Seamus Heaney’s death at the early age of 74 has taken away one of our most remarkable citizens.
It is fair to say that Heaney, who came from humble origins in Co Derry and went on to win the Nobel Prize in 1995, was a giant among the world’s greatest contemporary writers.
He was a founder member of Aosdána and was elected a Saoi in 1997, the highest honour that can be bestowed by Irish artists.
As a man he was greatly valued by his colleagues for his intelligence, patience, kindliness, tolerance and good judgement.
The patience was often needed – the demands made on his time as a Nobel Prizewinner were crushing, but he had a strong sense of duty and made himself available to the public far more than he should have done.
In recent years he had been in failing health, following a stroke.
What worried him in the immediate aftermath of that event was that he might not be able to write again – but in fact he produced two of his finest books, ‘District and Circle’ (2006) and ‘Human Chain’ (2010), in response to his illness.
Harvard and Oxford, perhaps the most prestigious universities in the world, chose him to be Professor of Poetry.
Last June, he was awarded the Lifetime Recognition Award from the Griffin Trust For Excellence In Poetry.
Beginning in 1966, with ‘Death of a Naturalist’ – an astonishing debut for a man still in his twenties – he went on to produce 13 books of poetry, four collections of prose, two plays and a huge variety of translations, including a version of the Old English classic ‘Beowulf’, which became a surprising best-seller in 1999.
In 2010 I had the good fortune to be one of the judges who awarded him The Irish Times Poetry Now prize for ‘Human Chain’.
In my speech at the award ceremony I said : ‘Nowhere else could we find so noble a rendering of human nature, so spontaneous a delight in life, so uncompromising a dedication to beauty, and such a gift of seeing beauty in everything. Heaney, the first of our poets, is the best and the most poetical.’
What a poet. What a man. What a loss.