In the fouled water, with fork and four-pronged grape
Pitching out sheaves like half-gone carcasses.
They spread it dripping, then, flat on the grass
To crisp and dry hard in the summer sun
Until it could be stooked up, stiff as broom
And whistling in the wind. Toughened to sticks,
The stems were milled, spun, woven into fabrics.
The dam was cleared, poured down into the river
Its poisonous bellyful. “Lint water”
It was called. Across the stream it swirled brown froth
That scummed clean stone and sickened fish to death;
And if the drains were blocked, it still seeped down,
Filtering unseen contamination.
Putrid currents floated trout to the loch,
Their bellies white as linen tablecloths.
This poem was first published in The Times Literary Supplement on August 5th, 1965. Despite being a strong contender for inclusion in his first collection, Heaney seems to have opted instead for a very similar poem, ‘Death of a Naturalist’ after which his first collection is named. The language of the poem, while on the surface appearing to be very matter-of-fact and factual, is loaded with allegorical undertones. Words used to describe the flax dam, ‘rotten eggs’, ‘stink’, ‘decaying’, ‘poisonous’, ‘unseen contamination’, and ‘putrid currents’, are really intended to describe the dysfunctional nature of politics in the North of Ireland. Heaney goes into much more detail here in this poem and the rotting flax is weighed down with ‘stones and sods’ which stands for the violence and coercion he has experienced as a young boy and man.
This poem, therefore, is not as innocent as it seems at first reading. However, it does show early signs of an author who has found a way to illustrate the myriad tensions of his native province before the inevitable meltdown in the late 60s occurred. Unlike other ‘innocent’ poems from his early collections, there is a harsher more jarring approach here in this poem and yet, like much of his earlier poetry, the poem truly reflects his upbringing in Mossbawn and Annahorish. His use of allusion and his reference to the dying rural crafts such as that of the flax farmer, the farrier, the diviner, the ploughman, and his respect for those who worked in the bog is to the fore here also. So, we can see here the germ of an approach that would allow Heaney, in collections such as North and Wintering Out, to explain his unique predicament to an often oblivious and naive world audience.
This week the Government announced that schools would remain closed until February 1st, and that Leaving Cert students would be able to attend school for three days a week, beginning on Monday January 11th. That Government decision remained in force for all of twenty-four hours! Because of this continuous disruption and uncertainty, no doubt caused by the Covid-19 upsurge in the community, but not helped by Government indecision, I have brought together here in one post links to a series of relevant notes which you may consider useful in your English course studies for 2021. These notes are not exhaustive but focus mainly on Single Text, Comparative and Poetry Sections.
Caveat Emptor! Leaving Cert Student Beware !! These are resources which you should use wisely. They are personal responses to the various texts and you should read and consider them if you find them useful.
IN OTHER WORDS, MAKE YOUR OWN OF THEM, ADD TO THEM OR DELETE FROM THEM AS YOU SEE FIT. ALSO, YOU MIGHT SPREAD THE WORD, DON’T KEEP THEM ALL TO YOURSELF!
THE SINGLE TEXT AND A SELECTION OF TEXTS PRESCRIBED FOR THE COMPARATIVE STUDY 2021
A FEW OBSERVATIONS ON THE COMPARATIVE STUDY QUESTION IN 2021
MODES OF COMPARISON For each Leaving Certificate course, three modes of comparison will be prescribed. This means that the texts chosen for comparative study must be studied under these particular modes (headings).
This year the modes of comparison at Higher Level and Ordinary Level are as follows:
Theme or Issue
General Vision and Viewpoint
This year there will be two questions on EACH of these modes of comparison. In reality this means that because of the time constraints and limited time given to you to study the syllabus properly you only need to focus on ONE mode of comparison.
FYI the following adjustments have been made to the Comparative Section in the Leaving Cert English Syllabus for 2021: next June the Comparative Section will include questions on all three modes prescribed for examination in 2021 – namely, Theme or Issue, Cultural Context, and General Vision and Viewpoint.
Candidates will be required to answer on one mode only. This will allow you to concentrate your efforts because in effect, if you wish, you can simply concentrate on one mode of comparison only and you can be guaranteed that there will be a choice of two questions for you to answer on that chosen mode of comparison. Remember, the standard required won’t alter but you are being given greater choice this year in your Comparative Study.
The internal question choice within modes will remain the same. Single questions (marked out of 70) will require candidates to refer to AT LEAST TWO texts in their response. The same criteria for assessment will apply to candidates irrespective of whether they refer to two texts or to three texts when responding to 70 mark questions. Two-part questions (marked out of 30 and 40) will require candidates to refer to ONE text in answer to part (a) and to TWO other texts in answer to part (b).
Theme or Issue
This involves comparing texts on a prescribed theme(s). These would have to be themes that were pervasive and central to the texts chosen for study e.g.
Isolation and Loneliness Relationships Family Childhood Fantasy and reality
These themes/issues will be the messages or concerns that the writer or film director wishes to impart to the audience. In most texts, there will be a number of themes/issues worth considering
Your task, therefore, in this section is to compare and contrast the same theme as it is treated by different authors or film directors.
Compare the texts focusing on social rituals, values and attitudes. This is not to be seen as a sociological study of the texts alone. It means taking some perspectives, which enable the students to understand the kind of values and structures with which people contend. It amounts to entering into the world of the text and getting some insight and feel for the cultural texture of the world created. This would imply considering such aspects as the rituals of life and the routines of living, the structures of society, familial, social, economic, religious and political: the respective roles of men and women in society, the position of children, the role and nature of work, the sources and structures of power and the significance of race and class.
Vision and Viewpoint
The term, general vision and viewpoint, may be understood by candidates to mean the broad outlook of the authors of the texts (or of the texts themselves) as interpreted and understood by the reader – excerpt from Marking Scheme, 2003
When approaching this mode of comparison it is important to examine each text to discover what particular vision or view of life is presented by the novelist, playwright or film director. We need to find the overall view of the writer as it is reflected through the themes and issues raised in the text. We will probably realise that we as readers or as an audience have been given a privileged position by the author and that we often know more than the characters in the novel or the actors on the stage or film set. We are, after all, entitled to our own viewpoint also! Commonly, we are expected to judge whether the text is positive or negative, optimistic or pessimistic, realistic or dystopian, etc., etc.
When you answer a question in the Comparative Section remember that you have to be selective in emphasising the most meaningful similarities and differences between texts. The more similar they appear to be, the more provocative and challenging it is to contrast them and to draw out differences between them. Remember also that when you draw out surprising or disputable similarities or differences, you require detailed support from the texts.
In a Comparative answer, it is vitally important to compare and contrast these different ways of looking at life, or to examine if there is coherence or a lack of coherence between all these differing viewpoints.
THE POETRY SECTION IN 2021
I include links to SIX of the eight poets on your course here – simply click on the link. Again, in this area, the Department and the Examinations Commission have made very generous adjustments to the Syllabus for 2021. So, this year, ONE additional poetry question will be included i.e. candidates will be required to answer one of five questions instead of the usual four. In reality, therefore, instead of having to have at least FIVE poets prepared for examination, you now will need to have at least FOUR poets studied at Higher Level this year. (Two extra poems will also be included in the Ordinary Level paper).
‘Bogland’ is the final poem in Seamus Heaney’s second collection Door into the Dark (1969). The poem fittingly brings to a head his emerging, extended exploration of his rural upbringing and all the dying rural crafts associated with it. It also signals to us that his interest in the Irish landscape is being brought into sharper focus. The placing of the poem as his final offering in this, his second collection, is no coincidence and we must always be aware that the placing of poems by Heaney in his collections is never accidental. The poem is a deepening and focusing of his early poetic efforts and it is seen as one of his most important early poems. In it, the poet finally plucks up the courage to speak for Ireland and in its nine sentences the poem sets out new possibilities and directions for his future writing.
‘Bogland’ turns on a comparison between the American prairies and Irish bogs. In America, the eye has an unlimited vista, its history immortalises those young men who went West to conquer the wild frontiers and in recent history, those intrepid explorers have continued to explore space as The Final Frontier! However, in Ireland, the eye is drawn to features of the landscape which continually encroach on our view – here we live in a saucer island with mountains on the rim and ‘bottomless’ bog in the centre! In America, as the poet sees it, the early pioneers (many of them Irish) moved West across vast empty spaces – save for the occasional presence of Native Americans, Sioux, Apache, Commanche, Arapaho and members of the Cherokee nation who were then being given salutary lessons in oppression and dispossession. In Ireland, however, Heaney suggests that our pioneers (poets) explore downwards, cutting through the layers of bog, ‘going down and down for the good turf’ (‘Digging’). Therefore, from early on in his career (1969) he clearly identifies with the bog and by implication, he identifies himself as a Bogman and in this poem he finds his voice to speak on behalf of all Bogmen.
