NOBEL Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney has been hailed a giant of literature whose work was a "gift to the world", following his death at the age of 74.

Tributes to the Irish writer poured in from across the globe after his family announced yesterday he had passed away in hospital in Dublin after a short illness.

Ireland's Taoiseach Enda Kenny said Heaney has joined the pantheon of Irish literary greats alongside James Joyce, William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw and Samuel Beckett, saying: "It would take Seamus Heaney himself to describe the depth of his loss to us as a nation."

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His friend and fellow poet Douglas Dunn, a former Professor of English at St Andrews University, said Heaney's death had left a void that would never be filled.

Dunn, who first met Heaney when he was a teacher in Belfast in 1970, said: "He was a major force in poetry and for my generation. He was the main man and was head and shoulders above anyone else.

"There was something very much of the earth about him, and he was tremendously generous, especially with young poets, and anyone who came into contact with him. And he enjoyed life. I have never met anyone who could laugh like Seamus."

Professor Tom Devine spoke of his shock at learning of Heaney's death.

He said: "He was undeniably the greatest Irish poet since Yeats and like that master, his work will long outlive him to give enormous pleasure, inspiration and stimulus to future generations across the globe.

"If he were Scots, Seamus Heaney would be regarded as a classic example of the lad o' pairts. The son of a modest farming family, he rose to worldwide fame and became a literary colossus through his remarkable ability to craft words which captured so much of the human spirit, its sadnesses, longings and joys in equal measure."

Prof Devine said Heaney had a "deep love" for the Scottish poetry of Burns, MacDiarmid and Sorley McLean and "often made a point of acknowledging his debt to them".

He added: "As a man, and despite the numerous accolades which came his way, Seamus Heaney remained unassuming, humorous and courteous, a great lover of the craic, especially over a dram or two. He will be sorely missed by Ireland but also by his army of admirers everywhere. May he rest in peace."

Heaney authored a vast body of work and was the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995. He was also awarded a Commandeur de L'Ordre des Arts et Lettres by the French ministry of culture.

Scottish Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop said: "Seamus Heaney was a giant in the world of poetry and literature, recognised internationally for the power of his work."

Robyn Marsack, director of the Scottish Poetry Library, of which Heaney was Honorary President, recalled one of the poet's visits to the Edinburgh International Festival, where he held the audience "spellbound" with a reading from one of his books.

Mr Marsack added: "The whole community of poetry mourns its loss while rejoicing in the poetry that remains."

Former US President Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary said they were saddened to learn of their friend's death: "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."