Heaney was born on April 13, 1939, the eldest of nine children, to Margaret and Patrick Heaney, at the family farm, Mossbawn, in County Derry. He attended the local school at Anahorish until 1957, when he enrolled at Queen’s College, Belfast and took a first in English there in 1961. The next school year he took a teacher’s certificate in English at St. Joseph’s College in Belfast. In 1963 he took a position as a lecturer in English at the same school.
While at St. Joseph’s he began to write, publishing work in the university magazines under the pseudonym Incertus. During that time, along with Derek Mahon, Michael Longley, and others, he joined a poetry workshop under the guidance of Philip Hobsbaum. In 1965, in connection with the Belfast Festival, he published Eleven Poems. In August of 1965 he married Marie Devlin. The following year he became a lecturer in modern English literature at Queen’s College, Belfast, his first son Michael was born, and Faber and Faber published Death of a Naturalist. This volume earned him the E.C. Gregory Award, the Cholmondeley Award in 1967, the Somerset Maugham Award in 1968, and the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, also in 1968. Christopher, his second son, was born in 1968.
His second volume, Door into the Dark, was published in 1969 and became the Poetry Book Society Choice for the year. In 1970-71 he was a guest lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley. He returned to Northern Ireland in 1971, and in 1972 he resigned his lecturship at Queens College, moved his family to Glanmore, in County Wicklow, and published Wintering Out. In 1973 his daughter, Catherine Ann, was born. During this year he also received the Denis Devlin Award and the Writer in Residence Award from the American Irish Foundation. In 1975 North was published, winning the E.M. Forster Award and the Duff Cooper Memorial Prize. During these years at Glanmore, Heaney also gave many readings in the United States and England and edited two poetry anthologies.
In 1975 Heaney began teaching at Carysfort College in Dublin. In 1976 the family moved to Sandymount, in Dublin, and Heaney became Department Head at Carysfort. In 1979 he published Field Work, and in 1980, Selected Poems and Preoccupations: Selected Prose. In 1981 he gave up his post at Carysfort to become a visiting professor at Harvard. In 1982 he won the Bennett Award, and Queen’s University in Belfast conferred on him an honorary Doctor of Letters degree. He cofounded Field Day Publishing with Brian Friel and others in 1983. Station Island, his first collection in five years, was published in 1984. During that year he was elected the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard, and Open University awarded him an honorary degree. Also in 1984 his mother, Margaret Kathleen, died. The Haw Lantern, published in 1987, contains a brilliant sonnet sequence memorializing her. Heaney’s father, Patrick, died after this, and Heaney’s latest collection, Seeing Things, published in 1991, contains many poems for his father.
Robert Lowell has deemed Heaney “the most important Irish poet since Yeats.” Critics have been largely positive about his verse, and he is undoubtedly the most popular poet writing in English today. His books sell by the tens of thousands, and hundreds of “Heaneyboppers” attend his readings. His earliest influences, Robert Frost and Ted Hughes, can be seen throughout his work, but most especially in his first two volumes, where he recollects images of his childhood at Mossbawn. Other poets, especially Gerard Manley Hopkins, William Wordsworth, Thomas Hardy, and even Dante have played important roles in his development.