Heaney an extraordinary man in ordinary clothing Heaney the cordon-bleu cook Heaney the agent of change Heaney the orchestral composer Heaney the word painter Heaney the meticulous craftsman (including phonetic information) Thumbnails of poems ‘Titles and elements’ Stylistic devices   an extraordinary man in ordinary clothes Poets are a breed apart!  Unlike ordinary mortals such as you and I their consciousness is constantly tuned into things that give off a poetic charge and their vocation compels them to pounce on such sudden, involuntary moments before they fade away. Poets are constantly on the qui-vive; they have a way of recording these unpredictable, involuntary instances – poets are never far away from composition mode which transforms  electrical impulse into verse; poets […]

The Riddle

This ingenious little poem (Helen Vendler judges it ‘exquisite’) enables Heaney to pull out of the hat the metaphor that describes the finely balanced challenges he faces in composing works of art – the handwork that produces the handiwork. The key to solving the riddle may well lie in the words of Vaclav Havel, Czech dissident turned President, whose optimism impressed Heaney: ‘Hope is a state of mind, not a state of the world … not the conviction that something will turn out well but the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out because it is good’.  Heaney’s clever title says ‘think riddle think pun’: he juxtaposes difficult questions that require the poet’s personal responses and […]

The Disappearing Island

The story bears similarities to a snippet from the medieval account (traced back to 500 AD) of the ‘Voyage of St Brendan’ later Abbot of Clonfert. Heaney clarified what led to the poem in conversation with DOD (289): I ( ) came to realize that much of what we accepted as natural in our feelings and attitudes was a cultural construction … The second last poem in the book, for example, ‘The Disappearing Island’, is still a form of aisling, a vision poem about Ireland, even though it is an aisling inflected with irony. The story is told of a particular occasion (once) when a group of missionary sailors with the common quest (we) felt they had discovered St Brendan’s […]

The Mud Vision

Heaney pursues the anonymity of his parable format but let it be known via his contribution to an Irish Hospice Foundation book published a month after his death in 2013 that The Mud Vision is a poem embedded in memories of life in an older Ireland but it also gestures towards an Ireland that is still coming into being. It has its origins in certain incidents in my personal past and has its meaning in intimations of what seems to be happening in the national psyche, at present and for the future. The circumstances and triggers that led to the poem, Heaney’s further responses, the thoughts of other commentators and press reports are fascinating. This commentary is followed by a comprehensive Background […]

From the Canton of Expectation

Heaney’s much admired triptych attracted comments from high-flying politician and revered academic alike: Irish President Mary McAleese commented on the educational aspect: ‘Heaney describes the changes wrought when education became available to those whose destiny had been to be second best, and to make a virtue of stoically, even pathetically, putting up with it’; Helen Vendler remarked on the ‘metaphysical parable’ schematic: its three parts – nationalist exhausted optatives, youthful imperatives and the yearning for an indicative – sketch the state of the Northern Catholic population, and its competing discourses, without ever mentioning it by name. The ‘Canton’ from which Heaney speaks to us is a unit in time and space as big or as small as he wants it […]

A Shooting Script

Heaney employs a kind of poetic software package to produce a feature regretting the ‘dwindling’ of the Irish experience and the replacement of Old Ireland including its Irish language and Gaeltacht by a modern culture that is capitalist, self-centred and anglophone. The narrative includes a sideswipe at the Catholic Church but finally wishes it to be known that there is still time to protect old values – the scribbled message in the sand sure to be erased by the tide is preserved in the eternal present of his poem. The Shooting Script is aimed at the Irish-minded, providing imagery and scene directions bristling with specialist vocabulary. Setting 1 presents the Irish ‘cultural imagination’ of a previous  age – characters fixed […]

Wolfe Tone

Heaney voices his poem to the late 18th century Irish revolutionary whose tenacious personal ambitions for Ireland were scuppered amidst the political and religious storms of late 18th century Irish and European events. It contains elements of parable to do with the difficulty of uniting behind a single banner what are effectively two Irelands, as elusive in the 1790s as it is in the year Wolfe Tone was written. In the first panel of the triptych Tone’s shade adopts Heaney’s boating metaphor to appraise his performance: I ought to have stayed afloat, he suggests, but came to naught; I was at best a one-man operative (light as a skiff) nimble and agile in traffic (manoeuvrable) but let down by circumstances […]

