Home Help


Heaney  recalls two aunts who were very much part of his family upbringing.

  1. Helping Sarah

Heaney pictures a woman working in the garden: showing little sign of age (young again as the year); neat and demure with tuck and tightening of blouse; active and untroubled by stiffness of the joints (vigorous advance of knee); busy in the vegetable patch (weeding rigs); frugal (the same old skirt and brogues); both well-organised and in charge (on top of things) – in all, a person to be proud of and look up to (a credit)

His eye focuses on her clothing: tweed skirt reflective of rurality (pinpoints of red haw and yellow whin), well used and characterful, its threadbare workadayness hard and common.

 The woman herself: decisive (quick step); unsmooth of skin (dry hand; organisation and efficiency that expected success (all things well sped); uncompromising views about her world (her open and closed relations with earth’s work).

Only Heaney can guess whether aunt Sarah’s natural bossiness, her manner or simply the fact of living alone explained the distance he felt when he was helping here: everything passed on without a word.

  • tuck: stitched fold;
  • blouse: shirt-like upper garment for a woman;
  • vigorous: energetic;
  • weed: wild, unwanted plant;
  • rig; line, set;
  • brogue: a shoe tracing its roots to Ireland; made of leather, recognisable for the decorative perforations and embossments of its uppers;
  • credit: source of pride, honourable;
  • oatmeal : greyish fawn cream colour of oat flour
  • tweed: rough surfaced woollen fabric;
  • pinpoint: tiny dot;
  • haw: fruit of the hawthorn;
  • whin: yellow-flowered gorse, furze;
  • threadbare: worn thin with age;
  • workaday: ordinary, not special;
  • well-sped: O.E. sped  suggested making a success of undertakings, also, prosperity, advancement;
  • open and closed: categorical, uncompromising;
  • pass on: communicate;
  • Heaney visited his aunt Sarah regularly as an 11 or 12 year old to help in the garden; she was his godmother, unmarried,  a school-teacher and tee total, secretary to the local Pioneer Total Abstinence Association and instrumental in getting the young Heaney in his ‘teens’ to sign a pledge not to drink alcohol; he confirms in ‘Brancardier’ that he kept to the pledge, only taking up alcohol as an undergraduate;


  • 2 stanzas; 11 lines based on 10 syllables; no rhyme scheme;
  • The enjambments and contingent flow of the first sentence contrast with multiple semi-colons in stanza (2); the end of (1) sums up the value of the woman to self, family and gender: And a credit;
  • Stanza (1) begins with alliterative pairings: tuck and tightening; vigorous advance; young year; these give way to sibilants: rigs/ same/ skirt/ brogues/ she straightened; limited assonant effects[au] blouse/ out; [e] every credit;
  • In (2) [e] is carried through: red/ yellow/ thread/ step/ sped; injection of paired [i:] oatmeal tweed, [əʊ] open/ closed  and [ɜː] earth’s work/ word; minor alliterative effects using [t] oatmeal tweed/ pinpoints               
  1. Chairing Mary

Notable figures might once have been chaired and held aloft to receive praise – aunt Mary Heaney would have fitted the bill; she shared the family home for a long period in the poet’s early and teenage years, joining in with the work and activities of Mossbawn and The Wood. As she aged she suffered more and more from arthritis and Heaney explained to DOD how he and his brothers carried her up and downstairs before they left home. Heaney pays a genuinely moving tribute to her memory.

As an invalid Mary took little exercise (heavy) and came to require total care (helpless). Help was at hand in the shape of the young men in the family (carefully manhandled). To try and avoid aggravating her pain they moved her every night in a wooden chair.

Thanks to them her daytime might be spent downstairs, watching time pass (the sun sundialled) and noting how its celestial movement distorted light (window-splays across the quiet floor).

 Mary and her chair formed a single entity (her body heat had entered the braced timber).

Coping with twisting stairs was onerous: one in front, the second behind (two… tilting and hoisting), the upper one guiding, the lower taking the deadweight (bearing the brunt). The bearers judged their performance from her expressions (not averting eyes from her hurting bulk) sensitive and compassionate (not embarrassed) though never quite at ease with the task.

 Mary is dead now and the affectionate, respectful (bent to) goodnight kisses he and the family bestowed on her in her lifetime (warm brow) were replaced by the single kiss of severance at her wake (before we kissed it cold).


  • Aunt Mary Heaney was the subject of ‘Sunlight’, a warm nostalgic portrait of her in ‘North’
  • manhandled: moved by hand with great effort; also in this case handled by young men;
  • sundial: a sun-clock; as the sun moves its shadow moves; this can be plotted on a horizontal surface using a sharp edge called a gnomon;
  • splay: something that becomes wider, more spread out;
  • braced: with  extra struts of wood at joints to ensure the stiffness of the structure;
  • tilt: move from horizontal to angled;
  • bear the brunt:  here take the main weight;  brunt “chief force” first attested in the1570s;
  • avert eyes: take one’s eyes off;
  • bulk: mass of something large;
  • used to: accustomed;
  • brow: forehead;
  • cold: dead;
  • Heaney reveals that, perhaps because he was the first child, his aunt Mary ‘petted’ him a bit (DOD57); he loved her in return;


  • 3 quatrains; lines based around 10 syllables; no rhyme scheme;
  • sound effects: assonant [eə]  Chairing Mary/ carefully/ upstairs; [e] heavy, helpless/ every; [ʌ] carefully/ Upstairs/ sun sundialled; [ei] day/ splays; alliterative touches: aspirated start heavy helpless; cluster of sibilants: she sat/ sun sundialled/ splays across; [ai] sundialled/ quiet;
  • poetic licence: Heaney uses the noun to create the verb ‘to sundial’;
  • in (2) aspirates return: Her/ heat had/ hold/ hoisting alongside assonant [ei] braced/ take/ weighted; bilabial pairing [b] bearing the brunt also[w] weighted/ one/ lower/ one; stages marked by use of present participles –ing; these verbs can be extended in time to mimic the deliberate care of the stages;
  • stanza (3) is in two poetic halves: the first focuses on the emotional interchange of an otherwise physical challenge using [ɜː] averting/ hurting; the final couplet contains the personal affection Mary was held in and the Heaney family’s respect (Bent to) and sadness at her passing;
  • vocabulary of life and death: warm/ cold; final alliterative [k] kissed/ kissed/ cold;   
  • The real meat on the bone comes in poems such as “Nonce Words,” “Home Help” and “The Blackbird of Glanmore,” where the pain of loss disarms the decencies and decorum of Heaney’s style to go beyond nostalgia to genuine pathos. David Wheatley in The Contemporary Poetry Review.
  • 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, soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies; this is sonic engineering of the first order;
  • for example, the final four lines are especially rich in alveolar plosives [t] [d] and nasals [m] [n] alongside front-of-mouth sounds: labio-dental fricatives [f] [v], bi-labial plosive [b], breathy [w] and [h];
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;

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