Known for his lectures on poetry and criticism, his translations (including a famous one of Beowulf), a couple of plays, and above all for an immense outpouring of verse, Seamus Heaney won countless prizes, including the 1995 Nobel Prize in Literature; it is said that his collections make up two-thirds of all works by living poets in Ireland and the U.K.
Heaney wrote on many subjects — history and legend, family, other poets, Ireland itself — but much of his work was grounded in farm and rural life. He wrote about hay bales, a cow in calf, landscapes, barns, and trees. And he wrote about food, not so much the cooked variety (though there were exceptions) but the raw materials, the sustaining treasures of his country's rich soil and generous waters.
One of his most often reproduced works is "Blackberry-Picking," which reads as a sensuous paean to the start of summer ("You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet / Like thickened wine…"). He wrote about "The Turnip Snedder" (a snedder is an ancient farm tool for turning turnips into fodder); about damson-plum jam ("Jam ladled thick and steaming down the sunlight"); and, of course, he wrote about potatoes ("Good smells exude from crumbled earth. / The rough bark of humus erupts / knots of potatoes (a clean birth)" — from "At a Potato Digging"). He wrote about oysters, in the poem of the same name ("The frond-lipped, brine-stung / Glut of privilege").
And he wrote about eels. Heaney was born in what is now Northern Ireland, between Castledawson and Toomebridge in County Derry. Toomebridge is the site of the largest eel fishery in Europe, the place where every year flotillas of tiny elvers, who have swum across the Atlantic from the Sargasso Sea up the River Bann and then fattened in Lough Neagh, are caught, to be sold, mostly to Germany and Holland. In "Eelworks," Heaney writes of using a rod made from a "freckled elderberry shoot" to pull in "a young eel, greasy gray / and rightly wriggle-spined." In "Up the Shore," in contrast, he describes the professional eelers: "From time to time they break the eels' journey / And lift five hundred stone in one go."
Heaney died today in Dublin at the age of 74.