The Song of the Bullets

Heaney’s Song of the Bullets predicts dark times around the corner for Northern Ireland. Heaney’s title suggests a musical setting. In fact sound accompaniment will be provided not by musicians but by agents of death personified to utter their own message of predominance and power. On the face of it a long-time rural observer of events as they develop around him watches from his personal space (yard). The situation appears reassuringly stable – the distant firmament is unchanged (usual stars) whilst closer to the Earth the comforting presences of the solar system (still and seemly planets) shed their light, albeit frail (lantern-bright), above familiar ground at dusk (our darkened hill). Suddenly his radar is disrupted: an abnormal signal (star that […]

Holding Course

In a collection bristling with self- scrutiny  Incertus, the pen-name Heaney gave himself in his earliest work, never really deserts him. He is sitting in his workroom on the top floor of the family’s Dublin home. His wife’s distracting presence and the ways she arouses him after more than two decades of marriage bring into question his own contribution the steady-as-she-goes course of their relationship. The piece is intimate, tender, erotic. Initial memories of a night ferry journey that he and Marie have made allegorize the things life throws up: the constant tremors (propellers underwater) the relentless sound (cabins drumming), the unrelenting artificial lighting. If not a specific journey then ferries, so life,  in general – not always at the […]

Grotus and Coventina

Heaney composes a love poem to Marie years after they visited Hadrian’s Wall in England’s Northumberland. His particular interest in the architectural remnants and artefacts of Roman presence uncovered a two-thousand year old story bristling with poetic and emotional charge. Water is very much the unifying factor. Personal exile added to the intensity of the poem: Heaney fulfilled a series of part-year contracts at Harvard University in the United States that took him away from wife, home and family for prolonged periods. Heaney weaves the tale of a legionary soldier living at the northern limit of the vast Roman Empire (far from home) whose pain of exile and loneliness drove him to construct a sanctuary dedicated to a Romano-Celtic water […]

A Peacock’s Feather

Spurred by his wife Heaney extemporized the poem (dated 1972) on the day his and Marie Heaney’s niece Daisy Garnett was christened. The child was the middle daughter of Marie’s sister Polly Devlin and her well-connected old-Etonian husband Andrew Garnett living in their stately home in Gloucestershire, England. Polly Devlin describes it as ‘profound and delicate, strong and sub-texted, glowing with observation and truth’ (Writing Home). The circumstances might actually have presented Heaney with moments of unease hidden in his carefully worded narrative: he is in a stately home that would have held different connotations back in Ireland not least for a modest farmer’s boy like himself. He knows the Devlin family very well (so must be careful to govern […]

A Postcard from Iceland

As both medievalist and Irishman Heaney took an interest in the Nordic and Icelandic sagas as pointers to his Celtic legacy. He refers to the ‘unmagical invitations of Iceland’ in the title poem of ‘North’ (1975) and will in his next collection picture himself sharing an outdoor hydrothermal bath in the presence of Snorri Sturluson (1179 –1241), Icelandic historian, poet, and politician (Seeing Things, Settings xxiii , 1991). DOD dates Heaney’s only recorded visit to Iceland with piper Liam O’Flynn to 2001.  In a poem of ‘postcard’ length space demands that each word counts. The poet-linguist in Heaney uses the ploy to unite his deep consciousness of being alive with words that echo a distant language link and secure a […]

The Wishing Tree

On the road out of Ardboe in Co Tyrone down towards Loch Neagh on a sharp right-hand bend, headstones are planted around a ruined church once a monastery. Views over the lough are awesome. At the entrance to the cemetery stands an impressive 10th century High Cross and behind it the site of the ‘Pin Tree’ that blew down on Christmas Eve 1997. It had been poisoned by myriad metallic objects hammered into its ‘wishing tree’ trunk. Heaney was thinking about his wife Marie’s mother Eileen Devlin (the wishing tree that died) when he wrote the piece though he never names her. The Devlin family home was little more than two miles away from the cemetery. Eileen and Tommy Devlin […]

