Heaney's gift: The Irish poet was a voice for peace in dark times

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Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet who won the Nobel Prize for Literature for representing the passions of his beloved yet troubled Emerald Isle, died last week in Dublin at 74. He was considered the greatest Irish poet since William Butler Yeats.

Mr. Heaney is known to many Americans for his celebrated translation of the Anglo-Saxon epic "Beowulf." The saga about a hero's battle with a monster who laid siege to a castle was once standard reading for every middle school student. Mr. Heaney's translation removed the language barriers that once obscured enjoyment of the tale for earlier generations of readers.

Mr. Heaney was born on a farm in Londonderry, Northern Ireland. Although he lived in Ulster during what the Irish refer to as "the Troubles," he refused to put his art at the service of sectarian violence.

He was a proud Irish Catholic, but never partisan. His poems testified to his egalitarian spirit without sacrificing the distinctive voice that came with having grown up the son of a cattle trader in County Derry. He made frequent reference to images that were familiar to those who worked the land.

Educated at Queen's University in Belfast, Mr. Heaney published his first poems in a student publication in 1959. A few years later he published his first poetry anthology "Death of a Naturalist."

As violence between the Catholic minority and the Protestant majority mounted, Mr. Heaney resisted pressure to justify bloodshed by Catholic extremists. Ever sensitive to the complexities of the Irish conflict, Mr. Heaney would sometimes resort to ambiguous language to say what otherwise was hard to say.

In the end, Seamus Heaney will be remembered as a voice for peace in dark times and a lover of the Irish soul in all of its manifestations.

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