Former US president Bill Clinton praised Seamus Heaney as “our finest poet of the rhythms of ordinary lives” and a “powerful voice for peace” in a tribute last night.
The farmer’s son, who went on to become a world renowned Nobel laureate, died in hospital in Dublin aged 74.
Mr Clinton and his wife Hillary said they were saddened to learn of the death of their “friend”.
“Both his stunning work and his life were a gift to the world. His mind, heart, and his uniquely Irish gift for language made him our finest poet of the rhythms of ordinary lives and a powerful voice for peace. And he was a good and true friend,” the Clintons said.
“We loved him and we will miss him. More than a brilliant artist, Seamus was, from the first day we met him, a joy to be with and a warm and caring friend – in short, a true son of Northern Ireland.
“His wonderful work, like that of his fellow Irish Nobel Prize winners Shaw, Yeats, and Beckett, will be a lasting gift for all the world.”
Heaney was remembered by friends, contemporaries, admirers and politicians as a humble, warm, funny and open man as tributes flowed in from around the world.
He is survived by his wife, Marie, and children, Christopher, Michael and Catherine Ann.
A funeral mass will take place on Monday at the Church of the Sacred Heart in Donnybrook, south Dublin followed by burial in his birthplace of Bellaghy, Co Londonderry.
The 1995 Nobel prize-winner was born in April 1939, the eldest of nine children, on a small farm called Mossbawn near Bellaghy in Co Londonderry, and his upbringing often played out in the poetry he wrote in later years.
The citation for the award praised Heaney “for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past”.
Among the tributes, actor Adrian Dunbar led a round of applause at the bust of Heaney in the Lyric Theatre in Belfast.
It will be followed with a celebration of Heaney’s life tonight, which will include readings of his work and personal tributes.
Books of condolence are also to be opened at Belfast City Hall on Monday and the Guildhall in Londonderry.
Heaney’s publisher Faber and Faber issued a statement on behalf of the family and went on to describe the poet as a world great and an inspiration for the company.
“We cannot adequately express our profound sorrow at the loss of one of the world’s greatest writers,” a spokeswoman for Faber and Faber said.
“His impact on literary culture is immeasurable. As his publisher we could not have been prouder to publish his poetry over nearly 50 years. He was nothing short of an inspiration to the company, and his friendship over many years is a great loss.”
Heaney was educated at St Columb’s College, Londonderry, a Catholic boarding school, and later at Queen’s University Belfast, before making his home in Dublin, with periods of teaching in Oxford University and in the US, including at Harvard.
Heaney was an honorary fellow at Trinity College Dublin and last year was bestowed with the Seamus Heaney Professorship in Irish Writing at the university, which he described as a great honour.
A year earlier he donated his manuscripts to the National Library of Ireland, a move which caused consternation in some academic circles In Belfast for overlooking his alma mater Queen’s.
In 1994, a year before he was elevated to the ranks of WB Yeats and Samuel Beckett with the Nobel award, Heaney was asked while teaching in Harvard if his poetry suffered as a result of academia.
“For better or worse – I now feel for worse, earlier on I felt for better – I believed that poetry would come as a grace and would force itself through whenever it needed to come,” he said.
Poet Theo Dorgan said yesterday that poetry flowed into Heaney and through him, rather than being created.
Irish President Michael D Higgins said his contribution “to the republics of letters, conscience, and humanity was immense”.
“As tributes flow in from around the world, as people recall the extraordinary occasions of the readings and the lectures, we in Ireland will once again get a sense of the depth and range of the contribution of Seamus Heaney to our contemporary world, but what those of us who have had the privilege of his friendship and presence will miss is the extraordinary depth and warmth of his personality,” he said.
Mr Higgins, himself a published poet, described Heaney as warm, humorous, caring and courteous.
Heaney’s world renowned poetry first came to public attention in the mid-1960s with his first major collection, Death Of A Naturalist, published in 1966.
The first poem, Digging, resonates with many today who studied it at schools on both sides of the Irish border, in much the same way as Tollund Man does in Britain for GCSE students of certain age.
As the Troubles took hold later that decade, his experiences were seen through the darkened mood of his work, such as the 1975 work North.
He addressed the violence and often discussed it in a wider historical context and wrote elegies to friends and acquaintances who were killed.
But he always appeared cautious of being too closely associated with the sectarianism and division.
Heaney was never afraid to hide his Irish identity and most controversially in 1985 when he wrote An Open Letter in a spat with contemporaries Andrew Motion and Blake Morrison who included his work in The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry.
Heaney objected and used the 198-line poem to remove any doubt as to his patriotism: “Be advised My passport’s green/ No glass of ours was ever raised/ To toast The Queen.”
The row sparked the creation of the TS Eliot Prize for a new collection of poetry for anyone from Ireland or Britain, a prize he later won for District and Circle.
Heaney’s colourful objection to the British monarchy was discreetly put to one side in 2011 when he sat at the Queen’s table for a banquet on her state visit to the Irish Republic in 2011, the first such trip for a ruling British monarch.
Earlier this year, the poet waded into the Union Flag furore at Belfast City Hall, questioning the wisdom of changing the protocol to fly the flag on designated days only.
In a candid interview with the Times newspaper, Heaney also dismissed the idea of a united Ireland.
Speaking two months after violence first broke out in early December, Mr Heaney said he thought there was “no hurry on flags” and that Sinn Fein “could have taken it easy” in addressing any issues with emblems.
Heaney called it “dangerous” and added: “There’s never going to be a united Ireland, you know. So why don’t you let them fly the flag?”