Seamus Heaney: Treasures of his life that we may have missed

Seamus Heaney’s death at age 74 leaves the world with one less spiritual hero in tangible form and a fresh new voice in the chorus of saints all around us. His voice is rising already in the current celebration of his life on front pages and TV broadcasts around the world. Rather than echo the familiar themes we see in news media, ReadTheSpirit is bringing readers some treasures from Heaney’s work that you may have overlooked.


One of the first in-coming emails about Heaney’s death to reach our ReadTheSpirit offices came from author and international peacemaker Daniel Buttry, who closed his own latest book Blessed Are the Peacemakers by invoking Heaney’s vision. In that passage, Buttry writes:

With all the grand visions and great hopes pushing at our back, our responsibility is to ultimately take that next small step. We must act faithfully, not someday—but today. The Irish poet Seamus Heaney insists that even the grandest achievements in the realm of justice depend on individuals standing on the shore of history and daring to “believe that a further shore is reachable from here.”

Of course, in that same 1990 poem by Heaney, The Cure at Troy, the poet also is blunt about the limits of his own art:
Human beings suffer,
they torture one another,
they get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
can fully right a wrong
inflicted or endured.

However, the legacy of that landmark poem proves that the poet’s pen can produce words that thousands will sing and keep singing for many years. Heaney wrote the poem—which debuted as a theatrical production and later was published in book form—around the time Nelson Mandela was about to be released from prison and South Africa seemed poised for dramatic change.

In writing The Cure at Troy, Heaney used one of the popular tales that, more than 2,000 years ago, was a well-known part of the larger cycle of stories about the Trojan War. In this particular tale, the clever hero Odysseus travels to a remote island to convince a reluctant hero to leave his long isolation and join the battle against Troy. This is no easy task! Odysseus’s arrival on the island resurfaces long-festering anger over past injustices; soon the main characters are playing tricks and telling lies; and there seems to be no chance that any clear moral vision can possibly emerge.

Vice President Joe Biden drew fresh attention to The Cure at Troy by quoting from the same section of the poem that inspired Daniel Buttry. Biden read the lines in bold-face, below, at the memorial service for Sean Collier, the campus police officer killed in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings:

History says don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.
So hope for a great sea-change
on the far side of revenge.
Believe that a further shore
is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles
and cures and healing wells.


Google News lists more than 500 headlines about Heaney’s passing in media around the world. And that doesn’t count the thousands of columns by independent writers and bloggers. So, we chose to hightlight a few that you might overlook:

THE IRISH TIMES: Like all great poets, Seamus Heaney was an alchemist. He turned our disgrace into grace, our petty hatreds into epic generosity, our dull clichés into questioning eloquence, the leaden metal of brutal inevitability into the gold of pure possibility. He lacked the arrogance to tell us who we are—much more importantly, he told us what we are. He reminded us that Ireland is a culture before it is an economy. And in the extraordinary way he bore himself, the dignity and decency and the mellow delight that shone from him, he gave us self-respect.

THE NEW YORK TIMES (Editorial Board): Seamus Heaney was sipping bourbon during a Boston snowstorm 30 years ago, trying to explain his poetry as an escape from a terrible fear of silence that always haunted him. “What is the source of our first suffering?” he asked, quoting the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard. “It lies in the fact that we hesitated to speak.” The poet, who died Friday at the age of 74, mastered that fear magnificently in five decades of lyrical composition that earned him a Nobel Prize.

THE TIMES OF INDIA: Seamus Heaney, Ireland’s foremost poet who won the Nobel literature prize in 1995, has died after a half-century exploring the wild beauty of Ireland and the political torment within the nation’s soul.


The riches we’re referring to here are the materials given to the world by the Nobel Foundation after Heaney was awarded the 1995 Prize in Literature. Click on the image of Heaney’s Nobel diploma, at right, to visit the site and explore its many offerings.

One of the great gems is Heaney’s Nobel acceptance speech, which is available both in full text and in a nearly hour-long audio version on the Nobel site. Here is one passage from that remarkable talk Heaney delivered, trying to sum up his life and times—almost two decades before his own death:

One of the most harrowing moments in the whole history of the harrowing of the heart in Northern Ireland came when a minibus full of workers being driven home one January evening in 1976 was held up by armed and masked men and the occupants of the van ordered at gunpoint to line up at the side of the road. Then one of the masked executioners said to them, “Any Catholics among you, step out here.”

As it happened, this particular group, with one exception, were all Protestants, so the presumption must have been that the masked men were Protestant paramilitaries about to carry out a tit-for-tat sectarian killing of the Catholic as the odd man out, the one who would have been presumed to be in sympathy with the IRA and all its actions. It was a terrible moment for him, caught between dread and witness, but he did make a motion to step forward. Then, the story goes, in that split second of decision, and in the relative cover of the winter evening darkness, he felt the hand of the Protestant worker next to him take his hand and squeeze it in a signal that said no, don’t move, we’ll not betray you, nobody need know what faith or party you belong to.

All in vain, however, for the man stepped out of the line; but instead of finding a gun at his temple, he was thrown backward and away as the gunmen opened fire on those remaining in the line—for these were not Protestant terrorists, but members, presumably, of the Provisional IRA.

It is difficult at times to repress the thought that history is about as instructive as an abattoir; that Tacitus was right and that peace is merely the desolation left behind after the decisive operations of merciless power. I remember, for example, shocking myself with a thought I had about a friend who was imprisoned in the ’70s upon suspicion of having been involved with a political murder: I shocked myself by thinking that even if he were guilty, he might still perhaps be helping the future to be born, breaking the repressive forms and liberating new potential in the only way that worked, that is to say the violent way—which therefore became, by extension, the right way. It was like a moment of exposure to interstellar cold, a reminder of the scary element, both inner and outer, in which human beings must envisage and conduct their lives. But it was only a moment.

The birth of the future we desire is surely in the contraction which that terrified Catholic felt on the roadside when another hand gripped his hand, not in the gunfire that followed, so absolute and so desolate, if also so much a part of the music of what happens.


Since news of his death, the Internet has been awash with video clips of Seamus Heaney lecturing, reading and appearing in various network TV broadcasts. Here are two of the best we’ve found:


Heaney read this poem countless times through the years, so there are many video clips of his readings. But this short video has a moving introduction by the poet very much in line with the founding principles at ReadTheSpirit. Click the video screen to watch. (Note: If a video screen does not appear in your version, try clicking on the top headline to reload this story.)


We also recommend this longer TV report about Heaney’s life, produced two years before his death. In this clip, you’ll hear lines from a number of his poems. He also reads from his poetry about his own parents. That poem contains the powerful line, describing their marriage as “a love that’s proved by steady gazing, not at each other, but in the same direction.”  Again, click the video screen to enjoy this clip:


(Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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  1. Benjamin Pratt says

    Thank you for lifting the morally courageous vision of this spiritual poet.