The Summer of Lost Rachel

Heaney responds to the tragic loss of his niece, Rachel, elegising her in the eternal present of his poem. Rachel was the daughter of his brother Hugh who continued to live on the Heaney family property at The Wood. The abundant rain that irrigates the mid-Ulster landscape plays a role in a disastrous accident; the child who was lost is retrieved in the poetic imagination as a water nymph gracing the local landscape. Heaney sets out the prequel to catastrophe:  annual signs of seasonal growth around Rachel’s Bellaghy home (your back door) – crops, like Rachel, not yet mature but well on the way (potato … flowering … hard green plums on damson trees) – the fruitfulness of blackberry or […]

The Milk Factory

On the face of it boy-Heaney, roaming the Castledawson locality with his pals, becomes fascinated by the milky effluent draining into the Moyola from the Nestlé factory, as if a newly discovered feature of the landscape. Linking the milky concoction that discoloured the river waters and its mysterious source releases Heaney’s imagination. Both factory and youngsters who looked on become actors in a kind of sci-fi narrative. Playmates on a riverside walk are drawn to the lumpy, bubbly liquid (scuts of froth) eddying into the river Moyola (swirled), visual evidence of directed leakage from the Nestlé factory (drainage pipe). The cocktail brew (milky water) generates in the poet’s imagination a Crucifixion image of sullied goodness (the pierced side of milk […]


Heaney’s moving, celebratory eight-sonnet sequence picks out moments from a lifetime spent close his mother Margaret Kathleen Heaney née McCann who died three years before the publication of ‘The Haw Lantern’. Heaney set himself the challenge of expressing his love for her and his debt to her in the sensitive ways of which only he is capable. To this end he added the demands of the sonnet form. He commented (DOD312): When my mother died, my own thing was easier to complete. I actually enjoyed writing those sonnets, and did them quickly. And quickest of all was the one about folding sheets, which also turns out to be the most intricate and most playful. Heaney dips into the maternal line […]

The Old Team

Heaney considered himself a ‘Castledawson boy’ – the village was close to his home at Mossbawn, his mother hailed from there and his maternal grandparents lived at 5 New Row. The soccer pitch on Bridge Street overlooked by Christ Church is still part of the Castledawson village landscape. Both figure in a sonnet inspired by an archive photograph of the local football side that pictured his grandfather as a young man. The sonnet elegises not just grandad McCann. It focuses poignantly on that whole cohort of young men who turned out on Saturday afternoons in all weathers, indeed, on a whole mid Ulster era with its class structure from the local landowner down to those spent a lifetime tied to […]

In Memoriam: Robert Fitzgerald

Heaney composes a sonnet elegising a much respected member of the Harvard Senior Common Room (a ‘giant in the autumn of his reign’) whom the poet, on sabbatical leave in New England, first met in 1979. Fitzgerald died in 1985. Heaney particularly liked him for making him, the Irish rookie abroad, feel so much at home. The first seven lines are solidly earth bound before erupting via a single line of surreal cinematic deconstruction into a cosmic journey – from prehistoric diagram to space odyssey.  Megalithic maze and arrow flight both end up at a single point, the first an inward journey saluting prehistoric erudition the second bearing the soul of Fitzgerald to a merited place amongst the stars. The […]

The Spoonbait

As part of what Heaney called a ‘surfeit’ of Catholic training as a youngster the Catechism sought to teach him that the human soul is immortal. Though he is lapsed Heaney’s faith still resonates, sometimes testingly. His metaphysical parable asks whether the immortality of the soul is dependent on faith. Using an extended fishing metaphor Heaney resists the temptation to re-engage. Grappling with his faith brings the need for fresh comparison (a new similitude is given us). Heaney couches his attempt to find a tangible material equivalent of a metaphysical notion (soul) in archaic Old Testament language (compared unto) building the narrative round something he caught unexpected sight of as a school-age youngster: a fishing accessory (spoonbait) that a classmate […]

