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At 70, Heaney muses on cadences of a poetic life

SEAMUS Heaney's birth as one of Ireland's most successful poets coincided with marriage to Marie, yet both are loath to use the word 'muse'.

"I would not set myself up as a muse and I would hate to use that term about myself or for anyone else to," says Marie Heaney.

Seamus himself says: "Undoubtedly, it's an allowable term. [But] I think I disallow it to myself a bit."

Denounce it though they might, neither can deny that Marie, his wife of 44 years and mother of his three children, has been the inspiration for some of his finest poetry.

"Seamus is very truthful. They're love poems and they're wonderful love poems, but a lot of them are not about what an absolutely wonderful harmonious life we have together. That's not what all of them say, and to have someone express that extremely well after the event, can bring you up short -- not one of them have hurt me or anything, but they have been more truthful than maybe I would have admitted to myself," says Marie, speaking about an RTE documentary celebrating her husband's life and career.

Arguably, Heaney's most famous poem about married life is The Skunk (1979), which tells of his sexual longing for Marie while he is away:

'It all came back to me last night,

Stirred by the sootfall of your things at bedtime,

Your head-down, tail-up hunt in a bottom drawer,

For the black plunge-line nightdress.'

"I loved it", Marie says with a broad smile, "obviously because it's such an erotic, exotic love poem."

Despite being brought up in a Catholic nationalist family in Derry, and living in Belfast through the worst of the Troubles, Heaney, who celebrates his 70th birthday tomorrow, initially wasn't too enamoured about referencing the political realities of the North in his poetry.

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"I didn't think much in the beginning about British or Irish," he says. "Okay, I lived in the North, I had a British scholarship. I carried a British passport at that stage, but didn't think too much one way or another. I carried a British passport to go to Lourdes," he laughs, "so the double identity was something that you lived with."

It became an unavoidable rite of passage for Heaney to write about the struggles in his homeland. However, he refused to reduce it to agenda-driven political "slogans", opting instead for a lyrical approach.

In 1995, Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

"We were in Greece with friends," he says. "We hadn't spoken to the kids for a couple of days. I rang home, the phone was answered and Christopher said, 'Oh Dad, we're so proud.' He said, 'Do you not know?' I said, 'Know what?' He said, 'You've won.'"

Remembering the elation of her husband's homecoming, Marie says: "I have to say one of the biggest moments of my life was looking out the windows and seeing the red carpet with John Bruton, who was the Taoiseach at the time, and our three children standing on it.

"It was lovely. I heard him [Seamus] once define it as being hit by a mostly benign avalanche -- that's about true. It is life-changing, no matter how hard you resist."

Recalling how he felt during the prestigious ceremony in which he was awarded the Nobel Prize, Heaney says: "I did feel very alone and very strange really - an element of why me, and 'my God'."

'Seamus Heaney: Out of the Marvellous' will be screened on Tuesday at 10.10pm on RTE One


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