From "Digging" My grandfather cut more turf in a day Than any other man on Toner's bog. Once I carried him milk in a bottle Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up To drink it, then fell to right away Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods Over his shoulder, going down and down For the good turf. Digging. The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge Through living roots awaken in my head. But I've no spade to follow men like them. Between my finger and my thumb The squat pen rests. I'll dig with it.“ ” from "Digging", Death of a Naturalist (1966)
In 1957, Heaney travelled to Belfast to study English Language and Literature at Queen's University Belfast. During his time in Belfast, he found a copy of Ted Hughes's Lupercal, which spurred him to write poetry. "Suddenly, the matter of contemporary poetry was the material of my own life," he said. He graduated in 1961 with a First Class Honours degree. During teacher training at St Joseph's Teacher Training College in Belfast (now merged with St Mary's, University College), Heaney went on a placement to St Thomas' secondary Intermediate School in west Belfast. The headmaster of this school was the writer Michael McLaverty from County Monaghan, who introduced Heaney to the poetry of Patrick Kavanagh. With McLaverty's mentorship, Heaney first started to publish poetry in 1962. Hillan describes how McLaverty was like a foster father to the younger Belfast poet. In the introduction to McLaverty's Collected Works, Heaney summarised the poet's contribution and influence: "His voice was modestly pitched, he never sought the limelight, yet for all that, his place in our literature is secure." Heaney's poem Fosterage, in the sequence Singing School from North (1975), is dedicated to him.
In 1963, Heaney became a lecturer at St Joseph's, and in the spring of 1963, after contributing various articles to local magazines, he came to the attention of Philip Hobsbaum, then an English lecturer at Queen's University. Hobsbaum set up a Belfast Group of local young poets (to mirror the success he had with the London group), and this would bring Heaney into contact with other Belfast poets such as Derek Mahon and Michael Longley. In August 1965, he married Marie Devlin, a school teacher and native of Ardboe, County Tyrone. (Devlin is a writer and, in 1994, published Over Nine Waves, a collection of traditional Irish myths and legends.) Heaney's first book, Eleven Poems, was published in November 1965 for the Queen's University Festival.
In 1966, Faber and Faber published his first major volume, called Death of a Naturalist. This collection was met with much critical acclaim and went on to win several awards, including the Gregory Award for Young Writers and the Geoffrey Faber Prize. Also in 1966, he was appointed as a lecturer in Modern English Literature at Queen's University Belfast, and his first son, Michael, was born. A second son, Christopher, was born in 1968. That same year, with Michael Longley, Heaney took part in a reading tour called Room to Rhyme, which led to much exposure for the poet's work. In 1969, his second major volume, Door into the Dark, was published.
After a spell as guest lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, he returned to Queen's University in 1971. In 1972, Heaney left his lectureship at Belfast, moved to Wicklow in the Republic of Ireland, and began writing on a full-time basis. In the same year, Wintering Out was published. Over the next few years, Heaney began to give readings throughout Ireland, Great Britain and the United States. In 1975, Heaney published his fourth volume, North. A pamphlet of prose poems entitled Stations was published the same year.
He became Head of English at Carysfort College in Dublin in 1976, and the family moved to Sandymount in Dublin. His next volume, Field Work, was published in 1979. Selected Poems 1965-1975 and Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968–1978 were published in 1980. When Aosdána, the national Irish Arts Council, was established in 1981, Heaney was among those elected into its first group (he was subsequently elected a Saoi, one of its five elders and its highest honour, in 1997).
Also in 1981, he left Carysfort to become visiting professor at Harvard University, where he was affiliated with Adams House. He was awarded two honorary doctorates, from Queen's University and from Fordham University in New York City (1982). At the Fordham commencement ceremony in 1982, Heaney delivered the commencement address in a 46-stanza poem entitled "Verses for a Fordham Commencement".
As he was born and educated in Northern Ireland, Heaney felt the need to emphasise that he was Irish and not British. Following the success of the Field Day Theatre Company's production of Brian Friel's Translations, Heaney joined the company's expanded Board of Directors in 1981, when the company's founders Brian Friel and Stephen Rea decided to make the company a permanent group. In autumn 1984, his mother, Margaret, died.
Heaney was Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard University (formerly Visiting Professor) 1985–1997 and the Ralph Waldo Emerson Poet in Residence at Harvard 1998–2006. In 1986, Heaney received a Litt.D. from Bates College. His father, Patrick, died in October the same year. The loss of both parents within two years affected Heaney deeply, and he expressed his grief in poems. In 1988, a collection of his critical essays, The Government of the Tongue, was published.
In 1985 Heaney wrote the poem "From the Republic of Conscience" at the request of Amnesty International Ireland to, in Heaney's words, "celebrate United Nations Day and the work of Amnesty." The poem went on to inspire Amnesty International's highest honor, the Ambassador of Conscience Award
In 1988, Heaney donated his lecture notes to Emory University’s Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Book Library (MARBL) following his famous Ellmann Lecture in Modern Literature.
