Seamus Heaney, the great Irish poet, passes away in Dublin.

September 3, 2013 § Leave a comment

Seamus Heaney, with his wife Marie Devlin, at their home in Dublin.

Seamus Heaney, Ireland’s first Nobel prize-winning poet since W.B. Yeats, died aged 74 in hospital in Dublin after a short illness last week.

Great poets, supposedly, should be mad and bad: tormented, tempestuous and at least a little demented.  Seamus Heaney was none of these things. He exuded sanity, on the page and in person. He was calm, restrained, centred.  And this was not a mere matter of personality. There was more than enough madness and badness around him, in Ireland and in the world. He knew that quiet decency and careful, meticulous words posed a more profound challenge to his times than any wildness ever could. His gift, as an artist and as a public figure, was an immense, unwavering, implacable civility.

Heaney was a mesmerising performer and the initial appeal of his poetry had much to do with an apparent nostalgia for a lost world of rural simplicities. While so much poetry was veering into anarchic free expression or recondite word games, he used largely traditional forms to explore largely traditional subjects: nature, childhood, memory, love.

Of all his poems, ‘Digging’, one of his earliest, remains his best remembered:


Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
Under my window, a clean rasping sound

When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.
The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft

Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.
By God, the old man could handle a spade.

Just like his old man.
My grandfather cut more turf in a day

Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap

Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.


Just minutes before his death on the 30th of August, Ireland’s great poet sent his wife Marie a text message that read “Noli timere” (do not be afraid).

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