Irish poet Seamus Heaney has died at 74

Seamus Heaney is shown in 1970. His work explored the wild beauty of Ireland and the political torment within the nation's soul. (Associated Press)

Seamus Heaney was already one of Ireland's best-known poets when the sectarian violence of "The Troubles" swept through Northern Ireland in the 1970s and '80s. An Irish Republican activist spotted him on a train and challenged Heaney to craft some words in support of the IRA fighters then waging a hunger strike in a British prison.

Heaney declined. Instead he wrote dark verses about death drifting across the Irish landscape and a 1979 poem called "The Singer's House" that defended the right of art to exist for its own sake, even in times of war.

"When I came here first you were always singing," Heaney wrote, in response to a friend's decision to cancel a music recording session after a Belfast bombing. "Raise it again, man. We still believe what we hear." In an interview two decades later, Heaney would say that "The Singer's House" was about "the poet's and the poem's right to a tune in spite of the tunelessness of the world around them."

Heaney, the winner of the 1995 Nobel Prize for literature, was widely recognized as the greatest Irish poet since William Butler Yeats. He died Friday at 74 in a Dublin hospital after a short illness, the publishing house Faber and Faber said.

In a career that spanned six decades, Heaney published 13 poetry anthologies, two stage plays, essays, criticism, translations and many other works. Born in Northern Ireland to a Catholic family, he lived most of his life in Ireland. He earned fame for his lush and lyrical descriptions of bogs and other seemingly ordinary features of the Irish landscape, often drawing heavily from his own upbringing.

The Nobel committee cited Heaney's "works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past."

Heaney was also unafraid to respond to his country's turbulent history and its conflicts with Britain. In 1982, when a publisher included him in an anthology of British poets — he had, after all, been born on British soil — Heaney famously objected with a poem: "Be advised, my passport's green / No glass of ours was ever raised / To toast the Queen."

Irish President Michael D. Higgins, himself a poet, said Heaney was beloved to "generations" of Irish readers and that his "contribution to the republics of letters, conscience and humanity was immense."

After his Nobel triumph, Heaney met and dined with presidents and prime ministers. But colleagues and students remembered him as a personable, charming man, who greeted his many acquaintances with a look of recognition and a cheerful call of "Oh, it's you!"

Heaney was born in County Derry, Northern Ireland, on April 13, 1939, the eldest of nine children of working-class parents. Neither his mother nor his father was an avid reader.

"My father was a creature of the archaic world, really. He would have been entirely at home in a Gaelic hill-fort," Heaney told the Paris Review in 1997. It was at his schoolteacher aunt's house that he first encountered enough books to make a "library."

"She had a complete set of Hardy's novels, for example, and an early three-volume edition of Yeats' works — plays, stories and poems," Heaney said. Later, Heaney traveled to Queen's University in Belfast, where he earned an English degree. He also taught there as a lecturer. He married Marie Devlin, a schoolteacher, in 1965 and published his first poems in Northern Ireland that same year.

Besides his wife, Heaney is survived by his children, Christopher, Michael and Catherine Ann.

Heaney's rural upbringing colored many of his early poems. The first poem in his first major collection, the 1966 "Death of a Naturalist," was called "Digging." It describes his father digging for potatoes, just as his grandfather cut peat.

By God, the old man could handle a spade
Just like his old man.

But the poem's final lines take the digging metaphor and subvert it to describe Heaney's new vocation.

Between my finger and thumb
The squat pen rests.
I'll dig with it.

By the 1970s, Heaney was reading and teaching — and being published — on both sides of the Atlantic. He taught at Harvard and Oxford. Carol Muske-Dukes, later California's poet laureate, saw him read at the New School in New York in 1979.

To Muske-Dukes, Heaney looked like Yeats reincarnated. "He had a quality about him that was of the ages," she said. Of his poetry, she added: "The music came from his ability to find the magical quality in ordinary things."

In 1979, editor Patricia Strachan brought Heaney's anthology "Field Work" to the New York publishing house Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Heaney soon became friendly with the publisher's other poets, Joseph Brodsky and Derek Walcott, Strachan said — all three men went on to win the Nobel Prize.

"There was always lots of laughter in their company," Strachan told the Los Angeles Times. Strachan left Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1988, "but the Christmas cards still came from his and Marie's home to ours every year thereafter. He never forgot his friends."

In 1995, Heaney became the fourth Irish writer to win the Nobel, after Yeats, Samuel Beckett and George Bernard Shaw. In his Stockholm acceptance speech, he took his audience back to his family home in County Derry in the 1940s.

"It was an intimate, physical, creaturely existence in which the night sounds of the horse in the stable beyond one bedroom wall mingled with the sounds of adult conversation from the kitchen beyond the other," Heaney said. "We took in everything that was going on … rain in the trees, mice on the ceiling, a steam train rumbling along the railway line one field back from the house...."

Heaney continued to write prolifically. "His Irish farmhouse beginnings have been the launch point and beacon for a poetry that has gone immeasurably beyond them," Richard Eder wrote in a 1996 review for The Times of the poetry collection "The Spirit Level."

When Muske-Dukes and several other poets were invited to the White House in 1998, she learned just how influential Heaney had become. President Clinton asked his poet guests if they had read Heaney's translation of Sophocles' "The Cure at Troy."

"Before we could answer, he quoted the lines that refer to 'hope' and said he kept those lines framed 'upstairs,'" presumably in the Oval Office, Muske-Dukes said.

But then, once in a lifetime
the longed for tidal wave
of justice can rise up
and hope and history rhyme.

The president told the poets that his reading of the Heaney translation had prompted him to visit the poet in Ireland, to "ask his advice," before traveling to the Middle East and dealing with "the troubles" there.

Heaney's later work included a popular verse translation of "Beowulf" in 2001.

His work was restricted after he suffered a stroke in 2006. But just last March, he could be found at the Oxford Literary Festival, speaking and reading at the Sheldonian Theatre.

The poet appeared frail and faltered as he read but seemed reinvigorated when he fell into the cadence of his poems, audience members said.

The last poem he read was "Postscript," from the collection "The Spirit Level."

You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.

hector.tobar@latimes.com

Times staff writer Henry Chu contributed to this report from London.