Bann Clay

Heaney liked to look at things in depth including science. This autobiographical piece seeks to enlighten whilst expressing the poet’s modest disappointment at not knowing more.

The Bann Valley interested Heaney as he grew. He discusses the archaeological dimension with DOD (135).  Oh yes… there was always a lot of talk at school (Anahorish Primary) … about the flints and scrapers found in the mud of the banks. There were even flints in a cupboard in the master’s classroom.

Bann Clay delves deeper into the telluric underlay, focussing on a mineral specific to the Bann valley, a natural product once harvested in pits near Toome that operated during Heaney’s Castledawson days but closed down once they became unprofitable.

Toome’s Bann clay pits were worked by relaxed local men who went to work on two wheels (labourers pedalling at ease) unmistakeable (white with it), their working clothes (dungarees and boots) discoloured by what they dug out (its powdery stain).

Labourers spent long hours (all day) in the workplace (open pits) digging out heavy Bann clay and depositing it (loaded) on a spread-field (bank), slicing in a specific way (slabs … squared off) revealing its dense consistency (clots) and colour tinge (like … blue cream).

The questioner in Heaney thirsted to learn more about the clay’s long hidden presence (sunk for centuries under the grass), its changing properties once exposed (baked white in the sun), how it dried and solidified (relieved its hoarded waters), how it developed its own odour (began to ripen).

He traces Bann clay’s watery presence in the deep mid-Ulster geology (underruns the valley), an offshoot (first slow residue) of the Bann’s percolating spread (river finding its way).

Far older in date than the mesh of fenland that now covers it (the webbed marsh is new) and long predating stone artefacts of ten millennia BC unearthed on the site (clutch of Mesolithic flints).

Heaney recalls a personal experience from his farming days (once) when, engaged in heavy-duty maintenance (cleaning a drain), he came across (shovelled up) traces of Bann clay with its pasty complexion (livery), its insolubility (slicks) and incompatibility (water gradually ran clear) with the ditch’s flow (old floor). Dredged from beneath the ditch-back growth (humus and roots) the clay revealed its even, heavy properties (smooth weight).

Heaney’s residual feelings are of unfinished intellectual business (I labour towards it still) perhaps even a wistful recognition that whilst he is perishable Bann clay will always be there (It holds and gluts).

  • Bann clay; diatomite deposits emanating from the wider Bann valley of Mid Ulster and hidden beneath the peat; a light coloured porous substance of use to various industries; dug manually from pits in Heaney’s youth;
  • labourer: manual worker;
  • pedal: ride a bicycle using pedals;
  • dungarees: hard wearing work garment made up of trousers and a bib held up by shoulder straps;
  • pit: large hole from which clay was dug;
  • bank: edge, fringe where the clay was deposited;
  • slab: block;
  • square-off: cut to form four equal sides and right angles;
  • clot: mass of coagulated liquid
  • sunk: submerged
  • relieve: surrender, give up
  • hoard: rich reserves
  • underrun: flow beneath
  • residue: the amount that remains
  • webbed: toughened by its closely woven composition
  • clutch: small group (of eggs, people or here geological fragments);
  • Mesolithic: middle stone age about 9000 years BC; Greek lithos means ‘stone
  • flint: OE type of rock noted for hardness and for giving off sparks when struck; one of the first materials used by early people to fashion tools;
  • drain: channel, culvert, water run-off;
  • shovel: (sometimes wide-bladed) spade
  • livery: bearing the pale colour of sickness;
  • slick: glossy patch floating on or in water with which it is not compatible;
  • humus: loam
  • glut: fill to excess;


  • 6 quatrains (Q) in 10 sentences (S) ; variable line length of 5-9 syllables;
  • rhyme scheme abab cdcd;
  • the balance of punctuation and enjambment dictates flow and rhythm within the oral delivery potential,  governing pace or pause; overall the piece is strongly enjambed;
  • the poem broadly follows a sequence in time and geological layers: 1 earth 2rivers 3 percolation 4 deposits adding chemical processes;
  • Q1 two enjambed sentences; mid line full stop; ‘lane’ brings us close to where the poet was living; dominant colouring; personification of work-wear ‘wore’;
  • Q2 enjambed sentence; mid line punctuation; density of the substance achieved via comparison – clay/ clotted cream;
  • Q3 telluric underlay: subtext of age introduced to be extended in various way; loss of liquid component ‘relieved’- personification? watery treasure house ‘hoarded’ adds a porous property; water vocabulary will recur down the narrative ‘underrun’ etc;
  • Q4 geological development in focus to do with rock strata and water’s persistence; vegetation above is matted for strength ‘webbed’; old and/ versus new;
  • Q5 midline full stop; labelled reference to ancient period of geological development; autobiographical element added when the properties of Bann clay became obvious to the observant eye;
  • Q6 notion layering/ strata ‘old floor’; personal stance as regards scratching the surface of a topic of wide personal/ academic interest and modest Heaney non-specialist effort ‘labour’ returns us to the labourers of the first line who just did what they did without hesitation; final clay presence suggest survival ‘holds and gluts’;


  • 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: twelve 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 first two stanzas are dominated by alveolar plosives [t] [d ], nasals [n] [m] and sibilants [s] [z] alongside front of mouth sounds: breathy [w], alveolar [l], bilabial plosives [p] [b], labio-dental fricatives [f][v]; these are supported by velar plosives [k] [g];

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