"The poet and Nobel Laureate died in hospital in Dublin this morning after a short illness," said a statement on behalf of the Heaney family released by his publishers Faber and Faber.
Heaney was a rarity among poets, having won acclaim from critics while producing best-sellers. It once took him three hours to walk down Dublin's main street as autograph hunters pursued him.
Born on a farm in Mossbawn, County Derry in Northern Ireland in 1939, Heaney's poems nostalgically recall the sights and smells of a country childhood, revelling in the recurring images of Irish potato diggers and peat bog cutters.
He was a tousle-haired figure with a shy and subtle manner, who hated media hype and publishers' publicity caravans even as he became one of Ireland's most famous figures.
His death sparked immediate sorrow among poets and politicians and was the main story on Irish news bulletins north and south of the border.
"Everywhere I travelled in the world, the name of Seamus Heaney just came up in conversation," Ireland's Arts Minister Jimmy Deenihan told national RTE radio. "He is going to be really missed, in so many different ways."