The Singer’s House

Heaney reflected on the double preoccupation that produced poems such as  ‘The Singer’s House’ in Field Work: living up to my neck in complication, resident in Dublin but feeling called upon by what was happening in the North plus a renewed sense of the value of poetry itself as a consolidating element (DOD 195).

On the occasion of David Hammond’s memorial service in August 2008 The Irish Times reported that the proceedings included Heaney’s poem  ‘The Singer’s Houseabout Hammond’s holiday home in Gweebarra near Glenties, written in 1979 to encourage him to keep singing and to remind him of the importance of his art at a time when the Troubles were sucking out the joy of song  … The poet told many stories about his great friend and how at the Singer’s House in Dooey in Gweebarra he spent many happy days at the annual “David Hammond Summer School of Revelry and Rascality”.

As with all the poems of ‘Field Work’ is worth considering how each individual lyric, elegy and meditative piece contributes to Heaney’s barely veiled relief at having severed his ties with Belfast.

Heaney is feeling down and needs a way to snap out of it. An association with a town north of Belfast (Carrickfergus) has been enough to remind him of Northern Ireland’s unique chill (frosty echo)  –  he envisions the rock salt hacked from beneath the town (saltminers’ picks) within the mine’s deep caverns (chambered) and the flashy reflections (glinting)  of a subterranean parallel (township built of light).

Heaney deplores ‘the whole drag-down of Troubles Belfast’ that has triggered dejected shrugs (what do we say any more) sucking the joy out of what is worthwhile (the salt of our earth), the development of a ‘so-what’ mentality (much comes and is gone) that jettisons things worth clinging to (crystal and kept) no longer appreciates the forces (amicable weathers) that make things what they are (the grain of things) or produce the sharp or musty smell of sea and peat (tang of season and store)  – not much is left once the tinsel is stripped away (all the packing we’ll get).

When Heaney is feeling blue he conjures a place where kindred conviviality, folklore and art lifted his spirits (I say to myself Gweebarra), his ears ringing still with echoes emanating from David Hammond’s house on the Donegal coast where music bounced back and forth (hits off the place) with the power of the wild Atlantic itself (water hitting off granite).

He pictures the sea creatures that came to listen (seals’ heads, suddenly outlined), taking it all in (scanning everything).  In his mind’s eye the singer’s home vibrates (I see the glittering sound) alongside its still-life (framed in your window) of simple, no-frills Irishness (knives and forks set on oilcloth).

In Donegal folklore drowned souls were reincarnated (lived in the seals) especially when the moon was right (at spring tides they might change shape), attracted like Heaney by the alluring power of music (swam in for a singer). On cue Hammond would perform for them (at the end of summer) from the place where his winter fuel was stored (mouth of a whitewashed turf-shed) in relaxed mode (shoulder to the jamb), his voice projecting into an eternal offing (rowboat far out in evening).

Those were the days (when I came here first) of the annual summer reunion where music was the only food (you were always singing) – a smack of Northern Ireland’s salty bedrock (hint of the clip of the pick) – delivered as only Hammond knew how (your winnowing climb and attack).

Heaney raises a glass: get us going anew, David, (raise it again, man)! Times have proved depressing but the Heaneys still yearn for the mojo (believe what we hear)!

Heaney’s final collection Human Chain (2010) will include ‘The door was open and the house was dark’, a ‘dream’ poem dedicated to the memory his close friend who had passed away two years earlier.

