The Turnip Snedder

In ‘Stepping Stones’ (p 407) Heaney acknowledges to Dennis O’Driscoll that District and Circle was a time for ‘pouncing’ on poems; the inspiration for this opener was a photograph the poet saw visiting  in an exhibition by modernist artist Hughie O’Donoghue to whom he dedicates the piece. Associated with Heaney’s rural Irish ‘territory’, this manually driven turnip-crushing machine, a piece of archaic agricultural machinery, comes to bear the hallmarks of a medieval war-machine and introduces more modern forms of violence implicit within the first dozen or so poems in the collection

Heaney takes us back a good sixty years to a less sophisticated time before the liquidizer and other modern implements, to an age of bare hands/ and cast iron. The emblems chosen to illustrate the moment (fully recognisable to those who lived through the post-war period) hold a clue to the design of the snedder: the clamp-on meat-mincer/ the double-flywheeled water-pump.

The machine personified by Heaney is solid, obstinate, not to be moved: it dug its heels in… In contrast the yard in which it stands is farm-typical with wooden tubs … troughs of slops. 

Sense data associated with touch are introduced: its cast-iron exterior is hotter than body heat/ in summertime, cold in winter/ as winter’s body armour; the implement is depicted as the classical armed-man adding to its solid, uncompromising stance with barrel-chested breast-plate/ standing guard/ on four braced greaves.

Heaney endows his soldier/ snedder with an equally single-minded, unintelligent mentality and voice to match: This is the way that God sees life/… from seedling-braird to snedder. The God described by the snedder evokes Dantesque images and medieval and Renaissance paintings, particularly those of the Last Judgment depicting the fate awaiting poor souls as they are fed into Hell’s ‘mincer’!

The implement exemplifies ‘the turnip-cycle: it is a metal executioner, beheading turnips and turning them to purée for cattle feed. The snedder appears to derive pleasure from the textures and colours of the liquidization process: juiced-up inner blades … raw sliced mess, bucketful by glistering bucketful.

  • Hughie O’Donoghue was born in England but lived and worked for many years in County Kerry, Ireland after his graduation from Goldsmiths in 1982 .His engages with the past using allegory and abstraction to explore themes of self, memory and experience; his sources are historical and mythological and his paintings are judged to exude great emotional intensity;
  • cast iron: alloy of iron and carbon poured as a liquid into a mould
  • a meat grinder or meat mincer invented by Karl Drais in the 19th century and now out-of-date is a kitchen appliance (made of cast-iron and clamped to the working-top) for grinding, fine mincing or mixing raw or cooked meat, fish, vegetables or similar food.
  • the food to be minced was put into a funnel placed on the top of the grinder. From there the material passed along a horizontal screw conveyor. This screw conveyor traditionally powered by a hand wheel squashed and partially mixed the food. At the end of the screw conveyor there was a knife installed directly in front of the fixed hole plate. At this opening the minced meat came out of the machine. The fineness of the meat depended on the size of the holes of the plate;
  • pre WWII water pumps were based on flywheel engines, that is engines that has a large flywheel or set of flywheels connected to the crankshaft. The flywheels maintained engine speed. When these engines were designed technology was rudimentary compared with today’s and all parts were made very large. The engine material was mainly cast iron and all significant engine parts were cast from it.
  • to dig ones heels in: refuse stubbornly to be moved;
  • tub: round, flat-bottomed container
  • trough: a long container for cattle feed or water;
  • barrel chested: with a large, round chest
  • slops: semi liquid kitchewn refuse used as animal feed;
  • In a suit of armour the breast-plate protected the soldier’s thorax and greaves his shins;
  • braird [n.]: (possibly Old English) first shoots of new grass or similar crop (“the grass has brairded”);
  • slice: cut into sections
  • juiced up: covered in semi-liquid remnants;
  • blade: a metal cutting-piece;
  • mess: sloppy mishmash
  • glistering: shiny


  • 10 couplets divided into 2 sentences: the physical sight of and analogies suggested by a farmyard implement; a process that, whilst it produces bounty, is predicated on a self-justifying act of violence;
  • the couplets vary dramatically in length and rhythm through a combination of punctuation and enjambed lines; overall the rhythms suggest the continuous but varying speed of the manually operated handle;
  • without a formal rhyme scheme the poem is rich in assonant and alliterative effects;
  • assonances: the first lines weaves the variant sounds of the vowel (a): [ei] age; [ei] bare; [æ] hands/ cast/ clamp; later [ɔː] water; this is followed in turn by chains (close or separated) of [i:]: meat/ wheeled/ heels/ heat/ greaves/ seedling; then [ʌ]: double/ dug/ among wooden tubs/ summertime/ bucketful; [ɒ]: troughs/ slops/ body; [ɑː]: armour/ guard; [ɜː]: turned/ turnip; [e]: snedder/ let/ fed/ mess
  • alliterations: bilabial nasal [m] meat/ mincer and bilabial frictionless [w] wheeled/ water/ echoed later through wooden/ winter;
  • a succession of paired sound phrases (assonant and alliterative) each aimed at a slightly different effect: trough/ slops; hotter/ heat; barrel-chested breast; guard/ greaves; sees/ seedling; said/ braird; fall/ fed; sliced mess/ glistering
  • consonant sounds form groupings: nasal [m]; bi-labial plosive [p] and [b]; velar [t] and [d] formed in the same part of the mouth tied together by frequent velar sibilant [s];
  • the period implements provide a flurry of adjectival and noun compound-words: meat-mincer etc;
  • we meet first examples of dialect words: ‘snedder’, ‘braird’; these inject hidden messages from their own linguistic roots
  • Heaney’s use of braced opens up multiple possibilities within a single word: the legs of the snedder are braced/ strengthened to bear its weight; the shinguards are braced/ tied on tightly; a body braces itself at a point of impact;
  • the choice of glistering provides the first example of a more unusual Middle English/  Shakespearean lexis, to which Heaney’s expertise as a language scholar gives him access and adding, of course, to the obsoleteness of the of the snedder itself.
  • 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: twelve 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 lines are rich in alveolar plosives [t] [d] and sibilant variations [s] [z] alongside front of mouth [p] [b] [f] [l] and nasal [n];
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;


  • ‘The Turnip-Snedder’, the farmyard ‘snedding’, or chopping, machine becomes an armoured monstrosity – ‘Breast-plate/ standing guard/ on four braced greaves’ – whose purpose is violence, even torture or genocide. Tobias Hill in The Observer. Sunday 2 April 2006
  • … a flurry of military images. A farmyard implement’s parts are likened to a breast-plate and greaves; a sledgehammer-wielding man braces his lower back like “shields in a testudo”; “Anahorish 1944” recalls the US army’s arrival in Ireland ahead of D-Day; and the sonnet “Polish Sleepers” touches on the Holocaust ever so lightly, if a little queasily. That this violence and death are never overblown is a mark of the versification’s subtlety. Stephen Knight in the Independent Sunday, 9 April 2006

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