A 3000 year old site in County Mayo, Ireland acts as a catalyst for exploring in congenial dialogue the linkage between artefacts, peoples, myths, cultures and ancient languages. The piece centres the doggedness, roots and recurrence critical to the development of Irish nationhood around an ancient artefact.

Heaney is said to have pinned the poem to the door of Patrick Caulfield’s house (see below) as a thank you note after they exchanged views in 1974 (DODp163).

The speaker tells of a ‘local’ with whom he discussed objects that regularly came to light (just kept turning up) but were dismissed by the uneducated as beyond their comprehension (foreign). Each stone’s central hole made it one-eyed though, unlike the classical Cyclops, harmlessly benign. Caulfield simply left them lying around his property (about his house) just quernstones out of a bog.

Excavation of the bog, as Heaney knows from those around his mid-Ulster home revealed layered evidence of the past (lid). The quernstone’s eye becomes the pupil dreaming of its original pre-bog function: grinding Neolithic wheat.

Harvesting the peat has removed the blanket covering the soft-piled centuries the bog (open like a glib) sets off a train of retrospecting evidence: the plough-marks signs of agriculture, then stone-age fields (see flint), the ancient excavated tomb corbelled (for load-bearing purposes) with soft fittings (turfed) and many-roomed (chambered) bearing signs of comfort (floor soft) and textured tufts (dry turf coomb).

What characterized the ancient settlement (landscape fossilized) is still to be seen (repeated before our eyes) in visible building patterns (stone walls of Mayo).

The local man is knowledgeable and articulate: the discoveries bear witness to an ancient dogged persistence, an unbroken link of origin and kinship between peoples old and new, a ‘coming together’ based on tenacity and commonality (congruence of lives). His own space (home, stubbed and cleared of stones) bears the marks of furtherance with archaeological indicators of age (growth rings) covering three periods of more than 3000 years (iron, flint and bronze).

Conversation shifts to the evidence of continuity as revealed by place-names – Heaney’s own Mossbawn,/ a bogland name. His companion senses inconsistency: ‘But moss?’

Heaney’s own scholarship suggests linkages with a distant Scandinavian dialect in which ‘mosi’ meant both ‘moss’ and ‘bog’ and how it comes down to phonology (my old home’s music with older strains of Norse).

For the philologist, word formations and variants of spoken language follow the contours of historical movements of people (mutable as sound). The same word might carry dual possibilities (forked root) across boundaries: bawn linked to alien occupiers from England imposed on Ireland (English fort planter’s walled-in mound) or swallowed into the vernacular as a place of sanctuary, a dogged remnant of Irishness (persistent if outworn).

In response to a question about the Norse connection Heaney conjures up a culminating metaphor (through the eye of the quern) unconnected to any scriptural inference of ‘eyes of needles’ and ‘rich men entering the kingdom of God’. His imagining is totally tied to the earth-based quernstone (grist to an ancient mill) as a living image of survival (world tree of balanced stones) each quern the single vertebra of a backbone that ground its own life blood (marrow crushed to grounds).

