Seamus Heaney, arguably the greatest poet Ireland has produced since Yeats, passed away last year, aged 74.
On this sad day that would have been his 75th birthday, we’re celebrating his life by bringing ourselves right back to primary school and remembering some of the poet’s greatest work.
Heaney perfectly and beautifully describes the divide between himself and past generations of his family. Digging is not just symbolic of Heaney’s life, but of Ireland’s move away from rural life in general.
“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.”
2. Mid-Term Break
Most certainly Heaney’s most heartbreaking piece of work, Mid-Term Break is about the death of his younger brother.
“Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple,
He lay in the four foot box as in his cot.
No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.
A four foot box, a foot for every year.”
Heaney published this poem four years after the death of his mother. The poem is a sonnet and describes their extremely close relationship.
“When all the others were away at Mass
I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.
They broke the silence, let fall one by one
Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:
Cold comforts set between us, things to share
Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.
And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes
From each other’s work would bring us to our senses.
So while the parish priest at her bedside
Went hammer and tongs at prayers for the dying
And some were responding and some crying
I remembered her head bent towards my head,
Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives —
Never closer the whole rest of our lives.”
Perhaps one of Heaney’s finest, and in most ways most sincerely Irish, Heaney describes this particular work as referring to: “the bogs I knew while I was growing up and the stories I had heard about the things that could be preserved in the bog such as supplies of butter that were kept there, and about the things that were even more astonishing to a child, such as the skeleton of an Irish elk which our neighbours had dug out”.
“We have no prairies
To slice a big sun at evening –
Everywhere the eye concedes to
Is wooed into the cyclops’ eye
Of a tarn. Our unfenced country
Is bog that keeps crusting
Between the sights of the sun.”
Often considered as a companion piece to Yeats’ “Easter 1916”, Heaney’s Casualty tells the story of a pub-loving fisherman who refuses to obey the curfew and is killed during the struggle, without having taken any massive part in it.
“He would drink by himself
And raise a weathered thumb
Towards the high shelf,
Calling another rum
And blackcurrant, without
Having to raise his voice,
Or order a quick stout
By a lifting of the eyes
And a discreet dumb-show
Of pulling off the top;
At closing time would go
In waders and peaked cap
Into the showery dark,
A dole-kept breadwinner
But a natural for work.“