The word ‘pioneer’ has many connotations but here it suggests adventure and discovery – he seems to be suggesting that our pioneers are poets and that poetry is an adventure. He also seems to be suggesting that the complex work of exploring our past and our complicated national identity is yet another such hazardous adventure.
The issue of Irishness or of not being ‘Irish’ enough has long bedevilled Heaney’s legacy – without great justification, in my opinion. Heaney deals with the issue in these early collections and in Door into the Dark there are two outstanding examples: ‘Requiem for the Croppies’ and ‘Bogland’. In reality, of course, he cannot win this argument and his position has been misunderstood by many. It is the equivalent of our answer to the question, ‘When did you stop beating your wife?’ In my reading, his poetry constantly explores the divisions tearing the Ulster of his youth apart. His position has often met with criticism from all sides regarding his treatment of contemporary Ulster history. Some critics say he has too much politics in his poetry, while others say he should stand up for his people and take sides. He has been accused of obscuring the horrors of sectarian killings; of endorsing a ‘tribal’ position, or of not endorsing it enough; he has also been accused of evading the issues and being non-committal in his writing. For many critics, like Elmer Andrews, Heaney doesn’t go far enough: ‘Heaney’s art is fundamentally an art of consciously and carefully cultivated non-engagement’. However, surely in ‘Requiem for the Croppies’ (1966) and ‘Bogland’ (1969), he clearly steps up to the plate and is unashamedly ‘tribal’.
In these poems, Heaney steps off the fence and he takes sides. For him, Bogland is synonymous with Ireland – just as many of the surrounding countries are also named, such as Iceland, England, Greenland, etc. Indeed, other countries can have their uplands, and Lowlands and Highlands so why can’t we have our Boglands? Because of his upbringing in rural Ulster, he is only too aware of the pejorative terms used to describe Irishmen such as ‘bogger’ or ‘bogman’. That is why in this poem he embraces the bog and all its cultural nuances and he is proud to be associated with the bog and all that it represents for him. He is aware that in Ireland’s recent colonial past the Irish were for centuries oppressed and confined to the bogs and uplands. These boglands and uplands were also, therefore, the centres of resistance and traditionally the bogs were used as hiding places for weapons and bodies and where the Irish rebels, the Croppies, the pikemen of ’98, looked out like the snipe, the grouse and the pheasant, all the hunted, the marginalised, and all were fair game.
So here in Door into the Dark, Heaney is going deeper than he has already; in hurling parlance, he is ‘lowering the blade’. He uses the first line from the poem ‘The Forge’ as the title for the overall collection of poems. This sonnet celebrates the simple, everyday hard work of the local blacksmith, Barney Devlin, who daily undertakes the strenuous task of turning the rough metals into fine works of art and everyday utensils for the local farming community. Barney’s ‘anvil’ is turned into an ‘altar’ which is set ‘somewhere in the centre’, ‘horned as a unicorn’. Here Heaney touches upon God’s work, the artist’s work and a blacksmith’s work and weaves them together as in a garland. The sonnet is an analogy for the creative, poetic impulses which are gestating beneath the surface in Heaney’s subconscious.
One of Heaney’s famous poems in this second anthology is ‘Requiem for the Croppies’ which deals directly with an historical event of war and violence. The terrible battle of ‘Vinegar Hill’ (1798), fought between Irish rebels and the English colonial rulers is the subject of the poem. One major achievement of the poem is that it craftily conjoins the centuries of Irish violence and political struggle and achieves an organic, indeed germinal resolution: ‘And in August the barley grew up out of the grave’. Heaney himself gives an elaborate account of the composition of the poem, its historical and political relevance:
“[It] was written in 1966 when most poets in Ireland were straining to celebrate the anniversary of the 1916 Rising …… The poem was born of and ended with an image of resurrection based on the fact that sometime after the rebels were buried in common graves, these graves began to sprout with young barley, growing up with the barleycorn that the ‘ croppies’ had carried in their pockets to eat while on the march. The oblique implication was that the seeds of violent resistance sowed in the year of Liberty had flowered in what Yeats called ‘the right rose tree’ of 1916. I did not realize at the time that the original heraldic murderous encounter between protestant yeomen and Catholic rebel was to be initiated again in the summer of 1969, in Belfast, two months after the book was published” (Preoccupations, 56).
The poem’s patriotic fervour and humanitarian zeal are noticeable. The first person narrator is a rebel who has been killed and who hails their uprising as resurrection. The rebels may be killed, but the struggle for justice and liberty would continue. Although on many occasions he is accused of remaining passive and detached from the cause of Irish independence, this poem is a fitting reply to this unjust criticism of Heaney.
In ‘Bogland’ Heaney reverses his approach and method of presentation. He gives up monologue and refuses to refer to any particular historical-political event. Instead, he takes recourse to symbol, metaphor, allegory and myth. ‘Bogland’ stands as a metaphor for Ireland. The poet speaks of a voyage ‘inwards’, and ‘downwards’. This journey throws up many possibilities. The foremost, of course, is the journey back to the primordial Irish past, its folk history and myth. The psychic residue or the racial memory of a great people is excavated through the inward journey of the poet. This inward journey may also suggest a spiritual exploration of a plundered nation. It is noteworthy that the poet uses the plural term for the great journey ‘inwards’ and ‘downwards’. Through the extended allegory of ‘bogland’, the poet simultaneously lays bare the greatness and beauty as well as the suffering and agony of his motherland.
It is obvious that the poet has reflected deeply on the notion of bogs and he uses memorable images such as the Great Elk and bog’s ‘black butter’ to capture (or recapture) his own childish sense of wonder. This is akin to the elation the poet feels when he excavates a poem from the bog of memory. The bog is generous in that it preserves and returns the past to us, in the form of ordinary, domestic gifts:
Butter sunk under
More than a hundred years
Was recovered salty and white.
The bog with its watery element is soft and accommodating:
The ground itself is kind, black butter
Melting and opening underfoot.
‘Bogland’ is, therefore, a seminal poem in which Heaney opens himself up to new possibilities, and he delves deeper into the bog of autobiography and history. The bog contains the history of the island:
Every layer they strip
Seems camped on before.
Therefore, in this way, the bog acts as the memory of the Irish race. To dig the bog, by ‘striking inwards and downwards’, is to search into the bottomless centre of Irish history. Although not stated explicitly here (as he does in ‘Digging’, for example), it is clear that the action of digging the bog is seized on by the poet as a symbol of his work as a poet. The landscape of the poem, therefore, is both the natural landscape of Ireland but also a cultural/visionary landscape. ‘Bogland’ is a poem that is poised between the literal and the symbolic and the reader must constantly shift between the literal and metaphorical reading of the text.
The bog, as a symbol of Irish history, allows Heaney, in future poems, to speak about the Troubles in Northern Ireland (1969 – 1998). One of the insights gained in this poem, and developed in his third collection, Wintering Out (1972) in the poem ‘Tollund Man’, is that the soil of Ireland contains its past, including all the spilt blood and the broken bones and bodies of ‘The Disappeared’ and all the other remnants of its violent history. In both ‘Bogland’ and ‘The Tollund Man’ Heaney, like the ‘pioneers’ who keep ‘striking / Inwards and downwards’, prompts us to think across thousands of years. ‘Bogland’ speaks of how our ancestors’ lives are recorded and contained within the bog. ‘The Tollund Man’, though it also speaks of a bog find, is a more complex poem in that it compares and contrasts a violent death that took place two thousand years ago in Jutland to the violent deaths which occurred almost daily in Northern Ireland from 1969 until the signing of the Belfast Agreement on Good Friday in 1998. The Danes weren’t the only ones to bury their dead in the bog – there were numerous victims of violence ‘disappeared’ during ‘The Troubles’ and buried in remote, windswept locations on this island also. Heaney himself has said that he has searched for ‘images and symbols adequate to our predicament’. And despite what some of his critics say, he never shirks or avoids the savage reality of violence: in ‘The Tollund Man’ he writes with stark realism of how the mutilated bodies of four young brothers were dragged along the train tracks, their skin and teeth flecking the railway sleepers.
I suppose it is fitting for a poem written in the late ’60s in Ireland that there is no sense of closure in ‘Bogland’. In describing the ground of the bog as bottomless, the poem is also describing itself and the endless possibilities of the bog as a symbol. ‘Bogland’ seems to suggest that poems are found having lain hidden in the subconscious of the poet, awaiting discovery. In his own words, Heaney states:
‘I have listened for poems, they come sometimes like bodies out of the bog, almost complete, seeming to have been laid down a long time ago, surfacing with a touch of mystery’ (Preoccupations, 34).
‘Bogland’ sees a more confident and spare style emerge and the nine phrases in the poem open and meld into one another, in imitation of the yielding ground of the bog. The epiphany to be taken from the poem is that there is no bottom to the well of imagination; there is no end to the exploration of the past. The poem is delivered with a new air of assurance and confidence. Heaney, like James Joyce in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is now finally ready and prepared to speak, with no hint of self-consciousness, on behalf of his race – ‘We have no prairies’, ‘Our unfenced country’, ‘Our pioneers keep striking’…..
