November 22, 2017

For a biographer, the task at hand is seeing Seamus Heaney’s faxes, while they last


A new biography of Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney is in the works, and its author is scrambling to save a treasure trove of ancient documents that will reveal many secrets. I refer, of course, the man’s faxes, of which there are apparently a lot.

Alison Flood at the Guardian reports that Heaney relied so heavily on faxing that by the end of his career his publisher, Faber and Faber, had a designated fax machine just for communications with him. Even as recently as 2005, Heaney was conducting interviews by fax.

The biographer in question, Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole, knows this project is urgent. “My one terror,” he tells Flood, “is that… faxes fade. So I’m going to have to find out who has faxes from him, and read them quickly.”

For those unfamiliar with communication methods of yore, the coating on traditional thermal fax paper—the kind Heaney would have used in the earlier years of his career—tends to fade and rub off over time, to such an extent that many archives will not accept them. More modern fax machines, where they exist, are compatible with printing paper.

O’Toole plans to utilize the large archive of Heaney’s handwritten letters, interviews with people who knew him, and his poetry itself to create “a portrait of ‘the personal, the political and the poetic.’”

The Heaney family is supportive of the project, although they had not planned on authorizing a biography so soon. Heaney’s son Michael says that O’Toole’s robust proposal and previous work won them over. “We felt he ticked all the boxes… My father’s work can be read by anyone, but when you’re writing about his life, having an awareness of where he came from and where we grew up really does help. So Fintan’s being Irish was a huge factor.”

O’Toole tells Flood the Heaneys “don’t want a hagiography — it would be a bad book. Because he had an extraordinary warmth, and was so loved, it distracts from the fact that the poems are actually quite dark. And that didn’t come from nowhere. He was a psychologically complex person. The challenge of the book will be to do justice to the darkness as well.”

“I’m aware that so many people loved him, that if I screw up the job, they’ll hate me,” You better fucking believe they will, Fintan.

Heaney won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995 for “for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.” His oeuvre spans decades and includes over twenty volumes of poetry, two plays, numerous translations, and many works of criticism.

Heaney may not have let go of faxing as email became the way of the world, but he did embrace other technologies.  His last words, according to his son, were sent as a text message to his wife, the writer Marie Devlin. “Nolle timere,” he told her — Latin for “Do not fear.”



Sarah Healy is an intern at Melville House.