When Seamus Heaney published Death of a Naturalist in 1966 we all knew that a new voice had come on the Irish literary scene.
This was the most distinctive talent to emerge since Kavanagh. The book was published by Faber and Faber, the home of Eliot, Auden, Hughes, Larkin, and MacNeice. And Heaney, like Eliot, would go on to win the Nobel Prize.
He had been inspired by Kavanagh whom he read as a boarder at St Columb’s College. It was there that he read the Great Hunger and recognised the excitement of its “spoken force”.
He was a natural, a naturalist, and a nationalist. One of the first poems he ever wrote was about Loyalist emblems cut into the stone pier at Carrickfergus, the home of MacNeice.
Looking back he would say that he got stuck in straight away to the sectarian nature of the then undemocratic Northern state. The B-Specials were on the roads at night, the anti-Catholic speeches were being spouted with all the venom of The Citizen at Twelfth rallies, and the whole place was a gerrymandered police state.
He was a political poet. Like the ancient Greeks, Heaney’s work was always linked with democracy, and the choices we have to make in life. It was never just lyrical entertainment.
He was “a battered down spirit that wanted to walk taller”.
Sectarianism had its lighter side. There was the old joke about the headline in the Irish News: “Catholic dog wins Protestant race”.
Up until then all the writers from the North were Protestant. Heaney changed it all. The lad from Toomebridge went on to win all the races.