Hermit Songs

Heaney dedicates his nine-poem sequence to long-time friend, American academic and author Helen Vendler. He celebrates those who have demonstrated resolute dedication to ‘books’ and scholarship,  who have shut themselves off to a greater or lesser degree from wider society. Some hermit-scholars are legendary and monastic, scribes of illuminated texts; other ‘greats’ are much more recent. With characteristic modesty, Heaney includes his own experiences as part of the chain. The introductory couplet sets out the price of scholarship: its scholar-scribe has shut himself away to follow the mechanics of medieval manuscript production with its ruled quires.  Secluded in his cell he cannot, however, shut out the external sounds of Nature’s joie-de-vivre: Above the ruled quires of my book I hear the […]

Lick The Pencil

In a sequence that ultimately reveals a deep, underlying sorrow two shades are recalled: Heaney’s father Patrick and Colmcille. In the 1940’s and 50’s there existed pencils that produced purplish, semi-permanent markings referred to as ‘indelible’ pencils. It was not uncommon for people to lick the point possibly, in their mind, to darken the script. The pencil and its marks come to symbolise things that do not readily fade away. i  In search of nickname most suggestive of his father’s quirky ways and his farming skills Heaney establishes a shortlist. The first a peculiar mannerism (‘Lick the pencil’)  associated with his father’s professional need to make tallies, record deals agreed in the cattle-market in which he worked. Heaney thinks back […]

Sweeney Out-Takes

A three-poem sequence dedicated to the noted contemporary Cork writer and poet Gregory of Corkus, pseudonym for Greg Delanty (b. 1958). Heaney reprises the internal struggles of the medieval Irish king of the Buile Shuibhne  (Heaney’s published translation as Sweeney Astray,  November1983) . See also the Sweeney Redevivus section in Station Island of 1984.  The basic story tells of Sweeney’s behaviour towards Bishop Ronan that brings the curse of madness upon him. He is driven out into the wilderness where readers follow him in his crazed wanderings through the forest and hills, torn within himself by his love of the wild and his incurable loneliness. All three pieces bear inverted commas suggesting they are re-produced as, of course, are out-takes.. i  Otterboy Heaney recalls a letter […]

Colum Cille Cecinit

In the first of three snippets from an 11th/12th century poem about the 6th-century scholar/saint Columcille Heaney renders the dignity and sacredness of daily toil and demonstrates his respect for scholarly labour. He indicated he had been loyal to the original Irish poem not reproduced here. Colum: from Latin columba “dove”. 6th C. St. Colm Cille (Columba) “dove of the church” (variously Colum Cille) is one of the most important Irish saints. Born in Donegal to a branch of the royal Ui Neill clan, Colm Cille was banished to Scotland  where he founded the monastery on Iona and converted the pagan kings of Scotland to Christianity, Cecinit: Heaney draws directly from Latin using (full title) the 3rd person singular of the Perfect indicative […]


Three-poem sequence dedicated to Ciaron Carson, a fellow Northern Irishman, about ten years Heaney’s junior. Principally a poet and winner of a number of prestigious literary awards, Carson is also a novelist and accomplished musician with an interest in traditional Irish music and ways. Heaney is not quite done with the Gaeltacht pursuing the interplay of reality and make-believe contained in the poem Loughanure.  i  Sidhe (pronounced ‘shee’) The co-existent worlds where a man (a poet or a novelist-musician perhaps) and a creature of fairy-tale may inhabit the same space are worthy of record … a poem perhaps, why not a film? Scene One : the magic cavern setting in which a man-of-earth Caoilte figure was entertained by an unidentified female spirit […]


Human Chain – what is in a title? How does Heaney turn poetic charge into poetry? Heaney provides a music pleasing to the ear Heaney is a meticulous craftsman Using assonance Using alliteration Creating a word-picture Heaney and ‘languages’. Human Chain – what is in a title?   Heaney is a master of title, whether for a collection or an individual piece. His sometimes enigmatic, often ingenious headings invite the attentive reader to seek subtly submerged attachments. As regards Human Chain, it emerges that Heaney was carried down the stairs of the accommodation he was sharing with friends when his illness struck en route to the ambulance; he is a hefty six-footer and recognises the physical challenge that this represented. Within a short time he […]