In 1989, Heaney was elected Professor of Poetry at the University of Oxford, which he held for a five-year term to 1994. The chair does not require residence in Oxford, and throughout this period, he was dividing his time between Ireland and the United States. He also continued to give public readings; so well attended and keenly anticipated were these events that those who queued for tickets with such enthusiasm were sometimes dubbed "Heaneyboppers", suggesting an almost teenybopper fanaticism on the part of his supporters.
In 1990, The Cure at Troy, his play based on Sophocles's Philoctetes, was published to much acclaim. The next year, he published another volume of poetry, Seeing Things (1991). Heaney was named an Honorary Patron of the University Philosophical Society, Trinity College, Dublin, and was elected an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature (1991). In 1993, Heaney guest-edited The Mays Anthology, a collection of new writing from students at the University of Oxford and University of Cambridge.
Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995 for what the Nobel committee described as "works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past." He was on holiday in Greece with his wife when the news broke. No one, not even journalists or his own children, could find him until he appeared at Dublin Airport two days later, though an Irish television camera traced him to Kalamata. Asked how it felt having his name added to the Irish Nobel pantheon featuring William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw and Samuel Beckett, Heaney responded: "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 were immediately whisked straight from the airport to Áras an Uachtaráin for champagne with President Mary Robinson.
Heaney's 1996 collection The Spirit Level won the Whitbread Book of the Year Award; he repeated the success with Beowulf: A New Translation.
Heaney was elected a Member of the Royal Irish Academy in 1996 and was admitted in 1997. In the same year, Heaney was elected Saoi of Aosdána.
In 2000, Heaney was awarded an honorary doctorate and delivered the commencement address at the University of Pennsylvania. In 2002, Heaney was awarded an honorary doctorate from Rhodes University and delivered a public lecture on "The Guttural Muse".
In 2003, the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry was opened at Queen's University Belfast. It houses the Heaney Media Archive, a record of Heaney's entire oeuvre, along with a full catalogue of his radio and television presentations. That same year, Heaney decided to lodge a substantial portion of his literary archive at Emory University as a memorial to the work of William M. Chace, the university's recently retired president. The Emory papers represented the largest repository of Heaney's work (1964–2003), donated to build their large existing archive from Irish writers including Yeats, Paul Muldoon, Ciaran Carson, Michael Longley and other members of the The Belfast Group.
In 2003, when asked if there was any figure in popular culture who aroused interest in poetry and lyrics, Heaney praised rap artist Eminem, saying, "He has created a sense of what is possible. He has sent a voltage around a generation. He has done this not just through his subversive attitude but also his verbal energy." Heaney wrote the poem "Beacons of Bealtaine" to mark the 2004 EU Enlargement. He read the poem at a ceremony for the 25 leaders of the enlarged European Union, arranged by the Irish EU presidency.
In August 2006, Heaney suffered a stroke. Although he recovered and joked, "Blessed are the pacemakers" when fitted with a heart monitor, he cancelled all public engagements for several months. He was in County Donegal at the time of the 75th birthday of Anne Friel, wife of playwright Brian Friel. He read the works of Henning Mankell, Donna Leon and Robert Harris while in hospital and was visited at the time by Bill Clinton.
Heaney's District and Circle won the 2006 T. S. Eliot Prize. In 2008, he became artist of honour in Østermarie, Denmark, and the Seamus Heaney Stræde (street) was named after him. In 2009, Heaney was presented with an Honorary-Life Membership award from the University College Dublin (UCD) Law Society, in recognition of his remarkable role as a literary figure.
Faber and Faber published Dennis O'Driscoll's book Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney in 2008; this has been described as the nearest thing to an autobiography of Heaney. In 2009, Heaney was awarded the David Cohen Prize for Literature. He spoke at the West Belfast Festival 2010 in celebration of his mentor, the poet and novelist Michael MacLaverty, who had helped Heaney to first publish his poetry.
In 2010, Faber published Human Chain, Heaney's twelfth collection. Human Chain was awarded the Forward Poetry Prize for Best Collection, one of the major poetry prizes Heaney had never previously won, despite having been twice shortlisted. The book, published 44 years after the poet's first, was inspired in part by Heaney's stroke in 2006, which left him "babyish" and "on the brink". Poet and Forward judge Ruth Padel described the work as "a collection of painful, honest and delicately weighted poems...a wonderful and humane achievement." Writer Colm Tóibín described Human Chain as "his best single volume for many years, and one that contains some of the best poems he has written... is a book of shades and memories, of things whispered, of journeys into the underworld, of elegies and translations, of echoes and silences." In October 2010, the collection was shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize.
Heaney was named one of "Britain's top 300 intellectuals" by The Observer in 2011, though the newspaper later published a correction acknowledging that "several individuals who would not claim to be British" had been featured, of which Heaney was one. That same year, he contributed translations of Old Irish marginalia for Songs of the Scribe, an album by Traditional Singer in Residence of the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry, Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin.
