Heaney is born in April 1939 near Castledawson, County Derry, Northern Ireland, where his family engages in farming and selling cattle. His education includes studies at Queen’s University Belfast, where he also serves as a lecturer in the late 1960s. He makes his debut as a poet then, but continues to divide his time between his own writing and academia. He works at Carysforth College in Dublin, at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and at Oxford University.
Heaney’s poetry is often down-to-earth. For him, poetry is like the earth – something that must be plowed and turned. Often he paints the gray and damp landscape from the British Isles. Peat moss has a special place in his poetry. The poems often are connected with daily experiences, but they also derive motifs from history, all the way back to prehistoric times. Heany’s profound interest in the Celtic and the pre-Christian as well as in Catholic literary tradition has found expression in a number of essays and translations.
Heaney is awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995 for what the Nobel committee describes as “works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.” He is on holiday in Greece with his wife, Marie, when the news breaks. No one, not even journalists or his own children, can locate him until he appears at Dublin Airport two days later, though an Irish television camera traces him to Kalamata. Asked how it feels having his name added to the Irish Nobel pantheon featuring William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, and Samuel Beckett, Heaney responds, “It’s like being a little foothill at the bottom of a mountain range. You hope you just live up to it. It’s extraordinary.” He and Marie are immediately whisked straight from the airport to Áras an Uachtaráin for champagne with President Mary Robinson.