Irish Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney has discussed for the first time the stroke that almost felled him, a secret visit from President Bill Clinton to his Irish hospital and how his love for his wife helped keep him going through the worst moments of his life.

In an article in  the Observer newspaper in Britain to mark his 75th birthday, Heaney describes when the stroke hit in Donegal  in 2006 and his panicked reaction and how the stroke renewed a fresh surge of love for his wife, Marie. 

"Yes, I cried. I cried, and I wanted my Daddy, funnily enough. I did. I felt babyish," he said.

His feelings swung between terror and love in the ambulance ride to the hospital. "The trip in the ambulance I always remember because Marie was in the back with me. I just wrote about it three weeks ago. To me, that was one of the actual beauties of the stroke, that renewal of love in the ambulance. One of the strongest, sweetest memories I have. We went through Glendorn on a very beautiful, long, bumpy ride to Letterkenny hospital."

While convalescing, he realized he had been working too hard.t. "I looked at the calendar after these days in the hospital. I thought, 'My God, you've never stopped, Seamus.' So, for a year afterwards, I just cancelled everything."

Among  the visitors in hospital was former US President Bill Clinton. "Clinton was here for the Ryder Cup. He'd been up with the Taoiseach [Bertie Ahern] and had heard about my 'episode'. The next thing, he put a call to the hospital, and said he was on his way. He strode into the ward like a kind of god. My fellow sufferers, four or five men much more stricken than I was, were amazed. But he shook their hands and introduced himself. It was marvellous, really. He went round all the wards and gave the whole hospital a terrific boost. We had about 25 minutes with him, and talked about Ulysses Grant's memoirs, which he was reading."

Talking about the Troubles in Northern Ireland, Heaney says: 

"These were very dangerous times. When the Provisional IRA began their campaign, people like myself, with a strong sense that things needed to be redressed, were excited."

He says he soon realised the futility of the violence. "There was a sense of an utterly wasteful, cancerous stalemate, and that the violence was unproductive. It was villainous, but you were living with it. Only after it stopped did you realise what you had lived with. Day by day, week by week, we lived through this, and didn't fully take in what was going on."

Heaney says the Good Friday Agreement has created a whole new era.  "You can have Irish identity in the north, and also have your Irish passport. As far as I'm concerned, the language has changed, the times have changed, and we have signed up to an open relationship with Sinn Féin."