As news of Seamus Heaney’s sudden death broke on Friday afternoon, the loss was particularly poignant in academic circles where Heaney’s presence had been felt for decades as his work was passed through the generations by lecturers who were fans of the man himself as well as teachers of his work.
Dr. Frank Sewell, Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing and Irish Literature at the University of Ulster summed up the mood among staff and teachers at the university where the Nobel Laureate had received the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters in 1992. The Derry born poet had also opened the university’s Centre for Irish Cultural Heritages at the University’s Magee campus in 2001
Dr Sewell said: “News of the death of Professor Seamus Heaney has just reached us. Friends and colleagues (in academia and far beyond) are phoning and emailing each other to express their shock, and to say how stunned they are at this news. The loss, which is just now being registered, will be deeply felt.
“Professor Heaney was a great poet on a national and international scale, a writer whose work was of such high quality that it is (and will remain) in the pantheon of Irish and world literature. His poems have appealed to poetry-lovers and even to people who avoid poetry – poems such as ‘Mid-term Break’, ‘Bogland’, ‘The Other Side’, ‘The Tollund Man’, ‘Chekhov on Sakhalin’, ‘Clearances’, etc. have moved readers for decades and have entered deep into their consciousness as well as into the Irish literary tradition.
“His early poem ‘Digging’ is often cited but we should reconsider how much he has dug into us, his readers, into our hearts and minds – pricking consciences, sowing the seeds of thought, imagination, and empathy. Meanwhile, he dug into himself with challenging questions and, sometimes, self-accusations in poems such as ‘Exposure.’
Dr. Sewell said it was a challenge to summarise Heaney, the man, in words. “It’s a measure of the man that it is hard to sum him up,” he said. In career terms, he was a poet, translator, essayist, journalist, broadcaster, educationalist, and more. In human terms, he was a great ambassador for literature in general and for all of Ireland but at the same time a humble and genial person. A great poet has parted from us but his work will remain.”