Therefore, this is a groundbreaking poem which lays down deeper nuances to the original ideas first expressed in ‘Digging’ and other poems. Heaney identifies with the bog – he takes on board the implied insult that he is ‘a bogman’ and he owns it! The bog, with all its implications, becomes a kind of subconscious racial memory for him, providing him with inspiration for his poetry.
 Andrews, Elmer (ed). The Poetry of Seamus Heaney: Essays, Articles, Reviews. Columbia University Press (Icon Books Limited), 1998.
Seamus Heaney talks about why he wrote the ‘bog’ poems.
Andrews, Elmer (ed). The Poetry of Seamus Heaney: Essays, Articles, Reviews. Columbia University Press (Icon Books Limited), 1998.
Commentary: Dr Andrew Barker called ‘Digging’ – the first poem in Heaney’s first collection – his Mission Statement Poem. If that is so, ‘The Diviner’ is an early codicil to that Mission Statement! It is yet another of Heaney’s poems about rural crafts and craftsmen. These earlier poems focussed on his rural roots and the local crafts which were synonymous with his local place. Similar to ‘Digging’ and ‘The Forge’, and ‘Follower’, this poem also explores the poet’s early search for poetic inspiration. Heaney discovered his own gift by seeing the connection between the local craftsmen and his own burgeoning desire to be different yet the same.
The first thing to notice here is that Heaney doesn’t name the poem ‘The Water Diviner’ – instead, he uses the more generic title ‘The Diviner’. This allows him to make ancient connections with the meaning of the word. In the ancient world of Greece and Rome, a diviner was a wise man, a seer, a prophet, a mystic, an oracle. Even in ancient Ireland in the Bardic tradition, the diviner was a saoi, literally a ‘wise one’, a poet at the pinnacle of his powers. So, it is evident that Heaney here is making a clear analogy between the work of the local diviner in Bellaghy and the work of a poet. Heaney is making this connection very early on in his career and so he has already accepted the onerous responsibility of following in the ancient footsteps of the Filí and Bards who had gone before him.
Water is, of course, a vital element and it has to be understood by the modern reader that in Ireland even in the 1950’s, houses, especially in rural areas, did not have water on tap as they do today. Instead, water for daily household use was still being drawn by bucket from communal wells in each locality. Therefore, it is no surprise that the person who could locate the presence of water in such springs and wells would be given great recognition and elevated status in the community.
Heaney speaks of this in some of his early poetry in such poems as ‘Personal Helicon’ and ‘Sunlight’. In ‘Sunlight’, one of two poems dedicated to his Aunt Mary’s home place in Mossbawn, he speaks of the ‘helmeted pump in the yard’; this pump which was the centre of his boyhood universe, where ‘water honeyed in the slung bucket’. In ‘Personal Helicon’ he tells us that he is inspired by and attracted to the water in wells and springs. He tells us that as a child ‘they could not keep me from wells’. However, as an adult, it seems that this activity is frowned upon, so instead, he became a poet! In a beautiful concluding sentence, he says, ‘I rhyme / To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.’ There is a clear connection suggested here between the young Heaney’s activities and the older Heaney’s poetry.
The diviner in this poem is seen in the same light as his father and grandfather are in ‘Digging’. The diviner is exploring the hidden depths, the unexplored layers of landscape, seeking out water-bearing aquifers. This is similar to his father or grandfather toiling in the bog, ‘going down and down for the good turf’.
The jury is still out on whether it is even possible to divine the presence of water by holding a forked hazel stick in one’s hands! Scientists still seem to frown on the idea yet in Heaney’s home place of South Derry there would have been one or two men with this innate power, just as there would have been a person who had a cure for burns or had the ability to fix a bad back or rid a person of warts. These cures or remedies had been handed down through the generations from father to son, from mother to daughter. Heaney has realised that he too has a rare gift and he normalises his own talent as a poet by comparing it to those with rare gifts in his own rural community.
The diviner described here was a real expert and he put on a performance for the onlookers present. His actions were ceremonial, just like a priest at the altar on Sunday – he refers to the diviner ‘Circling the terrain’. The poet creates a mood of tension as the ritual performance commences; words like ‘tight’, ‘hunting’, ‘pluck’, ‘nervous’, sharp’, ‘sting’, ‘jerked’, ‘convulsions’, convey tension, urgency, doubt, and expectation in the reader. The tone of the final stanza is far more relaxed and of course, this is because the diviner has been successful in his quest for water and so he ‘nonchalantly’ grips the ‘expectant’ wrists of those who have asked to have a turn and see if the hazel stick will work for them.
Notice the poet’s clever use of the word ‘nervous’ here in stanza one. He is referring to the fact that our nervous system carries messages to the brain – but here it is the diviner who is the path along which the message from the underground water will be carried.
The poet tries to demystify the work of the diviner by using the analogy of a radio signal picking up foreign radio stations as one turned the dial on the old cumbersome radios that were a feature in many rural homes in the Fifties. The hazel stick is likened to ‘a green aerial’, which picks up the unseen signals the water gives off from underground caverns. We know the diviner has picked up the signal when Heaney says in the second stanza, ‘The rod jerked with precise convulsions’. This image of the water broadcasting its position presents us with the notion that the diviner is the receiver and interpreter of messages that ordinary mortals cannot experience or understand. In Heaney’s view, this is also an exact analogy with his work as a poet.
The word ‘convulsions’ suggests to me that the diviner is not in control of his movements and of course the fact that these ‘convulsions’, these involuntary movements, are visible to the bystanders adds to their sense of wonder and awe.
The style of the poem is very matter-of-fact – as if the poet is reporting for his local newspaper! There is also the subtle innuendo that it’s all some kind of hoax that is being perpetrated here by the diviner – that he is some kind of charlatan, pulling the wool over the eyes of his unsuspecting, gullible audience. These notions are finally dispelled and underlined by the final short sentence: ‘The hazel stirred’.
Another interesting feature of the poem that we need to explore is that we are not told what the diviner looks like. This helps the poet to create the feeling of awe and wonder. This is in marked contrast to other poems such as ‘The Forge’ and ‘Digging’, for example, where we are given little pen pictures, sometimes uncomplimentary, of his father and the blacksmith. In ‘Digging’ he looks down from his upstairs study window and sees his father digging in the flower garden: ‘I look down / Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds / Bends low’. In ‘The Forge’ he describes the blacksmith, Barney Devlin, in a very Chaucerian manner: ‘Sometimes, leather-aproned, hairs in his nose, / He leans out on the jamb, …’. However, in ‘The Diviner’ he refrains from making any of these derogatory comments and therefore the mystique of the diviner is maintained right to the end.
The reason Heaney is drawn to these rural craftsmen and their various trades is that he is in awe of the power of the diviner, the turf-cutter, the ploughman, talents that he doesn’t possess but ones that he admires. In ‘Digging’ he tells us, ‘But I’ve no spade to follow men like them’. He is drawn to these people who divine for water, dig in gardens and plough the land and shoe horses because he wants to follow in their footsteps but in his own unique way.
In many ways, these poems, particularly the ones from the collection Death of a Naturalist, are efforts to pacify and appease worried parents who have suspicions that their young son is different. In this, his first collection, he is reassuring them that he’s not that different but that they will have to accept his choice of career: he will be a poet to be reckoned with, he will dig and plough and divine – but with his pen. Fittingly then, thirty or so years later, The Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Seamus Heaney in 1995, “for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past’.
The main purpose of these notes is to assist you in forming an overview of Heaney’s work. For this reason, the material is structured as a series of ‘thinking points’, grouped under general headings. These cover the poet’s main preoccupations and methods, but they are not exhaustive. Neither are they ‘carved in stone’, to be memorised: ideally, they should be altered, added to or deleted as you develop your own set of notes. This priceless pearl of wisdom is relevant for Heaney BUT it equally applies to all the other poets on your course as well!
The following ‘grace notes’ presuppose a basic knowledge of the following poems by Heaney on your Leaving Cert Poetry Syllabus:
The Tollund Man
A Constable Calls
The Harvest Bow
IRISHNESS – HISTORY, MYTHS, POLITICS
In his early poems, Heaney was preoccupied with local history, with communicating the experience of his own place with its numerous customs, rituals and ancient rural crafts (See ‘Sunlight’ and ‘The Forge’).
Then he began to think of history as landscape, exploring downwards, finding evidence of history in the bogs and the very contours of the land, exploring what myth and prehistoric evidence revealed about Irishness (See ‘Bogland’)
Exploring back in time, he makes historical connections between the Iron Age and the present. He draws parallels between ancient human sacrifices and the contemporary violence which was engulfing his native Ulster at the time. He seems to be saying that violence is indeed endemic in all societies throughout history, that human sacrifice is necessary for the integrity of territory, that myths, however savage, are an integral part of the creation of the identity of a people (See ‘The Tollund Man’).
