In Gallarus Oratory

Heaney pens the second ‘meditative interior’ of the collection (after ‘The Forge’). He visited the hilltop Gallarus site in south-west Ireland in August 1966 entering it through its ‘door into the dark’; this subsequent contemplation uses darkness as a positive metaphor reflecting on the miracle of faith felt by its monks as they emerged from their own interior darkness into the light. In the process also the poem adds new elements to  the content of the collection – elements of Irish geographical, architectural and spiritual history.

A thousand years have failed to erase (still feel) the monkish presences once crammed into the oratory’s narrow space (community pack this place). Heaney has entered the chapel’s sombre millennium-old seat of monkish devotion (core of old dark). His mid-Ulster peat spread-fields (turfstack)) are mirrored in the tight stonework construction (walled up with stone) that shut out any chink of light (a yard thick).

The Oratory’s effect on the solitary visitor (in it alone) produced a downward force (dropped), that somehow diminished him (reduced creature), the site’s solemn austerity pressing his body beyond its confines (heart of the globe).  

Any light-heartedness amongst the brothers was squashed by the bleakness of their existence (no worshipper would leap up to his God off this floor).

As if monkish statues cast on the site (founded) like pre-Christians in a man-made burial mound (heroes in a barrow) they craved uplifting acknowledgement (sought themselves) from Him to whom they were dedicating their lives (in the eye of their King) under the burden (black weight) of evidence they were not already dead (their own breathing).

Legend had it that they passed the test (how he smiled on them) when they emerged into the light (out they came). The fine views over Smerwick harbour to the west carried the sweet smell of their devotions (the sea a censer) and their God sent a sign (the grass a flame).

Gallarus Oratory: in August 1966 Heaney visited the site of one of the most beautiful, mysterious and serene ancient buildings in Ireland situated on the Dingle peninsula. The tiny, boat-shaped monastic chapel was built in the early medieval period using the same corbel technique used in the construction of beehive huts. Walls and pitched roof alike, it is an example of the art of dry stone masonry at its most skilled and elegant; its roof though showing signs of age has never collapsed. The square, open entrance allows some light in; further light enters the dark, cave-like and peaceful building through its simple rounded window in the east wall; given the absence of any embellishment the chapel cannot be dated so remains timeless; Eileen Battersby published a very informative article in The Irish Times of Sept 11th, 2021;

  • pack: crowd into a small space;
  • turfstack: the peat bogs around Heaney’s home brought familiarity with turf above the peat layers stacked and resembling dry stone walling;
  • core: nucleus, heart, hub, centre;
  • walled up: sealed in;
  • yard: linear measure of 3 feet (nearly equivalent to 1 metre);
  • reduced: diminished, depleted;
  • globe: earth; circular object like a rounded window;
  • founded: both established and cast (as of metal);
  • barrow: ancient man-made burial mound;
  • censer: container of incense (sweet-smelling substance) burnt during devotions;


  • MP 84 The final group of poems from Door into the Dark which merit consideration are ‘meditative landscape poems’, encompassing ‘notions about history and nationality. ‘In Gallarus Oratory’ commemorates a visit to the famous beehive church on the Dingle peninsula in August 1966. After identifying the feelings of constriction anddiminution engendered by this ‘core of old dark’, the poem moves to renewal and resurrection. Having undergone a symbolic death, buried ‘like heroes in a barrow’, the original monastic inhabitants … spiritual pioneers thrilled to a heightened sense of the divine, made manifest in pentecostal Nature … Heaney’s ‘old dark’ of history and prehistory begins to be read out of the Irish landscape, in a way that points forward to some of the central poems in the two subsequent volumes, Wintering Out and North.
  • Snippet from the Eileen Battersby publication above: … Another legend, still heard today, contends that whoever is able to climb out of the oratory through its small window will have his soul cleansed … In his meditation on Gallarus Oratory poet Seamus Heaney explores its entranceway as a metaphorical “door into the dark,” which is also the title of his collection of poems published in 1969. He enters this ancient space and senses a kinship with the monks who may have prayed there a millennium earlier.
  • Two verses (7 + 5) in 5 sentences (S); line length based on 10 syllables; rhyme scheme aabb ccdd etc.
  • the balance of punctuation marks and enjambed lines determines the flow and  rhythm within the oral delivery potential; the balance between these governs pace or pause;
  • variety of tenses: present for the living experience; use of the modal ‘might’ form to guess at/ invent an explanation for something past; modal ‘would’ here to indicate (non) consequence; preterite to report (imagined) events from the past;
  • S1 (part enjambed and including a colon) describes an enduring feeling of incarcerated shadows deprived of light; non-light reflects something Heaney has known in earlier days (‘turfstack); the motif of darkness attached in this poem to religious self-sacrifice (‘core of old dark’);
  • S2 describes the effects on the poet whose work is not a shared enterprise; vocabulary of diminution (‘dropped, reduced’) status demotion from human to animal (‘creature’); ’globe’ implies magma, heat (of Hell?);
  • S3 hints at a monk’s understandable loss of zeal at being repeatedly driven into a hands and knees position of devotion;
  • S4 praises the status and merit Heaney would attach to men who shunned the world’s pleasures; ‘eye’ is both the organ in which one detect reaction and a symbol of control ;
  • NC 21  refers to a stylistic device  for which he provides examples from Door into the Dark: … the ‘self-inwoven simile’ (or the ‘reflexive image’) first noted in Andrew Marvell’ poetry as the ‘short-circuited comparison’ whereby things are compared to themselves and somehow described in ‘their own likeness’. … NC cites ‘The burn drowns steadily in its own downpour’ from  Death of a Naturalist’s ‘Waterfall’) – the key to something’s ‘own resemblance’ seems revealed by the adjective ‘own’ (DF). NC suggests monks ‘under the black weight of their own breathing’ as an example of this device. Seeing Things xxxii describes the house that Patrick Heaney built at The Wood as standing ‘firmer than ever in its own idea;
  • S5 moves to resurrection and renewal: the warm, inviting, sweet–smelling world outside expresses in religious terms (‘censer’) and the revelation of the Godhead that has no material form;

  • 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: fourteen 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]
  • the use Heaney seeks to make of assonant effects can be judged and measured in the ‘coloured hearing’ that follows;


  • 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;
  • verse 2 is glued together by front of mouth sounds: gentle [h], airy [w] ], alveolar [l], bilabial [b], labio-dental fricatives [f] [v], well supported by alveolar plosives [t] [d], nasals [m] [n], sibilants [s] [z]; 

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