The 100 best nonfiction books: No 11 – North by Seamus Heaney (1975)

by Heaney_RaineNorth is one of Seamus Heaney’s ‘most passionate collections, acknowledging both his roots and his loyalties’.

Alongside his friend Ted Hughes (No 4 in this series), Seamus Heaney was among the finest late-20th century poets writing in the English language. Heaney’s greatness was cultural as well as lyrical: he saw it as his inescapable duty to attempt a mood of reconciliation among his community. His work, rooted in his native Ireland, always had to navigate the murderous vicissitudes of the Troubles, the civil war that traumatised Northern Ireland for 30 terrible years, from the civil rights march of October 1968 to the Good Friday agreement of April 1998.

To be a writer, especially a famous poet, in this war zone was to confront a challenge that was political, artistic and tribal. Both Heaney’s parents came from Roman Catholic families in Protestant Ulster. Throughout his life, his origins placed him at the lethal crossroads of sectarian conflict and Irish nationalism. That was an unenviable and dangerous location at the best of times, and he learned to become highly attuned to the history and heritage of oppression. He always contrived to move, as he put it, “like a double agent among the big concepts”.

Heaney’s North, published during one of the darkest times in a vicious war, reflects this instinctive ambivalence while being, at the same time, one of his most passionate collections, acknowledging both his roots and his loyalties. Crucially, whatever his deepest feelings, Heaney is never strident. Throughout this volume there’s a steady undertow of irony. For the poet, that is fundamental to Ulster life. When I interviewed him in Dublin for the Observer in 2009, he spoke about the “articulate mockery” deployed by all the combatants in the Troubles. “The irony is so important,” he said. “In the north, northern irony has allowed people to stand at the edge of the rift and shout across to each other.”

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