Overall, Heaney’s position has been seen as ambivalent and has been misunderstood by many. His poetry constantly explores the divisions tearing present-day Ulster apart. His position has often met with criticism from all sides regarding his treatment of recent Ulster history. Some critics say he has too much politics in his poetry, while others say he should stand up for his people and take sides. He has been accused of obscuring the horrors of sectarian killings; of endorsing a ‘tribal’ position, or of not endorsing it enough; he has also been accused of evading the issues and being non-committal in his writing.
For many critics, like Elmer Andrews, Heaney doesn’t go far enough: ‘Heaney’s art is fundamentally an art of consciously and carefully cultivated non-engagement’. Do you agree? Is Heaney completely uncritical of his own side? (See ‘Bogland’, ‘The Tollund Man’, ‘A Constable Calls’).
PLACE AND LANDSCAPE
Like Patrick Kavanagh, who is synonymous with his native Inniskeen, Heaney too has immortalised his native place and Mossbawn and Anahorish are mentioned often, especially in those poems which deal with childhood. ‘Sunlight’ presents us with a picture of an idealised childhood, his aunt Mary Heaney’s kitchen is depicted as enveloping him in a womb-like security. His earlier poems, especially those from his collections Death of a Naturalist (1966), Door into the Dark (1969), North (1975), and Field Work (1979), focus very much on home and family, his relationship with his father and mother and the need for continuity between the generations (See ‘Sunlight’, ‘The Harvest Bow’)
Anybody who has read ‘Blackberry Picking’ or ‘Death of a Naturalist’ and other such poems by Heaney will need no convincing that he is a fine descriptive nature poet. Terence Brown says that he has an ‘extraordinary gift in realising the physical world freshly and with vigorous exact economy. Heaney can bring everyday natural events before the readers’ eyes with such telling precision that his images are both recognition and revelation’ (See any of his poems!).
Landscape for Heaney is more than just a subject to be painted: it is a living presence, an ever-present force, a sort of third party to human activity in the poems. This is the same immediate personal presence that we also find in Kavanagh and Wordsworth (See ‘Postscript’, ‘Bogland’, ‘The Tollund Man’).
He shows us differing aspects, different faces, of the landscape: from the life force (‘spirit of the corn’) to the threatening, menacing aspect (‘the bottomless bog’). When writing about the farming traditions of his community he also presents us with the juxtaposing ideas of growth and decay.
Heaney believes that people have a human and a religious relationship with the landscape (See ‘Bogland’, ‘The Tollund Man’, ‘The Harvest Bow’).
The landscape is seen as essentially female, often with erotic associations in its relationship with man (Examine ‘The Tollund Man’ closely).
Heaney’s landscape is dominated by the earth rather than the sky, with the bog providing a metaphor for Irish consciousness (See ‘Bogland’, ‘The Tollund Man’).
‘The landscape for me is an image and it’s almost an element to work with as much as it is an object of admiration or description’. Heaney often uses nature metaphors to express his feelings of frustration and loneliness. For example, in ‘The Harvest Bow’ he describes his frustrating attempts at communicating with his father like this: ‘your stick / Whacking the tops off weeds and bushes / Beats out of time, and beats, but flushes / Nothing’ (See also ‘Postscript’).
Driving out west along the now famous Wild Atlantic Way, along by Flaggy Shore near Ballyvaughan on the West Coast of Clare, the poet explores the beauty of the Irish landscape as a tourist would. Heaney describes the beauty of the landscape and the changing light and the feelings it will inspire. It is a journey poem where the poet finds himself caught between wild things and settled things, between things earthed and things in flight. The sonnet-like structure of the poem gives it a postcard quality ending with simple and powerful words: ‘And catch the heart off guard and blow it open’ (‘Postscript’)
Above all, the landscape for Heaney is a source of creativity and insight: ‘poems … come up … like bodies out of the bog of my own imagination’ (See ‘Bogland’, ‘The Tollund Man’).
TRADITION AND IDENTITY
For Heaney, an awareness of one’s tradition is fundamental to a sense of identity. He explains and explores his own roots, celebrating the ancient skills and crafts that sustained the farming community that nurtured him and his family for generations: the digging, the ploughing, the water-divining, the bread-making, the skills of the farmer, the blacksmith, etc. These skills are described in a reverential way as if they were sacred rituals. (See ‘Sunlight’, ‘The Forge’).
Sometimes he still hankers back to the womb-like security of that life of early childhood. Some interpret these poems describing his Aunt Mary’s kitchen in Mossbawn as a form of regression or escapism from the daily horrors of life in Northern Ireland in the Seventies and Eighties (See ‘Sunlight’). Sometimes he needs to re-forge, reinterpret and understand his links with family in order to rediscover his identity (See ‘The Harvest Bow’ where he says, ‘I tell and finger it like braille’).
‘Our sense of the past, our sense of the land and perhaps even our sense of identity are inextricably interwoven,’ according to Heaney (The Irish Press, June 1st 1974). Therefore, finding and maintaining a sense of continuity is vital to Heaney: family, traditions, customs and values come to him as memories in his poetry and reassure and comfort him amidst the mayhem and uncertainty of daily atrocities in his home place (See ‘Sunlight’, ‘The Harvest Bow’).
He explores his Catholic roots too, as set against the other traditions. According to Robert Welch: ‘Heaney is engaged upon a cultural and tribal exploration; he is testing out his cultural inheritance to see where the significant deposits are located; but he is not engaged upon a mindless submission to the old tradition of the goddess or whatever.’ (See ‘Sunlight’, ‘The Harvest Bow’, ‘Bogland’, ‘The Tollund Man’).
There are times in his writing when his personal identity has overtones of victimhood about it. He certainly seems to identify with victims: ‘something of this sad freedom … should come to me.’ (See ‘The Tollund Man’, ‘A Constable Calls’).
IDENTITY AND POETRY
Heaney’s identity as a poet is inextricably linked in with his historical and cultural identity. The autographical voice we encounter in his first collection, Death of a Naturalist, becomes the spokesperson of his people in the later collection, Door into the Dark (See ‘Bogland’).
He identifies with the bog – he takes on board the implied insult that he is ‘a bogman’ and he owns it! The bog, with all its implications, becomes a kind of subconscious racial memory for him, providing him with inspiration for his poetry. The Danes weren’t the only ones to bury their dead in the bog – there were numerous victims of violence ‘disappeared’ during ‘The Troubles’ and buried in remote, windswept locations on this island too (See ‘The Tollund Man’, ‘Bogland’).
Elmer Andrews describes Heaney’s method in this way: ‘He is proposing an idea of poetry which combines psychic investigation with historical enquiry’. In an essay entitled ‘Feeling into Words’, Heaney himself spoke of ‘poetry as divination, poetry as revelation of the self to the self, as restoration of the culture to itself; poems as elements of continuity, with the aura of authenticity of archaeological finds, where the buried shard has an importance that is not diminished by the importance of the buried city; poetry as a dig, a dig for finds that end up being plants’ (Preoccupations, 1980) (See also ‘The Tollund Man’, ‘Bogland’).
Heaney sees the craft of poetry not just as something mechanical but rather a ‘combination of imagination and skill. He uses a brilliant analogy to describe a poem as ‘a completely successful love act between the craft and the gift’ (See ‘The Forge’).
Heaney’s voice in his poems is often indecisive, timid and ambiguous, his position is that of a hesitant observer on the fringes of the scene. For example, in The Forge he is outside looking in, afraid of the darkness within.
Heaney and other Northern poets such as Montague, Mahon, and Longley have come to prominence because of their efforts to make poetry relevant in a difficult political backdrop. He feels at times that poetry may be powerless to influence politics but nevertheless, it is vital to a sense of identity.
SAMPLE ANSWER: What are the recurring themes in the poetry of Seamus Heaney?
Heaney’s poetry brings us to our senses! There is a tactile, sensuous quality to his poetry and his poetry is often multi-layered. When he says that he will ‘dig’ with his pen he is referring to how layer after layer of meaning can be revealed in the act of writing. In ‘The Forge’ he records a changing way of life as the horse and car make way for the motorcar, but the poem also reveals a growing awareness of the mystery of the creative process. It becomes, therefore, a poem about poetry.
His poetry often draws on childhood memories of growing up on a farm in Co. Derry. In ‘Sunlight’ and ‘A Constable Calls’ he presents us with two contrasting memories, one beautifully tranquil, the other troubled and uneasy. Place is of vital importance, as in Kavanagh’s poetry, but so too are the people associated with that place: the exhumed Tollund man, his Aunt Mary in the family kitchen, his father ‘making tillage returns /In acres, roods and perches’, and his father making the harvest bow.
