in memory of Mary O Muirithe

Poetic licence permits Heaney (who first attended Irish camp in his teens) to spend childhood camp time with Mary who was 4 years his senior. Mary and the breac-Gaeltacht are inextricably linked in his mind. She is dead and he wants to talk warmly to and about her – in this retrospective dramatization she is still very much alive. Mary will never leave the eternal present of the poem

He hears Mary’s voice in the mountain cataract (sruth) that sang with the region’s blend of Irish and English (bilingual) – genuine, pure sound-water (truth) gushing (race … spilling) down from the iconic Donegal peak and landmark (Errigal), its flow a cascade (rush of its downpour) echoing her constant chatter and distinctive voice (translated Into your accent).

He can see Mary in the flesh (you in your dishabills), drawing water (washing your face) from a valley site resounding with the local twang (guttural glen).

Unblemished nature and young devotee (mountain and maiden) are reflected, ominously perhaps in view of her passing, in a piece of smashed mirror (shard) – Mary the proud ambassador (your head in the air) of her territory (that childhood breac-Ghaeltacht).

Heaney remembers Mary’s persistent patter (again and again), spinning tales of Celtic water and woodland nymphs (sky-maiden haunts), seeking to get him involved, to report back (visit if anything happened) and to engage her (see and be sure) and not to let her down (not to forget) … on his honour (your sake)!

Alerted to the purity of those mountain memories (splash of clear water) Heaney traces events: an initial honesty (things out in the open); the first mention of Mary’s dire condition (spoken word, ‘cancer’); its terminal outcome (now it has happened). Mary has died and Heaney will not let her down.

He is left with the poetic snapshot his mind retains (what I saw) of what he undertook to remember (the morning you asked me): Mary, a creature of Nature, not yet quite fully dressed (‘dishabills’) and a carpet of tiny pure white flowers (neck-baring snowdrops) broadcasting their joint message of hope and renewal (first-footing the springtime) and both in good shape to face what lay ahead (fit for what comes).

  • sruth (Old Irish): stream, river, current;
  • Mary (wife of Diarmaid Ó’ Muirithe (1935-2014), distinguished Irish lexicographer and etymologist); née Mary Murray; died in 1998. Heaney admired her courage facing death from cancer;
  • Errigal (Irish mountain): 751-metre (2,464 ft) mountain near Gweedore in County Donegal, Ireland. It is the tallest peak of the Derryveagh Mountains and the tallest peak in County Donegal; Gweedore is located in one of the Gaeltacht areas of Donegal;
  • dishabills (irish word): possible distortion of F déshabillé) stripped off, ‘casually’dressed;
  • guttural: throaty, harsh sounding;
  • glen (Irish/Scots): narrow valley;
  • maiden: young, unmarried woman, virgin;
  • shard: sharp edged piece of broken glass;
  • head in air: open, confident, observant, proud;
  • breac-Ghaeltacht: area with mixed (breac) Irish-speaking (ghaeltacht) and English-speaking districts;
  • sky-maiden:
  • haunt: place frequented, favoured spot;
  • out in the open: not secret, out of doors;
  • snowdrop: late winter flower with drooping heads, announcer of warmth and symbol of hope;
  • first-footing: traditional Scottish ritual of crossing a New Year threshold to bring peace, health and prosperity to the house:
  • fit: ready prepared;


  • 10 triplets + final 4 drum-beat line; syllable count 4-7; unrhymed;
  • 8 sentence (S) construct;
  • S1 pun: race describing water and people
  • assonant echoes: ‘truth…sruth…you’/ ‘pour…your……your…you… pour’/ ‘bilingual…spilling…Errigal…its… .
  • ..dishabills’/ ‘rush…guttural’;
  • alliterative effects: velar [g] ‘bilingual…spilling…Errigal…guttural glen’; sibilants [s/z/sh];
  • S2 S3 alliterative effects: nasal [m]
  • S4 assonant echoes: ‘breac Ghaeltact…maiden…again…again…sake’/ ‘ your…haunts…sure…forget…for your…water’/ ‘child…sky’/ ‘visit …if anything’/ ‘me…see…be…clear’/ ‘to do’;
  • alliterative effects: breathy [h] ‘head…childhood…haunts’;
  • onomatopoeic ‘splash’
  • S5 S6 S7 assonant ‘spoken…open’; alliterative effects: sibilant {s/z];
  • S8 assonant echoes: ‘and…has happened…asked’/ ‘footing…comes’/ ‘what…on…drops’/ ‘you…you…sruth’;
  • alliterative effects: sibilant [s]; labio-dental [f] ‘first-footing…fit
  • 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: thirteen 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;



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