Colum Cille Cecinit

In this version of an 11th/12th century poem about the 6th-century scholar/saint Colmcille Heaney sets out the dignity and sacredness of daily toil and demonstrates his respect for scholarly labour.

  • Cecinit: Heaney draws directly from Latin using (full title) the 3rd person singular of the Perfect indicative active tense of cano, canere (to sing), so ’sang’


i Is Scith mo chrob on scribainn

The scholar/ scribe takes a break from his task: My hand is cramped from penwork. He examines his quill, its tapered point and the nature and gloss of wet ink issuing from itsbird-mouth: a blue-dark/ Beetle-sparkle.

His function is to transmit Wisdom/ welling in streams from inherited texts. He and his writing are as one in fine-drawn/ hand

Despite the script’s sallow faintness and the quill’s flooding, Riverrun with fluid the colour of green-skinned holly, the scribe’s task remains urgent and inexorable: My small, runny pen keeps going/ Through books, through thick and thin, however big or small, whatever the physical strain on him. 

His purpose is clear: To enrich the scholars’ holdings. His pauses are inevitable: Penwork/ cramps my hand.

  • 3 four-line units of free verse; lines based around 8 syllables;
  • Alliterative effects created: frequent use of velar plosive [k] sounds: cramped/ penwork/ quill/ dark/ sparkle ink; Wisdom/ welling; musical close harmony of voiceless dental [th] sounds: through books, through thick and thin;
  • Heaney expresses repetitive strain so much more skillfully than the mundane ‘my hand is tired from writing’: My hand is cramped from penwork.

ii Is aire charaim Doire

A single quatrain dedicated to a Derry landscape equally cherished by saint and poet. The settlement was held dear for its calmness, for its clarity; for its omnipresent spirituality visible to the devoted: Crowds of white angels on their rounds/ At every corner.

  • assonance: Derry I cherish ever; Crowd/ rounds;
  • alliteration: calm/ clear/ Crowds/ corner.

iii Fil suil nglais

Banished from the country of his birth for allegedly copying a text without permission, St Columba, in exile, turns Towards Ireland a grey eye. For all his deep yearning to return, his exile will be absolute: not … Ever again will he have sight of The men of Ireland or her women.

  • the colour grey was associated with mourning and repentance;
  • assonances: Ireland/ eye; ever/ again/ men/ women;

The sequence:

  • This short sequence contains enormous lyric power, is profound and affecting.The “grey eye” here belongs to Colmcille writing about his own exile, but Heaney makes this also an exile from the man and woman who stand together at the start of memory, as at its end:  (“Colum Cille Cecinit”) The getting and the leaving are implicit in each other, like memory and oblivion, and Heaney’s “Ever again” seems to take the full weight of a grief that knows itself to be unavailing, but is untouched either by blame or self-regard. Like the rest of this profound and beautiful volume, it is in touch with a future beyond the reach of the memories which it prepares to relinquish, as Lethe flows with the Moyola into Lough Neagh. Peter McDonald  Sunday Times of Oct 13, 2010
  • Colm: from Latin columba “dove”. 6th C. St. Colm Cille (Columba) “dove of the church” is one of the most important Irish saints. Born in Donegal to a branch of the royal Ui Neill clan, Colm Cille was banished to Scotland  where he founded the monastery on Iona and converted the pagan kings of Scotland to Christianity,