There is, therefore, a preoccupation with the past and a fascination with it. In both ‘Bogland’ and ‘The Tollund Man’ Heaney, like the ‘pioneers’ who keep ‘striking / Inwards and downwards’, prompts us to think across thousands of years. ‘Bogland’ speaks of how our ancestors’ lives are recorded and contained within the bog. ‘The Tollund Man’, though it also speaks of a bog find, is a more complex poem in that it relates a violent death that took place two thousand years ago in Jutland to the violent deaths which occurred almost daily in Northern Ireland from 1969 until the signing of the Belfast Agreement on Good Friday in 1998. Though Heaney writes about contemporary events, he does so sometimes at a tangent. Heaney himself has said that he has searched for ‘images and symbols adequate to our predicament’. And despite what some of his critics say, he never shirks or avoids the savage reality of violence: in ‘The Tollund Man’ he writes with stark realism of how the mutilated bodies of four young brothers were dragged along the train tracks, their skin and teeth flecking the railway sleepers.
Heaney’s lyric voice is often straightforward. Lines can be plain, unadorned, and deceptively simple: ‘His bicycle stood at the windowsill’, but these opening lines open up and at the same time deepen our understanding of a particular experience. In Heaney’s own words a poem preserves an experience, but ‘it should also open experience up and move it along … so that, first of all, the poet and then the reader, hopefully, gets carried away a little.’
‘So’ is a key word in Heaney’s poetry. It signals a clear-sighted focus on the scene before. For example, in ‘Sunlight’ he says, ‘So her hands scuffled / over the bakeboard’. By his use of this simple word, he achieves an immediate, direct, warm tone in his poetry. Also in ‘Sunlight’, we can see how his use of a shift in tense from past to present indicates how memory or a remembered event can be given a living quality within the poem. The poem begins in the past – ‘There was a sunlit absence’ – but ends in the present – ‘Now she dusts the board … now sits broad-lapped …
And here is love
like a tinsmith’s scoop
sunk past its gleam
in the meal-bin.
Throughout his career, Heaney was very interested in poetic form and structure. ‘The Forge’ is a sonnet and other poems on our course reveal a mastery of many forms – a variety of line lengths and differently shaped stanzas. In ‘The Harvest Bow’ the intricacies of the making of the bow is mirrored in the intricacies of the poem itself: in a line such as ‘brightens and tightens twist by twist’, with its perfect example of internal rhyme and repetition.
Heaney’s poetry is both sensitive and sympathetic. He identifies and understands others. Relationships are at the heart of his poetry, his relationships with loved ones, family, and also his relationship with significant places such as Mossbawn and later Glanmore. He recognises what is good and he cherishes and celebrates it. In his poems he is capable of delight and astonishment; the ordinary becomes marvellous, and such moments are conveyed with wonder, humility and gratitude.
You might also like to read some of the following:
Andrews, Elmer (ed). The Poetry of Seamus Heaney: Essays, Articles, Reviews. Columbia University Press (Icon Books Limited), 1998.
Brown, Terence. The Literature of Ireland: Culture and Criticism. Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Heaney, Seamus. The Government of the Tongue, Faber and Faber, 1989.
Heaney here scrutinizes the work of several poets, British and Irish, American and European, whose work he considers might call into question the rights of poetic utterance. The author asks whether the voice of the poet should be governed, or whether it should be the governor.
Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney’s first collection of prose, Preoccupations, begins with a vivid account of his early years on his father’s farm in Northern Ireland and his coming of age as a student and teacher in Belfast. Subsequent essays include critical work on Gerard Manley Hopkins, William Wordsworth, John Keats, Robert Lowell, William Butler Yeats, John Montague, Patrick Kavanagh, Ted Hughes, Geoffrey Hill, and Philip Larkin.
Welch, Robert (ed). Irish Writers and Religion, Rowman and Littlefield, 1992
And hear his long scythe whispering to the ground,
And feel a spirit kindred to my own;
So that henceforth I worked no more alone;
But glad with him, I worked as with his aid,
And weary, sought at noon with him the shade;
And dreaming, as it were, held brotherly speech
With one whose thought I had not hoped to reach.
‘Men work together,’ I told him from the heart,
‘Whether they work together or apart.’
Robert Frost is reputed to have said that ‘a poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom’. This statement is definitely true of this beautiful lyric which was written in 1913. He tells us that the poem reflected ‘my position between socialism and individualism’. Indeed, the poem ends with a wonderful epiphany which suggests that he is leaning more towards socialism!
This lovely nature lyric creates a wonderful allegory on the position of the poet and his place in the modern world which, for me, is equally as profound as Heaney’s allegory in ‘Digging’. Frost uses the mower in this poem to represent the artist, the poet, the painter, the creator of beautiful thought-provoking things. The mower has left a tuft of flowers, just as poets leave their life’s work, as a reminder to all who follow that there is beauty in the world. However, very often in Frost’s poetry humans are depicted as isolated figures in the landscape. Not only are they isolated but they represent loneliness, and thereby acquire symbolic status. Loneliness can be seen as a human condition and man’s efforts to communicate effectively are at best difficult as seen in this beautiful lyric. This is why poets and artists are still needed by us to act as our trailblazers and scouts, to go before us, to take the risks, and help us discover the hidden beauty that lies in our meadows and pastures, leaving us many ‘a message from the dawn’.
Frost describes how he sets out to ‘turn the grass’ after the mower has earlier cut the meadow with his scythe in the early morning, ‘in the dew before the sun’. He looks in vain for the mysterious mower who has disappeared and has presumably moved on to another meadow. Then unexpectedly ‘a bewildered butterfly’ stumbles on the scene. The poet has a sudden moment of epiphany when he beholds the sight of flowers that have been left untouched by the scythe:
A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared
Beside a reedy brook the scythe had bared.
Even though the two men are working separately the poet realises that in this tuft of flowers which have been spared by the mower is a message from the man who has gone before him. Frost realises that the mower too has a deep appreciation of nature’s beauty and has left the tuft of flowers by the brook as a reminder and as a sign of solidarity. This leads him to believe that he is no longer alone, that in some way he is linked to this enigmatic mower:
And feel a spirit kindred to my own;
So that henceforth I worked no more alone;
So, from an ordinary everyday experience Frost has moved to the appreciation for the need for fellowship in his life:
‘Men work together,’ I told him from the heart,
‘Whether they work together or apart.’
This epiphany strikes Frost like a thunderbolt as he turns the new-mown hay in the meadow but it also strikes the reader and further serves to reinforce for us the simple wonders and powers of nature. ‘A Tuft of Flowers’ highlights for us how joy can return to the poet’s soul through work and companionship with other people, often through little, unremarkable random acts of kindness. It reinforces for me how life can offer many different possibilities for choice and human companionship, and how rich and glorious the whole world of nature is.
I live in a beautiful area of West Limerick and next door is the townland of Ahalin (or Aughalin). The townland has been referred to in English as Ahalin since at least 1867 when a weighty limestone plaque was erected on the new National School recently opened in the area – this read ‘Ahalin National School 1867’. The retranslation of this placename (Ahalin) into Irish has caused debate for decades. The famous Limerick academic P.W. Joyce in his seminal work, The Origin and History of Irish Placenames published in 1910 by M.H. Gill and Son, has it as ‘the ford of the pool’ and this indeed is one literal translation, ‘Áth’ being the Irish for a ford over a river or stream and ‘Linn’ being the Irish for a pool. (Dublin was once Dubh Linn or Blackpool!). However, as former local headmaster, Michéal de Búrca pointed out to anyone who would listen, ‘there isn’t a pool within miles of this place, and there’s no ford in the place because there’s no river’.
As you can see above the eponymous Master Burke goes on to give further information regarding the etymology of the placename Aughalin, which had been handed down through the years. He is obviously lecturing the representative of the Placenames Commission who has come a calling and (unfortunately for us) they both seem to be looking at an Ordnance Survey map as they speak:
And there is the correct pronunciation, (Aughalin) it means ‘the field of the flax’ and the flax field is staring them just over there across ‘the high field of the flax’ – and the high field is there and the flax-hole in the corner. Here is the cross (Wall’s Cross), and here is the old school, and here’s ‘achalinwest’ (297) …… they simply call it The Big Field now (301) and even that fort is gone and this other one (field) outside it again (just to the south of it) there’s also another flax-hole (there) ….’.
Amazingly then, in spite of all this overwhelming local knowledge and traditional usage, in the Placenames (Co. Limerick) Order 2003 the townland of Ahalin is given as Aughalin (which is ok) and the official Irish version of the townland is given as Áith Liní (which is not). In Irish ‘Áith’ means ‘a kiln’ and there is some evidence from old maps of the area that there were at least two disused kilns in the area in question. However, ‘Liní’ has no obvious meaning or no local connotations. (To add insult to injury, of course, the same Placenames (Co. Limerick) Order 2003 also refers to Cloncagh instead of the more traditional Clouncagh, and Cluain Cath instead of the more correct Cluain Catha – but that’s a story for another day!)
