Seamus Heaney: A Rare Poet Who Received Two Exceptional Honors After His Death

On Nov. 29, 2019, family and friends of poet Seamus Heaney and British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) representatives gathered in the Northern Ireland village of Bellaghy for a movie screening. 

The viewing occurred at the Seamus Heaney HomePlace, an art and literary center dedicated to Heaney’s honor. And the film was “Seamus Heaney and the Music of What Happens.”

The 90-minute documentary features Heaney’s friends and family sharing memories of the late poet. And they read some of his poetry, including Marie, Heaney’s wife of 48 years. In one moment, she shares love poems Heaney handwrote for her in a notebook. It was a Christmas present because he’d forgotten to buy her a gift. 

Included in the notebook is Heaney’s poem, “Scaffolding,” which Heaney published in his 1998 collection, Opened Ground: Selected Poems 1966–1996. Today, the poem’s often read at many Irish weddings. 

Its final stanza reads:

Never fear. We may let the scaffolds fall
Confident that we have built our wall.

It’s rare for a film to be about a poet, but Seamus Heaney was a unique poet.

He was born the oldest of nine children in a Catholic family with a long farming tradition near Bellaghy. Heaney, though, wasn’t cut out for agricultural activities. So instead, he went to college, graduating from Queens University in Belfast in 1961.

Five years later, Heaney published his first collection, Death of a Naturalist. The book’s poems portray the pastoral, Irish life of Heaney’s youth and that his ancestors practiced for generations. Readers and critics praised Death of a Naturalist, turning Heaney into a famous poet.

The Troubles, a three-decade-long conflict between factions for and against Northern Ireland staying in the United Kingdom, ignited in the late-1960s. The struggle captured Heaney’s attention. Two collections, 1972’s Wintering Out and 1975’s North, tackle the clash and related contemporary Northern Ireland issues.

Heaney was, by that time, the rare rock star poet. Irish critic Conor Cruise O’Brien called Heaney “the most important Irish poet since (W.B.) Yeats.” It was a comparison Heaney lived up to, as showed by his winning the 1995 Nobel Prize in Literature. 

He was the first Irish person to win since playwright Samuel Beckett received the award in 1969. And Heaney was the fourth Irish person to receive the honor. The first? William Butler Yeats.

Along with writing poetry, Heaney taught at Oxford and Harvard. There, he helped raise a new generation of poets. Alumni from Heaney’s Harvard days include The New Yorker’s poetry editor, Kevin Young, and former U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith. 

Two days after Heaney died in 2013, thousands of fans gathered for the All-Ireland semi-final football match. Before the game, they stood, applauded, and held a moment of silence in Heaney’s honor. 

Stadiums don’t usually clap for poets. And documentarians don’t often make movies about them, either.

But Seamus Heaney received both. The documentary “Seamus Heaney and the Music of What Happens” aired on BBC Two on Nov. 30, 2019. 

Heaney’s brother, Hugh, who now runs the family farm, appears in the film. At one moment in the movie, Hugh says, “I miss Seamus a lot.”

This article originally appeared on Medium.