  • Belderg: an excavated settlement in County Mayo dating from more than 3000BC, during the neolithic, pre-bog period; excavated remains were largely those of a circular dwelling;
  • Background: the Mayo museum’s website suggests that ‘The discovery of what is now known as Céide Fields really began back in the 1930s when a local schoolteacher, Patrick Caulfield from Belderrig, often noticed piles of stones in the bottom of the bog when cutting his turf. To everybody else these were meaningless but he realised two very important points – firstly, the way the stones were piled up couldn’t be natural so somebody had to put them there, and secondly, because they were down underneath the peat they had to be put there prior to the growth of the bog and so must be very ancient… Anyhow, a meeting with Patrick Caulfield (almost certainly in 1972 –DOD p163) was apparently the inspiration. The poem was pinned to the door of his house by Heaney as a thank you note after a visit in 1974.’
  • quernstones discovered on the Mayo site: largely circular stone slabs characterised by a hole in the centre, used in pairs for grinding cereal;
  • benign: big-hearted, favourable to the landscape
  • bog: peaty wetland with which Ireland abounds;
  • lid: upper covering, crust;
  • pupil: both individual who learns and centre of the eye;
  • Neolithic dating to latter part of the Stone Age;
  • strip: remove in layers;
  • glib: Irish reference to a fringe of hair; personification of the terrain;
  • corbel: stone projection jutting from a wall;
  • turf: grass layer held together by its roots;
  • turf-coomb: tufts of grass;
  • fossilized: preserved in a non-changing state;
  • pattern: decorative design;
  • persistence: enduring quality, indestructibility;
  • congruence: mid-15c., from L. congruentia “agreement, harmony, congruity,” ‘coming-together’;
  • stubbed: truncated;
  • accrue: accumulate;
  • growth rings show he annual growth of trees in particular; the concentric rings are reworked here as a metaphor for linear time; Norse ring: the particular ‘growth ring’ applying to the rôle of the Vikings in the history of Irish culture and language;
  • Mossbawn: the mid-Ulster Castledawson farm where Heaney was born and reared;
  • bawn: Irish reference to a populated place (a city, town, village, or other agglomeration of buildings where people live and work); an enclosure with mud or stone walls for keeping cattle; a fortification; a metaphorical place of refuge: sanctuary;
  • moss: Scottish reference to peat-bog;
  • strain: sound of a piece of music here extended to the sound of language;
  • mutable: (adj) late 14c., “liable to change,” from L. mutabilis “changeable,”; Heaney is into phonology at this point:
  • derive: trace back to a different language;
  • planter: a bone of contention associated with a 17th century period of Irish history when the island was colonialized and Protestant English-speaking ‘tenants’ installed by the British;
  • Old Norse: spoken by inhabitants of Scandinavia and inhabitants of their overseas settlements during the Viking Age, until about 1300; reference to the Norwegian Vikings who dwelt in Ireland at the period;
  • persistent: hanging on doggedly;
  • outworn: out of fashion, beyond current use;
  • world- tree: allusionto the Yggdrasil of Norse mythology, a great ash tree at the centre of the universe, sustaining the Viking world;
  • grist to the mill: useful acquisition of knowledge; apt metaphor: grist is corn ground to make flour;
  • marrow: soft fatty area of the spine where blood cells are produced and thereby life sustained;
  • 9 quintets; lines based on 6/7 syllables; enjambment is clustered so the rhythms within the 11 grammatical unit structure make for interestingly varied oral delivery;
  • varied pattern of tight and loose rhymes: peat/ dreaming/ wheat in (2); tomb/ coomb in (3); fossilized/ eyes; Mayo/ go in (4); stones/ bronze in (5); moss/ Norse in (6); sound/ ground/ mound in (7); sanctuary/ tree; outworn/ quern in (8); stones/ grounds in (9);
  • mutable as sound: sound effects in (l.1-15) produce a variety of (initially paired) assonant flavours: [ʌ] just/ turning/ up; [e] Belderg/ benign; later centuries/ fell [ɜː] were/ Quernstones; later were/ first/ turfed/ turf [ai] eyed/ benign;[au] house/ about/ out [ɒ] one/ bog; after (l.5) injection of [ɪ] lift/ lid/ this/ Neolithic/ stripped/ glib [i:] peat/ dreaming/ Neolithic wheat; further change rung in (v.3) [uː] tomb/etc coomb;
  • in the first 15 lines look out for alveolar plosives [t][d] and dental fricative [θ] that provide an alliterative effect: just/ turned/ eyed/ thought;
  • stanzas (4/5) offer frequent assonant [əʊ] stone/ Mayo/ go/ stones/ home/ growth; consonant sounds made in the same area of the mouth ( bilabial plosives [p][b], fricative [f] and sibilants) are evident in this section;
  • (7/8) hang on to [əʊ] So/ old home’s/ older/ told alongside other vowel (o) variants [ɒ] Moss/ bogland/ crossed; [au] how/ foundation/ sound/ ground/ mound [ɔː] Norse/ bawn/ fort/ or; alliterative effects combine sibilant [s] with bilabial nasal [m] in (7) and with alveolar (n) in (8); [ɪ] think etc and [ai] Irish recur with strong sibilant accompaniment;
  • the final stanza maintains assonant [ɪ] Grist/ mill; [ai] mind’s eye/ piled with consonant [m] [s] and [sh] support:
  • Characteristic features of style include: dense usage of words and words of Anglo-Saxon or Viking origin … the occasional use of compound nouns and adjectives … Gaelic words (glib), archaic and dialect words (coomb)…set in two- or three-stressed lines (MP 129);
  • This introduction to the peoples of olden times will in later poems explore the vision of a Viking world sustained by terror and savagery (NC p65);
  • Language: use of alternative derivations helps to point out relationships;
  • NC suggests that the ensemble of P1 is devoted to establishing a sense of the ‘world tree of balanced stones’;
  • Belderg … covers much of the terrain to be explored in Part I: bogland, Norse history, etymology, culture and agriculture (MP 129);
  • The poem has a rugged, archaic starkness (MP 130).
  • 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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