Clonmany to Ahascragh

in memory of Rory Kavanagh

Heaney dedicates this touching sequence to the deceased son of a long-standing friend. The family is very well known to Heaney but only mentioned by name via the dedication. The loss of a child is completely alien to the poet.

The title’s place names are indicative both of Rory’s parental origins and of the trek the couple made to share family with their individual families.

The tears of Rory’s family and friends including the poet’s have ground to a halt (the rest of us have no weeping left).

Reading and re-reading Heaney’s poem will provide a fitting requiem (do it for you) – peat bog trees that weep (willows … on Leitrim Moss), tears visible on figurines (wounds that ‘wept’) credible to the superstitious (talk of those before you), tear-drenched memorials (rained-on statues) on the road between parental homelands (Clonmany to Ahascragh).

Heaney recalls a poignant, long-distance memory (once upon a time) from school days –himself as a schoolboy and very much alive (warm fingers), faced with the condensation on the windows of St Columb’s and drawn irresistibly to scrawl on it (make a face). He noticed how, portentously,  the gathered droplets of moisture turned the image to nought (wept itself away), trickling downwards against a dark, empty background (cold black glass).

  • Clonmany: small town in Co Donegal;
  • Ahascragh: small town 180 miles away in Co Galway;
  • willow: tree that enjoys wetland sites;
  • Rory Kavanagh: son of Des Kavanagh whom Heaney met on his very first day at St Columbs and with whom he enjoyed an enduring friendship; Rory sadly died at the age of 25 and Heaney’s tribute harks back to his own Derry schooldays; father Kavanagh grew up in in Clonmany and his wife, Rory’s mother, in Ahascragh, providing an appropriate conjunction reflected in the title;
  • Leitrim Moss: open peat bog land;
  • the notion of statues that weep for supernatural reasons had its place in superstition though largely rejected as nonsense by the Catholic Church; the scientific explanation is based on the density of materials used that can produce a tear-like result
  • once upon a time: traditional fairy-tale beginning;


  • 10 lines in 2 strophes (sextain-quatrain); unrhymed; final lines enjambed;
  • line length 4-12 syllables; final 4 beats provide a knell);
  • assonant echoes: ‘weeping…these’/ ‘left…wept’/ ‘no…willows…windows…cold’/ ‘things will…it…trim… big… windows’/ ‘moss…from…Clon…condensation…on…corridor’/ ‘Lei…rained…condensat..make a face…away’/ ‘you…wounds…statues…drew’/ ‘statues.. Clonmany….Ahascragh…black…glass’/ ‘talk…before…walls…warm;
  • alliterative effects: alveolar [d/t] ‘…left…do it…standing…Leitrim’ later ‘corridor…Derry…drew…time…that wept itself…cold’; [w] ‘wounds…wept…walls…drew…warm…wept’;


The second piece is addressed to Rory’s father and Heaney’s enduring friend Desmond Kavanagh. The two men were at school together. The poet’s empathy for a friend overwhelmed by current personal loss prompts him to recount an incident from schooldays in which, had Kavanagh been about, his boarder’s nightmare might well have been soothed.

Heaney requests a lull in a father’s grief (compose yourself again listen to me).  He addresses Kavanagh as if he were still in the work and sleeping space (attic study) he once occupied (unvisited by Des – never up here) on the upper floors of St Columb’s (landing … second stairwell … step-ladder), a hefty climb (steep and deep) high above the college’s coming-and-going below (down to the life going on) .

Heaney summons the absentee (even so, appear) with the promise ultimately of my good dream. Kavanagh must first sit through the lurid account of Heaney’s bad dream  when his subconscious dream-door (opened in the sleepwall) released a green tsunami (hurl of flood) that engulfed him (overwhelmed), spewing out strands of swaying algae (lithe seaweed) and sending a havoc (tumult) of nightmare-sized (immense) vegetable-flowers (green cabbage roses) tumbling into the school below (downstairs).

Heaney sensed he would survive (no feeling of drowning) the unending nightmare-deluge (attic downpour) of vegetable matter, its overwhelming intensity (no fullness could ever equal it) within its own airtight, watertight liquid bubble (flown and sealed).

