To write a book about someone you knew, however slightly, is a journey of discovery—perhaps most of all for a historian. I read Seamus Heaney’s work from the early days, and was dazzled by the sharpness and quiddity of the first books; transfixed by the savage panache of North, in 1975; totally absorbed by Station Island, in 1984; and powerfully moved by the late books, where the lines are distilled to an ethereal thinness that never becomes vaporous, and the spirit world of memory pervades everything. By then I knew Heaney as a man of tremendous wit, insight, and empathy, and felt his loss in 2013 bitterly.
But reading his work against early unpublished drafts, looking at his correspondence, and reflecting on the historical upheavals he lived through in Ireland (both in the North and the South, if expressed in different ways), I began to understand more of the pressures which he resisted. These took the form first of tribe and place, and later (especially post-Nobel Prize) of fame and celebrity. I was struck by the way he channelled the raw anger of first-draft poems about Irish antagonisms into a more effective and universal form, and how brilliantly he refined a thought into a phrase that combined clarity and mystery.