Ancestral Photograph


A brown-tinted study of the family’s past is to be removed from the wall where it has been hanging. The study is a revealing snap-shot of the person it depicts conjuring up three generations of the Heaney human chain.

The poet transposes the photo into words: that of a proud Irish countryman (with jaws that puff) of seemingly indestructible build (round and solid as a turnip), his lifeless, matt (dead) eyes (fixed by the camera’s shutter) like those of a statue, the facial features suggestive of a dour, overbearing nature: upper lip/ Bullies the heavy mouth down to a droop.

His accessories (a bowler-hat and well-to-do watch-chain of silver … like a hoop) lend him a theatrical stage Irishman appearance with facial expressions that betray his nature: half arrogant (scorn), half  impassive and unemotional  dead-pan.

This is the poet’s great-uncle, a wheeler-dealer instrumental in teaching Heaney’s own father a thing or two about the cattle trade two generations back.

Both the man’s memory and the quality of his portrait have paled with time; the picture must come down; removal reveals a faded patch on the wall where it has long hung akin to the lighter shade left by a bandage … ripped from the skin, a blank space (empty plaque) marking a moment of family history: a house’s rise and fall.

Heaney moves on a generation, setting out the hierarchies, wheeling and dealing and rituals of an Irish cattle market. He claims he was there, given a menial task (herded cattle) whilst his father bartered successfully (won at arguing/ His own price on a crowd), where buyers tested the cattle (handled rumps, groped teats) and once a deal had been agreed bought a round of drinks to clinch the bargain. 

What was true of Irish rural practices when Heaney witnessed them held good (too) thirty years earlier. The poet recalls Uncle and nephew (his great-uncle and his father as a young man) as they heckled and herded through the fair days. The great-uncle of the portrait (penned in the frame) would provide the business patter with his barrel stature and jaunty hat pushed back; his body-language (curtly smack/ hands to indicate that a deal was clinched) was the model later adopted by his own father.

In retirement Heaney’s father deplored change: the replacement of stock-fairs by auctions, the disappearance of strong characters he had known and the bargaining. He wrote off the present generation as farmers going to the shops (Like housewives at an auction ring).

Just two items of that past remain: his father’s stick (emblem of his cattle-controlling days) untouched since it was left parked behind the door; and ironically (Closing this chapter of our chronicle) the Ancestral Photograph itself, about to be stored away in the attic.

  • ancestral: said of people from whom one is descended;
  • puff: well out;
  • turnip: fleshy, round root vegetable;
  • dead: (pun) those of a deceased man; dull, not glossy;
  • bullies: dominate, intimidate;
  • droop: hang downwards limply;
  • bowler: a man’s domed, felt hat;
  • stage: where plays are performed; to do with theatre;
  • scorn: contempt, disdain;
  • dead pan: amusingly expressionless;
  • girds:/ hoop: encircle like a band;
  • trade: (in the case of Heaney’s forebears) practice of buying and selling cattle;
  • fixed: (dual suggestion) permanent; the final stage of photo developing that stabilizes the image and keeps it sharp;
  • sepia tints: reddish brown shades of early monochrome photographs;
  • fade: grow faint;
  • bandage: strip of material that binds a wound;
  • plaque: tablet fixed to a wall that commemorates a person or event;
  • house: both Heaney dwelling and Heaney dynasty;
  • rise and fall: ups and downs, high points and low points;
  • herd: keep in a group;
  • pen: animal enclosure (field or market);
  • arguing: negotiating loudly;
  • handle: manage with skill;
  • rumps: hindquarters;
  • grope: examine by touch;
  • teats: cow’s nipples sucked at by its young;
  • round: set of drinks bought by one person for the group;
  • clinch: confirm, settle;
  • bargain: agreement, cheap deal;
  • heckle: interrupt, shout down;
  • fair: market;
  • barrel: resembling a large, heavy, bulging beer container (all things appear to apply to the man);
  • frame: wooden photo surround;
  • jaunty: lively and self-confident;
  • waistcoat: close-fitting, buttoned garment worn under a jacket;
  • curt: rude, brief, forthright;
  • smack: slap with palm of hand;
  • dealers: people who buy and sell;
  • auction ring: public arena where animals are sold to the highest bidder;
  • stick: walking-stick;
  • chapter: division of a book, particular period of a person’s life;
  • chronicle: account of historical events;
  • attic: room beneath the roof;


  • The removal of a photograph closes a chapter in the family history;
  • the figures of all three generations are brought to life, both in their personal differences and in the family tradition that unites them; Heaney’s observations are caring and warm;
  • cattle auctions replaced fairs, the former more structured less eventful, the latter more colourful, more open to sharp-practice; auctions are seen by Heaney’s father as somehow  less manly;


  • 5 sextets based around 10-syllable lines;
  • up to a dozen sentences. In the longest of these, four consecutive enjambed lines (that provide a continuum  describing the Heaney-family selling techniques) are replaced by a series of commas punctuating the tests used by buyers prior to purchase;
  • Heaney embarks on a challenging rhyme scheme that adds to the complexity of the composition: aabccb ddeffe etc;
  • alliteration: heckled and herded; crowd of cattlemen;
  • sonic echoes: [ʌ] upper/ bullies; [ɪ]  drinks/ clinch; [æ] hat pushed back/ smack/ Hands;
  • plaque: heritage plaques adorn the fronts of houses where some famous figure was born/ lived etc; hyperbole here;
  • girds: the verb enhances the larger-than-life appearance: big man, big watch-chain
  • language of photography: fixed in sepia tints (the fixer is a liquid that sets the ;image during development;
  • still: both ‘yet’ and ‘doesn’t move’;
  • dead is an example of  dual-purpose words used so cleverly by Heaney to pack meaning into his verse: the  eyes that lost their sparkle on photosensitive paper are the eyes of a man long dead;
  • irony: the great-uncle, a free-man compared with penned cattle is penned within the picture frame; in that respect his history is recorded,  metaphorically ‘penned’;


  • Heaney is a meticulous craftsman using combinations of vowel and consonant to form a poem that is something to be listened to;
  • the music of the poem: fourteen assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text.

  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies:
  • the first sentence, for example, weaves together a cluster of plosives (bilabial [p][b], alveolar [t][d]) alongside sibilant [s] and nasals [n] and [m];
  • it is well worth teasing out the sound clusters for yourself to admire the poet’s sonic engineering:
  • Consonants (with their phonetic symbols) can be classed according to where in the mouth they occur
  • Front-of-mouth sounds voiceless bi-labial plosive [p] voiced bi-labial plosive [b]; voiceless labio-dental fricative [f] voiced labio-dental fricative [v]; bi-labial nasal [m]; interlabial continuant [w]
  • Behind-the-teeth sounds voiceless alveolar plosive [t] voiced alveolar plosive [d]; voiceless alveolar fricative as in church match [tʃ]; voiced alveolar fricative as in judge age [dʒ];  voiceless dental fricative  [θ]  as in thin path; voiced dental fricative as  in this other [ð]; voiceless alveolar fricative [s] voiced alveolar fricative [z]; continuant [h] alveolar nasal [n] alveolar approximant [l]; alveolar trill [r]; dental ‘y’ [j] as in  yet
  • Rear-of-mouth sounds voiceless velar plosive [k] voiced velar plosive [g]; voiceless post-alveolar fricative [ʃ] as in ship sure, voiced post- alveolar fricative [ʒ]   as in pleasure; palatal nasal [ŋ]  as in ring/ ang

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