

Read Colm Tóibín’s article on Seamus Heaney in the Guardian here


Fintan O’Toole on contradictions, confusion and uncertainty

“What Heaney articulated, above all, was the way in which – in the words of his friend Brian Friel – confusion need not be an ignoble condition. He grew up in a literally divided landscape – ‘the lines of sectarian antagonism and affiliation’, he wrote, ‘followed the boundaries of the land’ — and lived through the hopes and horrors of the Troubles. He was drawn to both Irish and English poetic traditions. He also lived through the death of the ancient rural world into which he was born and the emergence of a globalised modern Ireland. He struggled with contradictions, paradoxes, conflicting impulses. His genius lay in his ability to hover between them, to give each side of a political or emotional equation its full weight and proper due without becoming the prisoner of either.”

Read Fintan O’Toole’s piece on Seamus Heaney in The Irish Times here


Seamus Deane on school-days with Heaney in Derry

Seamus Deane and Seamus Heaney (Picture: Maccana)

Seamus Deane and Seamus Heaney (Picture: Maccana)

Note: Deane’s piece was published in The New Yorker (March 2000), and re-linked by The New Yorker blog this weekend. It’s a phenomenal, luminous essay on growing up in Derry in the 1950s.

“Seamus Heaney and I met at St. Columb’s College, in 1950, when he was eleven years old and I was ten. St. Columb’s College is a diocesan grammar school for boys in the city of Derry (as we called it), or Londonderry (as the official title had it)…

“The school was divided between day boys and boarders. I was a day boy; I came from the city. Boarders came from the city’s hinterland, County Derry and County Donegal. The countryside that the boarders came from seemed to the day boys strange, and indicated a wildness. Beyond the city, all civility ceased. Heaney was a boarder from Bellaghy, which was near Swatragh and Maghera and Magherafelt, on the far side of the mountain range. The names of those places, with their ‘gh’s squatting on wide vowels, seemed designed for the boarders’ accents. Boarders talked so slowly that sometimes you thought a sentence had been spoken when in fact only a place-name had been…

“I remember (with some embarrassment) an issue of the English Department student magazine, Gorgon, in which I published a long, shapeless poem, full of vacuous profundities, based on Allen Tate’s ‘Ode to the Confederate Dead’, and in which Heaney had a short, shapely poem entitled ‘Aran': it was as modest as mine was pretentious, as precise as mine was vague. [Lecturer] Laurence Lerner asked me if I had noticed Heaney’s poem. I had, but I wanted to hear what Lerner had to say about mine. Of course, that was what he had to say about mine, but I was too dumb to realize it then.

The microfiche of the full Seamus Deane New Yorker essay on Seamus Heaney is here


If you’ve read any brilliant and insightful pieces on Seamus Heaney, please let me know in the comments below.

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14 thoughts on “Five of the best essays on the late, great Seamus Heaney

  1. Thank you for this: I’ve reblogged it because it deserves to be shared. Some of these I’ve read and nodded along with as I read, some of them I missed and am grateful to have. I did more than nod when I read your own reaction written on August 30th…

    • Hi Josephine,
      Certainly not – reblog away, it’s great to get these pieces shared to as wide an audience as possible.
      Belinda McKeon’s moved me greatly, and I feel privileged to have read Seamus Deane’s article this morning. Given that I don’t hold a New Yorker subscription (not yet, anyway) and that this was from more than 13 years ago, I can’t think of anything but the passing of Seamus Heaney which would have pointed me in its direction. And that fact brings mixed emotions of its own.
      Thanks for reblogging.
      Shane

  2. I’m living in Miami, FL ; moved here from NYC to care for my ailing father who passed two years ago. Mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and in assisted living at the moment. My wife and I bought a place in town and we now have a lovely daughter by our side.

    Throughout this very harrowing time, when I had to renew my life and walk away from a career in NY, Seamus Heaney’s work has seen me through. He’s been a great companion. I know I sound selfish, but his insight has helped me greatly. I am a writer and actor, but have gone back to my first love, poetry, as a result.

    Bless his memory, his name forever more.

    -chaz mena

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