A Ship of Death

Heaney presents a short section from his much admired ‘Beowulf’, the anonymous epic of the first millennium written in Anglo-Saxon/ Old English which he is translating over time and will publish in its entirety in 1999. The poet remains faithful to the original text using his creative talent and rich store of vocabulary to create a version that is both intellectually competent and pleasing to the ear. Scyld was still a strong man when his time came and he crossed over into Our Lord’s keeping. His warrior band did what he bade them when he laid down the law among the Danes: they shouldered him out to the sea’s flood, the chief they revered who had long ruled them. A […]

From the Land of the Unspoken

A nameless ‘foreign correspondent’ –let us call him ‘Correspondent’ – reports back on an unnamed land.  For all its anonymity, however, we recognise the voice as ‘Heaney’s and his unspoken nowhere as his own land, the island of Ireland. As it develops the poem will reflect deeply and emotionally on the notion of Irish nationhood. Heaney very much regrets that those who would might have wished to change the face of Irishness failed and still fail to change the ‘language’. Correspondent reports first on a neighbouring ‘elsewhere’ (I have heard of) – read ‘France’ – where something ‘absolute’ emerged from its scientific thinking: a unit of length fixed in a durable bar of platinum, accurate to within a few millimeters […]

The Stone Verdict

Heaney indicated that he had strongly considered The Stone Verdict as a title for the collection (DOD290). Elegising his father Patrick Heaney, the poet imagines an alternative memorial to the headstone which stands in Bellaghy churchyard. In a collection that bristles with classical references he turns to a classical source and builds a burial monument that elevates his father to divine status. Heaney places the ‘shadow’ of Patrick Heaney in the judgment place,  not in ‘particular judgment’ before God post mortem but before a ‘jury’ of his mid-Ulster peers, instantly recognisable to those who lived or worked with him with his iconic ash-plant (stick in his hand) and head-gear (broad hat) – the same acutely sensitive Patrick Heaney (maimed by […]

Two Quick Notes

Heaney addresses twin obituaries to an anonymous someone who played a fundamental role in his development. Retrospective clues identifying  his father Patrick Heaney will appear in the next collection, Seeing Things:  ’a solid man, a pillar to himself and to his trade …can sprout wings at the ankle …fleet as the god of fair days ‘ (Crossings xxvii) and, reflecting on the house Patrick designed and built at The Wood, plain, big, straight, ordinary…a paradigm of rigour and correction, rebuke to fanciness and shrine to limit (Crossings xxxiii), finally the quoted judge who suffered no fool gladly (The Ash Plant). I Heaney tells of his long-standing closeness (old…friend) to an uncompromising figure (hard) – someone who at times actively looked […]


As early as Blackberry Picking with his family in Death of a Naturalist (1966) child-Heaney discovered perishability In the world around him, laws of mutabilty that reduced stored treasure to decomposition, pleasurable blackberries to ‘rat-grey fungus’. The experience offered him two lessons, firstly that nothing remains in its perfect state for long and secondly that moments of poetic charge from whatever source can and do spark an involuntary welling up of emotional consciousness within him. The heart-on-ones-sleeve responses of that early poem are replaced, in the metaphysical parable of Hailstones, by the outcome of a childhood experience in which ice melted into nothing and how its nothingness in the mind of a child destined to become a poet became an […]

From the Republic of Conscience

An anonymous first person ‘I’, let us call him Traveller, journeys wittingly to a place with a mysterious name. Traveller is an individual normally caught up in a maelstrom of activity, sensitive to Nature surrounding him and family-minded. I Heaney accepted that the poem was set in a remote island off the north-east coast of Scotland: I imagined the Republic of Conscience as a place of silence and solitude where a person would find it hard to avoid self-awareness and self-examination, which is what made me think of Orkney (DOD292); The airplane carrying Traveller has arrived at its scheduled destination – an allegorical somewhere bearing an unusual name (republic of conscience). Traveller is met with conducive silence (noiseless when the […]