The more correct rendering in Irish of the anglicised word Ahalin (or Aughalin) is, in fact, Achadh Lín which directly translates as ‘the field of the flax’. This is the Irish version used locally to this day – the new school in Ahalin (opened in October 1963) is known as Scoil Mhuire, Achadh Lín. In fact, if one does even the minimum of research (i.e. talking to the locals) they will without hesitation tell you exactly where ‘the field of the flax’ is situated.
I have long been fascinated by the fact that not too long ago, well maybe at some time during the nineteenth century, flax was grown in the parish of Knockaderry in County Limerick and there was a flax-hole or flax-dam in my own neighbouring townland, and, as Seamus Heaney describes so well in his poem, ‘Death of a Naturalist’ :
All year the flax-dam festered in the heart
Of the townland; green and heavy headed
Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods.
So how come we have a townland in rural County Limerick which is associated with the growing of flax? More than likely it was an endeavour of the local landlords, the D’Arcy family who at one time lived in the townland of Ahalin and later moved to Knockaderry House or maybe the growing of flax was promoted by the Fetherson or Fitzgerald families who also owned substantial estates and were associated with Ahalin.
At the time of Griffith’s Valuation, completed in County Limerick in June 1853, Robert Fetherston held land in Ahalin in the parish of Clonelty, barony of Glenquin and at Bruree, barony of Connello Upper, County Limerick. In February 1855 his 565 acres at Ahalin, barony of Glenquin, on which there was a “neat cottage residence suited for a gentleman’s family”, were advertised for sale. This residence and some land were sold to Mr J.D. Fitzgerald Member of Parliament for £2,350. The “cottage” in question was located in the townland of Ahalin directly behind where Mr Dave Downes and family now live. The holding consisted of the main dwelling house, a stable, a coach house, two cow houses, a piggery, a fowl house, a boiling house and a barn.
It is this Mr. Fitzgerald, who was appointed Attorney General for Ireland in 1856 and who served as MP for Clare (1852 – 1860), who gave the land for the first National School in Ahalin, which was opened in 1867. It is also very probable that it is this same Mr Fitzgerald MP, or his agent, who Master Burke is referring to when he says ‘some eejit came in 1867 and he put up on the old school AHALIN N.S. and you could not correct it!’ This suggests that Master Burke would have been happier with ‘Aughalin’ rather than ‘Ahalin’ as the correct anglicisation of the townland – as this is nearest to the Irish version of the placename, Achadh Lín.
In more recent times this cottage was the property of the Flynn brothers. In the returns of the 1901 Census, there were six people living here: Patrick Flynn aged 30, Kate Flynn aged 27, Michael Flynn aged 25, Julia Flynn aged 22, Philip Flynn aged 18 and Martin Flynn aged 12. In the Census returns for 1911, it seems that Michael and Julia have left the family home and Molly Greaney (aged 16) is registered as a General Domestic Servant by the family. The property was still owned by the Flynns up to the late 1950’s and at that time Philip (who was blind) and Martin were the two surviving brothers living in the cottage. It is said locally that they were the first house in the parish to own a radio. Molly O’Neill was their housekeeper up to the end. Before that Cis Harrold was the housekeeper. She was a sister to Mike, Willie and Brian Harrold and an aunt to Batt O’Connor.
As far back as 1654, the Limerick Civil Survey records a tuck mill for flax (and later for grain up to 1924) in nearby Ballinoe. This mill was known as Reeves’s Mill and was located where the Enright’s own land today near Ballinoe Bridge on the Kilmeedy side of Ballinoe Cross near where Johnny Corkery and his family now live. In Bailiúchán na Scol, a folklore project organised by the Folklore Commission in National Schools throughout the country in 1937–38 Nora Nash from Ballinoe and attending the Girls School in Ahalin stated that ‘flour was made locally in Re(e)ves’ Mill in Ballynoe’ and she further states that ‘it is to be seen still at Enright’s where the mill was’. This Mill was built on the banks of the Ábha na Scáth river which rises near Knockfierna and flows through Clouncagh and into the River Deel near Bunoke Bridge.
We also know from research carried out by the Rathkeale Historical Society that as early as 1709 Thomas Southwell (Rathkeale), whose family had inherited some of the old Billingsley/Dowdall estate (mainly centred in Kilfinny), introduced over 120 Palatine refugee families to the townlands of Courtmatrix, Killeheen, Ballingrane and Pallas(kenry). These families augmented an already established English settlement which had been introduced to assist in the development of the linen/flax industry in the West Limerick area.
Local historian, Sean Kelly in the NCW Historical Journal, The Annual Observer, in his excellent article on the history of Phelans Mill (situated where Objekt Design Space have their home accessory store today) states that for a time in the 1800’s this mill (then under the ownership of Robert Quaid and his family) was used as a scutching mill for flax and that there was a flax-dam and bleaching area nearby on the banks of the Arra River near where Dr O’Brien and Dr Barrett once resided and on land which is now owned by Ballygowan Mineral Water Company.
So while flax growing, and the linen industry it supported, was a predominantly Northern Ireland industry, remnants of it were also to be found in Munster and Limerick and even in Knockaderry itself! It is no surprise, therefore, to come across references to flax and the linen industry in the local placenames such as Ahalin. Readers may also be aware of another placename in Limerick, Monaleen, which is from the Irish ‘Móin a Lín’, literally ‘the flax meadow’ or ‘field of flax’.
Flax, itself, was a very labour intensive crop to grow and demanded much skill. The land had to be ploughed, harrowed, cross ploughed, and harrowed again and rolled. The seed was then sown, harrowed in and rolled again. Nature and the elements took over, but the better the seedbed, the better would be the crop. Much depended on the ploughman. Usually, he was a quiet fellow of good skill, much in harmony with his pair of horses. The excellence of linen depended on this quiet fellow, who ploughed a straight furrow. There was much preparation for flax growing and it was said that it took more out of the land than any other crop.
Nature responded, and in due course, thousands of flax stems grew up, three to four feet in height. A tiny blue blossom appeared on their tips, followed by a natural coloured seed pod; and the flax was ready for pulling.
Flax pulling by hand was a back-breaking job, taken on by casual workers, who needed the cash. Hand pulling was necessary because the whole stem, from root to tip, was required to give the longest fibre, for the finest quality linen cloth. The pulled flax was tied up in beats (sheaves) and put in rows or stooks on the flax field. The stooks were collected and put into flax holes, or dams, and kept under water for ten to fourteen days. This was to `rat’ or `rot’ the inside wood part from the outside fibres.
Then began the most difficult job in the making of linen, lifting the heavy, smelly, slimy, wet beats from the flax hole to the bank. Men had to work for hours, up to the waist in this wet clabber, while others took the beats and spread them on the fields to dry or bleach
Spreading was also a back-breaking job, as was lifting some days later, when dry. The flax was ready for scutching, a dusty and dangerous art. This meant the removal of the centre wood part from the outside fibres and was done when the scutcher pressed handfuls of flax against a large four-bladed flail revolving at speed. It cut away the wood part and left the scutcher with handfuls of long blonde fibres, like a young lady’s head of long blonde hair. Many an arm or hand was cut off in this process. The wood part was known as ‘shives’ which were burned as waste.
So, where can we find this ‘high field of the flax’ today or even the flax-hole in the corner of the field? As we have already noted from comments made by Master Burke to the authorities at the time it seems the flax field was situated between Wall’s Cross and the old school in Ahalin. As already mentioned, if one does even the minimum of research in the area locals will without hesitation tell you exactly where ‘the field of the flax’ is situated. Most local sources (whom I have spoken to) say that the ‘flax field’ is today owned by Mickey Magner and the field lies to the left of what is locally known as Ahalin Avenue. In times gone by there was a fort in the middle of this field but all evidence of this fort has since been removed although it can still be seen clearly in some old Ordnance Survey maps of the area.
So, it seems that while evidence of a fort can be obliterated from the landscape the folk memory associated with the growing of flax in the area cannot. The beautiful, enigmatic placename of Aughalin or Achadh Lín and its rich history lives on strongly in the folk memory of the people of Knockaderry to this day.
 Clonelty Parish, roughly corresponding to the parish of Knockaderry today. The townland of Aughalin consisted of 571 acres, 3 roods and 2 perches.
 John David Fitzgerald of Dublin was the son of David Fitzgerald, a Dublin merchant. He was Member of Parliament for Ennis 1852-1860 and was appointed Attorney General for Ireland in 1856. At the time of Griffith’s Valuation, he held land in the parish of Quin, barony of Bunratty Upper, County Clare and in the parish of Rathkeale, barony of Connello Lower, County Limerick. In 1860 he married his second wife Jane Mary Matilda Southwell, sister of the 4th Viscount Southwell. In 1882 he was made a life peer as Baron Fitzgerald of Kilmarnock. In the 1870s he owned 1,393 acres in County Clare and 1,324 acres in County Limerick including ‘a gentleman’s cottage’ and land in Aughalin.