He has been reluctant to set it down in writing (put it into wordsI feared it would be lost) but Desmond Kavanagh’s presence (you there at the door) turns bad to good in highlighting a distress (can tell it and can weep) he can now share with his school-friend. ‘We have both come through’, he says in comfort.

  • compose oneself: feel calm after anguish;
  • hurl (v): throw with great force
  • overwhelm: swamp, engulf;
  • lithe: pliant, elastic;
  • tumult: din, uproar;
  • fullness: describing something filled to capacity;
  • flown: past participle of OE flowan to flow, stream, issue;
  • sealed: shut in, watertight;
  • put into words: express, set down in writing;


  • 17 lines (including half-line links) in 7 sentences; enjambed lines in the ascendancy; unrhymed;
  • variable line length between 7-13 syllables, the final couplet beating out a relief at feeling able to grieve;
  • imperatives addressed to Des Kavanagh: ‘compose…listen…appear…be’;
  • assonant echoes: ’listen…in…attic…landing’/ ‘me…hear…steep…deep…leading…even…appear…seaweed… dream… sleep…green’ etc./ ‘life…my…lithe’/ ‘’out…down…down
  • alliterative effects: early velar[k/g], alveolar [t/d], sibilant [s]; middle bi-labial [b/p]. nasal [m]. velar [k/g], alveolar [l]; later nasal [n], labial [f], front-of-mouth [w]


Heaney paints a Kavanagh-friendly Irish Republic landscape where a father’s grief might (if ever) be soothed (wiped away) – a County Galway waters-meet (river country confluence), remote and sparse (unmarked … road) with steeply rounded overpasses (bridge-rumped) … two watercourse, one large one small, where just to be there engulfs (floods) those passing through with ample time for reflection (plentiful solitude).

Heaney can visualize the scene he is painting: the sympathetic winter climate (unseasonable warmth), the sight of dwellings held squarely in place (battened down), the soothing overhead luminosity (oyster light).

The situation is ideal for declaring and confirming Irishness – the sound of place names unfamiliar to outsiders (unknown to most) but within Kavanagh’s reach (available to you) and pronunciation (proclaimable by you) – the local twang a God-given gift beyond all but the aficionados (like a man speaking in tongues).

Heaney  lost in thought behind the wheel of his car visualizes Des Kavanaghr in the area where Rory’s mother was brought up (Ahascragh). He is suddenly startled from reverie (brought to his senses) by a watery downfall that only Irish could describe (a sudden plout on the road).

  • wipe away: remove gently;
  • confluence: watersmeet, flowing together of two watercourses
  • bridge rumped: describing the arch and parapet that curve above road level shaped like a human buttock;
  • Shannon: at 360km in length, the longest river in Ireland flowing broadly north to south;
  • Suck: river within the Shannon River Basin in Ireland; 133 km in length; main tributary of the River Shannon entering it south of the village of Shannonbridge;
  • Corrib: river in the west of Ireland flowing from Lough Corrib through Galway to Galway Bay; one of the shortest rivers in Europe, just six kilometres from the lough to the Atlantic;
  • unseasonable: unusual for the time of year;
  • batten down: hold securely beneath something;
  • oyster light; soothing tone of grey with a touch of green and beige;
  • proclaimable: announceable in public;
  • speak in tongues: speak in an unknown language, unintelligibly (originally during religious worship, regarded as a gift of the Holy Spirit);
  • brought to one’s senses: snapping out of it, refocusing after a period of distraction;
  • plout: shower, watery downfall;


  • 12 line strophe in a single sentence; variable line length 8-13 syllables, the longest last
  • assonant echoes:’tears…be…be…beyond…between…season…speaking’/ ‘wiped…drives…light…like’/ ‘confluence…solitude…January afternoon…you…plout’/ ‘rumped…Suck…plentiful…floods…un-…un-…un-…un…tongues…sudden
  • alliterative effects: labio-dental [f/v] ‘if ever…river…confluence’; bi-labial [p/b]’wiped…be…bridge-rumped…beyound…between…Corrib…plentiful…speaking…plout’; velar [k]country…confluence…unmarked… Suck…Corrib… floods…drives… afternoon’; nasals [m/n]; sibilant variants [s/z] in the middle lines;


  • 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;
  • syllables without highlight are largely the unstressed sound as in common,  little [ə]

  • 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;
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;


Join the Conversation - Leave a comment