Seamus Heaney dies at 74

Posted: August 30, 2013 in Uncategorized

Seamus Heaney was a poet laureate of Ireland and though born in Northern Ireland lived most of his later adult life in Catholic Dublin. A regular fixture in the literature departments of the most prestigious universities he was known for his voluminous collections of poetry. His most common themes included evocative renderings of the common life, the strife in his homeland and meditations on mortality before eternity. In addition he was known for the translation of the epic Beowulf into modern language.

Some years ago I was visiting friends in Belfast and was invited to attend a gathering of some of the luminaries of Northern Ireland. When I arrived at Linen Hall I had no idea that Heaney would be in attendance, along with the likes of Michael Longley and one of my distant relatives, poet Ciaron Carson (the Carsons are all from Ulster, the grouping of counties surrounding Belfast).

Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley at Linen Hall, Tim Carson in background

Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley at Linen Hall, Tim Carson in background

In his well-known poem, Digging, Heaney remembers first the digging of his father and then his grandfather, men so connected to and owned by the soil that their son and grandson could never imagine doing, being the same. Instead he will give his life to a digging of a different sort. And so he did:

Between my finger and my thumb   
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
Under my window, a clean rasping sound   
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:   
My father, digging. I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds   
Bends low, comes up twenty years away   
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills   
Where he was digging.
The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft   
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.
By God, the old man could handle a spade.   
Just like his old man.
My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
  1. Mike says:

    A rare reminiscence and an apt choice in homage. Well done.

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