In December 2011, he donated his personal literary notes to the National Library of Ireland. Even though he admitted he would likely have earned a fortune by auctioning them, Heaney personally packed up the boxes of notes and drafts and, accompanied by his son Michael, delivered them to the National Library.
In June 2012, Heaney accepted the Griffin Trust for Excellence in Poetry's Lifetime Recognition Award and gave a twelve-minute speech in honour of the award.
Heaney was compiling a collection of his work in anticipation of Selected Poems 1988-2013 at the time of his death. The selection includes poems and writings from Seeing Things, The Spirit Level, the translation of Beowulf, Electric Light, District and Circle, and Human Chain (fall 2014).
In February 2014, Emory University premiered Seamus Heaney: The Music of What Happens, the first major exhibition to celebrate the life and work of Seamus Heaney since his death.  The exhibit holds a display of the surface of Heaney’s personal writing desk that he used in the 1980s as well as old photographs and personal correspondence with other writers. Heaney died in August 2013, during the exhibition's curatorial process. Though the exhibit’s original vision to celebrate Heaney’s life and work remains at the forefront, there is a small section commemorating his death and its influence.
Heaney died in the Blackrock Clinic in Dublin on 30 August 2013, aged 74, following a short illness. After a fall outside a restaurant in Dublin, he entered hospital for a medical procedure, but died at 7:30 the following morning before it took place. His funeral was held in Donnybrook, Dublin, on the morning of 2 September 2013, and he was buried in the evening at his home village of Bellaghy, in the same graveyard as his parents, young brother, and other family members. His son Michael revealed at the funeral mass that his father texted his final words, "Noli timere" (Latin: "Do not be afraid"), to his wife, Marie, minutes before he died.
The day after his death, a crowd of 81,553 spectators applauded Heaney for three minutes at an All-Ireland Gaelic football semi-final match on 1 September. His funeral was broadcast live the following day on RTÉ television and radio and was streamed internationally at RTÉ's website. RTÉ Radio 1 Extra transmitted a continuous broadcast, from 8 a.m. to 9:15 p.m. on the day of the funeral, of his Collected Poems album, recorded by Heaney in 2009. His poetry collections sold out rapidly in Irish bookshops immediately following his death.
Many tributes were paid to Heaney. President Michael D. Higgins said:
"...we in Ireland will once again get a sense of the depth and range of the contribution of Seamus Heaney to our contemporary world, but what those of us who have had the privilege of his friendship and presence will miss is the extraordinary depth and warmth of his personality...Generations of Irish people will have been familiar with Seamus' poems. Scholars all over the world will have gained from the depth of the critical essays, and so many rights organisations will want to thank him for all the solidarity he gave to the struggles within the republic of conscience."
President Higgins also appeared live from Áras an Uachtaráin on the Nine O'Clock News in a five-minute segment in which he paid tribute to Seamus Heaney.
Bill Clinton, former President of the United States, said:
"Both his stunning work and his life were a gift to the world. His mind, heart, and his uniquely Irish gift for language made him our finest poet of the rhythms of ordinary lives and a powerful voice for peace...His wonderful work, like that of his fellow Irish Nobel Prize winners Shaw, Yeats, and Beckett, will be a lasting gift for all the world."
José Manuel Barroso, European Commission president, said:
"I am greatly saddened today to learn of the death of Seamus Heaney, one of the great European poets of our lifetime...The strength, beauty and character of his words will endure for generations to come and were rightly recognised with the Nobel Prize for Literature."
Harvard University issued a statement:
"We are fortunate and proud to have counted Seamus Heaney as a revered member of the Harvard family. For us, as for people around the world, he epitomised the poet as a wellspring of humane insight and artful imagination, subtle wisdom and shining grace. We will remember him with deep affection and admiration."
Poet Michael Longley, a close friend of Heaney, said: "I feel like I've lost a brother." Thomas Kinsella said he was shocked, but John Montague said he had known for some time that the poet was not well. Playwright Frank McGuinness called Heaney "the greatest Irishman of my generation: he had no rivals." Colm Tóibín wrote: "In a time of burnings and bombings Heaney used poetry to offer an alternative world." Gerald Dawe said he was "like an older brother who encouraged you to do the best you could do." Theo Dorgan said, "[Heaney's] work will pass into permanence." Everywhere I go there is real shock at this. Seamus was one of us." His publisher, Faber and Faber, noted that "his impact on literary culture is immeasurable." Playwright Tom Stoppard said, "Seamus never had a sour moment, neither in person nor on paper". Andrew Motion, a former UK Poet Laureate and friend of Heaney, called him "a great poet, a wonderful writer about poetry, and a person of truly exceptional grace and intelligence."
Many memorial events were held, including a commemoration at Emory University, Harvard University, Oxford University and the Southbank Centre, London. Leading US poetry organisations also met in New York to commemorate the death.