  • Singer: David Hammond (1928-2008), much admired Northern Irish writer, singer, teacher, songwriter, historian, musician, film-maker and broadcaster; close friend of Marie and Seamus Heaney who collaborated with the poet on BBC radio. Heaney’s final collection ‘Human Chain’ (2010) includes ‘The Door was Open’, a ‘dream’ poem is dedicated to him; it’s title echoes the conviviality and companionship the Heaneys enjoyed at the singer’s home in Co. Donegal in the Irish Republic;
  • Carrickfergus: Co. Antrim town on Belfast Lough 13 miles north of Belfast; in the vicinity about 400 metres below ground level lies the only salt mine on the island of Ireland; mined since 1965 (up to 500,000 tonnes of salt per annum) the Kilroot site is 220 million years old;
  • pick: heavy tool with curved metal bar designed for breaking up hard surfaces, here rock salt;
  • chamber: large underground cavern;
  • glint: reflect light in flashes;
  • conjure: call to mind, cause to appear;
  • salt of the earth: phrase used to conjure up good, honest decent people;
  • crystal: clear, transparent substance with natural, geometrical form;
  • grain: longitudinal arrangement (e.g. of fibres in wood indicating where best to split it down)
  • tang: strong flavour, smell;
  • Gweebarra: bay and beach-line situated on the Atlantic coast of Co. Donegal;
  • oilcloth: heavy duty domestic table covering;
  • seal: carnivorous, fin-footed, semiaquatic marine mammals;
  • scan: look all round so as to take in every detail;
  • spring tide: tide just after a new or full moon that produces the greatest difference between high and low water;
  • whitewash: solution of lime and water used to paint walls white;
  • turf-shed: outbuilding in which winter fuel was stored
  • jamb: side-post of a doorway;
  • rowboat: small craft propelled by oars;
  • clip: snippet, selection (hint of the recording/ broadcasting process);
  • pick: selection of the best of a crop;
  • winnow: allusion to the harvesting process that separates the chaff from the grain;
  • attack: in music the point at which a sound begins and builds;
  • raise a song: start to sing with a view to involving others;

DOD 201 After his move to Glanmore then Dublin Heaney’s presence in Northern Ireland became more restricted: County Derry and County Tyrone …  our families … my work for the BBC Schools Service with David Hammond meant that I was more in touch with him, and David’s summer house in Donegal was also becoming a regular destination in the summer. In those years, you were contending with the whole drag-down of Troubles Belfast … One motive that some writers had for staying on was to redeem the place, perhaps even redeem the State, but I had no such motive

DOD (195) The writing of certain poems took me to the bottom of something inside myself, something inchoate but troubled … for example ‘The Singer’s House’ arrived from an older, deeper, cleaner spring. There’s something unoppressed about them. I can see that more clearly now, of course, than I could have at the time.

MP (164) Images of the sea, of fish and fishing surface … serve not merely to recapture brief moments of restoration and pleasure in the company of artistic friends and equals … in poems whose function is to celebrate a renewed belief in the redemptive power of art. …The rites of purification begin in ‘The Singer’s House’, its eight stanzas permeated by the invigorating ‘tang’ of music, words and salty places … (165) Carrickfergus and Gweebarra possess a piquant, ‘brine-stung’ energy consonant with song. … Northern Irish values of industry, creativity, modesty, frugality, courtesy, grace and good husbandry (are) values he associates with his close friend, David Hammond;

  • eight quartets (Q) in thirteen sentences ;
  • the relative balance between sentence length, punctuation marks and enjambed lines (on a par with punctuated lines) determines flow and rhythm within the oral delivery possibilities;
  • varied line length from 5-11 syllables; the concluding line of 12 syllables sets it out as a glass-raising toast
  • no formal rhyme scheme ; occasional assonant echoes of final syllables hint at rhyme;
  • Q1 introduces geographical location presented as symptomatic of a chilly general  Ulster atmosphere; vocabulary of chill and light effects; underground site suggestive of an unwelcoming alternative to the halls of classical saga;
  • Q2/ Q3 (including interrogative and heavily enjambed as a flow of reflection) concerned with depressive circumstances; contrasting vocabulary: earth/crystal; kept/gone; contrasting time-scales: discarding consumerism versus long-standing evolution;
  • Q4- 6 change of mood music from dirge to spirit-lifting;  crescendo of things worthy of celebration – no longer marine salt deposits but the active sea itself; redemptive Art; use of sense data to paint a picture in feelings; folk-lore and hints of Undine-style magical beings;
  • Q7/8) portrait of a worthy friend in a framework of an Irishness of which Heaney feels the soothing benefit; metaphor of sound being rowed; attempt to describe musical technique combining breathing (metaphor of wind that discards what is unmusical) and performance dynamics (climb, attack)
  • final toast from a poet acknowledging the pleasures Hammond has provided;


  • 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;
  • the poem’s final quartet is dominated by front-of-mouth sounds – breathy[w][y], aspirate [h], labio-dental fricatives [f] [v] alongside nasals [n] [m] and velar plosives [k] [g];

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