 The tuck mill was used in the woollen industry to improve the quality of the woven fabric by repeatedly combing it, producing a warm worsted fabric.
 Bailiúchán na Scol, Imleabhar 0490, Leathanach 42. Here, just to add to the confusion, the school is named as Áth an Lín (Cailiní), Baile an Gharrdha, (Uimhir Rolla 9633).
Commentary: In the title poem of his first ever collection, Death of a Naturalist, Seamus Heaney gives a very sensuous and sumptuous description of the goings on at his local flax-hole. This hole or ‘flax-dam’ contained the flax which had been harvested and was now being soaked in a man-made hole in the corner of the flax-field in August. When the process was complete the flax was taken out and became the raw material for the thriving linen industry which had long flourished in Northern Ireland but was now showing some signs of decay in the nineteen fifties. The poem has an added resonance for me because I live in a beautiful part of West Limerick and next door to me is the townland of Ahalin, or Achadh Lín in Irish, which means the ‘field of the flax’. Each time I read this poem I am reminded that at some time maybe in the 1800’s or before just over the road from me was our very own flax-field with its festering flax-dam!
In this poem, ‘Death of a Naturalist’, Seamus Heaney gives a brilliant description of the local flax-hole. It is a memory poem, one of the many poems written about his childhood and early school days. Heaney, in this first collection of early poems mines a rich vein of childhood memory. It is, however, embellished memory – childhood through a rosy adult lens. The poem is extremely sensual and evokes the senses of sight and sound and smell to perfection. Indeed, the poem invites the reader to read it aloud such are the myriad examples of assonance and alliteration scattered throughout.
The flax-dam or flax hole came into its own each August when the flax crop was ready for harvest. Flax pulling by hand was a backbreaking job, taken on by casual, often transient workers. Hand pulling was necessary because the whole stem, from root to tip, was required to give the longest fibre, for the finest quality linen cloth. The pulled flax was tied up in beats (sheaves) and put in rows or stooks on the flax field. The stooks were collected and put into flax holes, or dams, and kept under water for ten to fourteen days. This was to `rat’ or `rot’ the inside wood part from the outside fibres.
The ‘flax-dam’ festered and ‘sweltered in the punishing sun’ in high Summer. We can almost hear the bluebottles as they,
‘Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell’.
Each August the flax was immersed in the flax hole and sods of earth were used to keep it submerged.
The flax hole may have only been used by the farmers during the harvest but of course, it lay there unused all year round. The young poet, as naturalist, is obviously drawn to the pool at other times of the year as well, especially when there were great clots of frogspawn evident each Spring. He also visits in May to see the dragonflies and every July and August to spot the butterflies:
There were dragonflies, spotted butterflies,
But best of all was the warm thick slobber
Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water
In the shade of the banks.
The poet uses onomatopoeia to great effect to aid his description: ‘bubbles gargled’, ‘slobber of frogspawn’, ‘coarse croaking’, ‘the slap and plop’, and the brilliant ‘blunt heads farting’. We are also reminded of his age with the use of the word ‘jampotfuls’ and by the childish simile ‘Poised like mud grenades’.
Like all other budding young naturalists, he is lucky to have a great teacher! ‘Miss Walls’ encourages him and provides him with the necessary information, always appropriate to his age of course!
Miss Walls would tell us how
The daddy frog was called a bullfrog
And how he croaked and how the mammy frog
Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was
Her ecology classes sent him out to the meadows to collect samples for the classroom and for the windowsill at home in his kitchen in Mossbawn. Miss Walls also imparted other vital pieces of information which are seized upon by the young eager naturalist:
You could tell the weather by frogs too
For they were yellow in the sun and brown
There is a sense of childhood foreboding and fear of the flax hole and the mating frogs which is recreated with great accuracy by the poet – he knew, or he had been told by his elders, that ‘if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it’. These stories were obviously very effective in keeping inquisitive young boys away from the vicinity of these dangerous flax dams and he feels threatened and frightened by the scene that confronts him at the flax-dam.
The great slime kings
Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew
That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.
Indeed, the whole poem can be seen as a metaphor for growing up, laden with imagery that could be interpreted as sexual: we sense a child’s revulsion as he discovers the facts of life and his ensuing loss of innocence. He will never feel the same again about the countryside after this encounter with the bullfrogs! As the poem’s title suggests, therefore, his days as a naturalist are drawing to an end!
Interestingly, a poem very similar to ‘Death of a Naturalist’ called ‘Lint Water’ was published in the Times Literary Supplement on August 5th, 1965. In my view, this poem was not included in Heaney’s first collection Death of a Naturalist (or anywhere else) because of its more blatantly political undertone. In his book, On Seamus Heaney, Roy Foster suggests that ’The quintessential Ulster industry of linen-making provided a metaphor for the poisoning of running water and ….. the idea of a poisoned terrain (also used by Montague for his landmark collection, Poisoned Lands, in 1961) was both irresistible and significant’. His days as a naturalist may be drawing to a close but it is clear here that his political sense has already begun to develop. So, we can see that from a very early stage in his poetic development Heaney is deeply aware that there is indeed something rotten in the state of Denmark. And while the poem ‘Death of a Naturalist’ is a memory of a childhood experience and so merits inclusion in his first collection, in ‘Lint Water’ Heaney signals the way that he would choose to approach and unpick the political and sectarian tensions of his native province as they unfolded in the 1960s and thereafter.
Foster, R. F., ‘Roy Foster on Seamus Heaney: the Belfast years’, in The Irish Times, Saturday, September 5th, 2020, an extract from his book On Seamus Heaney, published by Princeton University Press, 2020.
My father worked with a horse plough,
His shoulders globed like a full sail strung
Between the shafts and the furrow.
The horses strained at his clicking tongue.
An expert. He would set the wing
And fit the bright-pointed sock.
The sod rolled over without breaking.
At the headrig, with a single pluck.
Of reins, the sweating team turned round
And back into the land. His eye
Narrowed and angled at the ground,
Mapping the furrow exactly.
I stumbled in his hobnailed wake,
Fell sometimes on the polished sod;
Sometimes he rode me on his back
Dipping and rising to his plod.
I wanted to grow up and plough,
To close one eye, stiffen my arm.
All I ever did was follow
In his broad shadow around the farm.
I was a nuisance, tripping, falling,
Yapping always. But today
It is my father who keeps stumbling
Behind me, and will not go away.
– fromDeath of a Naturalist, 1966
Commentary: This poem appears in Heaney’s first collection, Death of a Naturalist, published in 1966. In this collection, Heaney is keen to introduce himself and tell us where he comes from. The collection includes poems such as ‘Digging’, ‘Churning Day’, ‘Early Purges’, ‘The Diviner’ and ‘Follower’. All of these poems reflect his farming background and they depict a world view and country crafts and skills that are now redundant and no longer to be readily seen in the Irish countryside. We are introduced to men who dig in gardens, men who cut turf, who sell their cattle at the local fair, and who rid the farmyard of unwanted kittens. Heaney tells us that he intends to follow in their footsteps – to dig ‘down and down for the good turf’, to plough his lonely furrow as a poet.
The theme of this poem is the relationship between father and son. In poetry, fathers are constant ghostly shadows offering nostalgic, intimate images of a safe and tender childhood. Heaney explores this theme here in ‘Follower’ and in many other poems like ‘Digging’ and ‘The Harvest Bow’. In ‘The Harvest Bow’, Seamus Heaney’s father, Patrick, emerges as a strong ‘tongue tied’ man, a man of action and of few words. He has fashioned the harvest bow for his son as a ‘throwaway love-knot of straw’. The poem is a tender exploration of the Father/Son relationship and it is clear that an unspoken understanding has grown between them, lovingly expressed by the harvest bow which Heaney fingers and reads ‘like braille ….. gleaning the unsaid off the palpable’. Heaney then translates what he has read and puts it into words which he fashions and plaits and weaves into a tender ‘love-knot’ of a poem. In ‘Digging’ he explores other aspects of this same theme. He looks down from his window and paints a rather unflattering picture of his father, ‘his straining rump among the flowerbeds’ reminds him of a scene twenty years earlier as his father was digging out potatoes on the home farm. Here, in ‘Follower’ he juxtaposes his father’s patience with him as a child with his own grown up impatience and annoyance,
It is my father who keeps stumbling
Behind me, and will not go away.
The poem is titled ‘Follower’ and Heaney invites us to explore the various meanings of the word as it is used today – he follows in his father’s footsteps, we follow Man United, she is a follower of Christ, a disciple. The poem ends with a denouement when the roles are suddenly reversed and now the father is seen ‘stumbling behind me’. The great irony here, of course, is that Heaney was not a follower – he was a trailblazer, a man outstanding in his own field, so to speak! Mark Patrick Hederman OSB, former Abbot of Glenstal Abbey, County Limerick, uses a lovely analogy to describe poets and other artists in his book, The Haunted Inkwell– he says that artists are like the dove that Noah released from the Ark after 40 days to check if the waters were receding. Eventually, the third dove brought back an olive branch – we need trailblazers and scouts like that to go before us, to take the risks, and help us explore our unchartered waters. Heaney is a poet, like Kavanagh and Hartnett, who has remained attached to his home place and the values and the traditions of his parents, ‘All I know is a door into the dark’. We can be grateful that our poets are pioneers, working at the frontier of language. They are translators, translating for us events that we cannot grasp.
These early poems in Death of a Naturalist are all metaphors, endeavouring to crystallise the meaning of art and the role of the artist in our world – the poet is described as gardener, turf-cutter, as diviner, as smithy, as ploughman. He celebrates this local craftsmanship – the diviner, the digger, the blacksmith and the breadmaker and he hankers back to his childhood and the community of that childhood for several reasons. Indeed, part of the excitement of reading his poetry is the way in which he leads you from the parish of Anahorish in County Derry outwards in space and time, making connections with kindred spirits, both living and dead, so that he verifies for us Patrick Kavanagh’s belief that the local is universal. For example in ‘The Forge’, he appears at first glance to be looking back with fond nostalgia at the work of the local village blacksmith, Barney Devlin. However, the real subject of the poem is the mystery of the creative process – writing poetry is like ‘a door into the dark’. The work of the forge serves, therefore, as an extended metaphor for the creative work and craftsmanship of poetry.
In ‘Follower’, like ‘Digging’, he continues to use this extended metaphor as he focuses on his father as farmer and ploughman. His father is ‘an expert’. He recalls precious scenes and memories from his childhood with great accuracy. He mentions the plough and all its individual parts, ‘the shafts’, ‘the wing’, ‘the bright steel-pointed sock’, the horse’s ‘headrig’. The opening lines cleverly introduce the simile of his father’s shoulders ‘globed like a full sail’ and he then follows this with the exquisite metaphor of his father as ancient mariner using angles and eyesight ‘mapping the furrow exactly’ while the young Heaney struggles and stumbles ‘in his hob-nailed wake’. His childhood is spent in his father’s shadow and he decides that ‘I wanted to grow up and plough’. Similar to ‘Digging’, the very first poem in Death of a Naturalist, he wants to follow in his father and grandfather’s footsteps and dig except he realises that ‘I’ve no spade to follow men like them’. Instead, he decides that he will follow in their footsteps but instead of a spade he will dig with his pen:
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
‘Follower’ ends with a jolt. The poet is suddenly back in the present, the childhood reverie over. He juxtaposes the past with the present: his youthful self,
.. was a nuisance, tripping, falling,
This memory is sharply contrasted with the awkward reality that time has passed and now it is his ageing father who is the ‘nuisance’,
It is my father who keeps stumbling
Behind me and will not go away.
During the last three verses, the poet returns to the present time and he says that nowadays his father is the one who is stumbling behind him because of his age. The word ‘Behind’ used by Seamus Heaney in the last verse, forces us to accept the total reversal of roles which have taken place. The poet is no longer the follower and now his once stoical and patient father struggles to keep up as his impatient twenty-seven-year-old son sets sail on his own adventure. He has finally moved out of his father’s shadow and now must plough his own unique and lonely furrow.
The poem is one of many which pays homage to the poet’s humble beginnings in Bellaghy, Mossbawn, and Anahorish. It is interesting to note that many of the later poems in this collection, Death of a Naturalist, describe his developing relationship with Marie Devlin, his future wife (the collection is dedicated to her). Surefooted, he begins his odyssey away from Mossbawn and on to Belfast, Glanmore, Oxford and Harvard, and into our hearts forever.
As you plaited the harvest bow
You implicated the mellowed silence in you
In wheat that does not rust
But brightens as it tightens twist by twist
Into a knowable corona,
A throwaway love-knot of straw.
Hands that aged round ashplants and cane sticks
And lapped the spurs on a lifetime of game cocks
Harked to their gift and worked with fine intent
Until your fingers moved somnambulant:
I tell and finger it like braille,
Gleaning the unsaid off the palpable,
And if I spy into its golden loops
I see us walk between the railway slopes
Into an evening of long grass and midges,
Blue smoke straight up, old beds and ploughs in hedges,
An auction notice on an outhouse wall—
You with a harvest bow in your lapel,
Me with the fishing rod, already homesick
For the big lift of these evenings, as your stick
Whacking the tips off weeds and bushes
Beats out of time, and beats, but flushes
Nothing: that original townland
Still tongue-tied in the straw tied by your hand.
The end of art is peace
Could be the motto of this frail device
That I have pinned up on our deal dresser—
Like a drawn snare
Slipped lately by the spirit of the corn
Yet burnished by its passage, and still warm.
Commmentary: This beautiful tender poem is taken from Heaney’s collection Field Work (1979). In a way it is fitting that I’m publishing this blog post on Father’s Day because this poem explores the close relationship between Seamus Heaney the poet and Patrick Heaney his father. Heaney’s Mossbawn poems contain numerous references to family members; his mother, his Aunt Mary, his grandfather, his brother and his father who is mentioned most notably in the poem ‘Digging’ but also in ‘Follower’ and other poems.
Heaney’s poetry contains many references to dying rural crafts and traditions and the harvest bow in one such tradition. The bow was fashioned from freshly cut straw and often given by the maker as a token of love. Here it is silently fashioned by the father and given to his son, ‘a throwaway love-knot of straw’.
Patrick Heaney emerges as a strong, no-nonsense, unsentimental country man who strides through his fields ‘whacking the tips off weeds and bushes’. He is a man of few words, a man ‘tongue-tied’ who prefers to express himself in actions rather than words. Like Barney Devlin in ‘The Forge’ or the ploughman in ‘Follower’ or his grandfather in ‘Digging’, who ‘cut more turf in a day/ than any other man on Toner’s bog’, Heaney sees his father as a craftsman teaching the young poet-to-be that the artist expresses himself through his work. Heaney sees in his father’s attention to detail the attitude he wishes to bring to his own work as a poet.
The poem is a tender exploration of the father/son relationship and it is clear that an unspoken understanding grows between them and is expressed through the gift of the harvest bow, which is being fashioned by the father as they both stroll together through the fields of stubble on an Autumn evening. The poet fingers the harvest bow and reads it ‘like braille … gleaning the unsaid off the palpable’. He then translates what he has read for us and puts it into words which he fashions and plaits and weaves into a poem. This is reminiscent of the poet’s conclusions in ‘Digging’ – he wants to follow in his father’s footsteps but instead of digging with a spade he will use his pen.
This poem was published in 1979 at the height of the Northern ‘Troubles’ and it sees Heaney retreating again to a happy childhood memory to erase the pain of the daily catalogue of shootings and bombings. The motto used at the beginning of the final stanza, ‘The end of art is peace’, therefore, is rich in meaning and open to many interpretations. The obvious one is that father and son have achieved a moment of peace and harmony via their respective crafts and of course it has wider political implications also in the context of the continuing conflict in Northern Ireland. Many commentators at the time accused Heaney of not taking sides, of not highlighting the atrocities of those dark days. Maybe they have not delved deeply enough into his Mossbawn poems and elsewhere? (There’s a thesis there for some enterprising young scholar!)
The harvest bow is a symbol of the love and understanding that has developed between the father and son, it is a ‘love-knot’ which joins them together. The poet remembers those evening rambles with his father through the cornfields and we are struck by the juxtaposition offered us: the young eager poet striding towards his future while the father clings to the traditions and ways of the past:
And if I spy into its golden loops I see us walk between the railway slopes Into an evening of long grass and midges, Blue smoke straight up, old beds and ploughs in hedges, An auction notice on an outhouse wall—
The harvest bow can also be seen as an emblem of rural life and agricultural labour. As I’ve mentioned earlier this poem was written during the ‘Troubles’ in his home place and this has a deep, disturbing effect on the poet. Time and time again he retreats to the safety and womb-like comfort of his Aunt Mary’s kitchen in Mossbawn in an effort to seek some solace and comfort. There is something deeply psychological and human about this regression of the poet. He leaves us with this sharp contrast. The harvest bow is an endearing and enduring symbol of love, a vestige of a long tradition that has been handed down through the generations, yet the poet is forced to live in a society riven with sectarianism and divisions and the annual ‘harvest’ of the dreaded Marching Season, year in year out.
In ‘Sunlight’ he returns to his Aunt Mary’s warm kitchen for consolation while here he looks to his father and the love and understanding that has grown between them as a source of comfort at a time of personal and public upheaval and distress.
The end of art is peace Could be the motto of this frail device
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