Relic of Memory

As in At Ardboe Point Relic of Memory draws on ‘energies within the Irish landscape’ (MP83), in this case of things happening beneath the surface of Lough Neagh. The title adds a spiritual element.

Heaney revealed to DOD (93) that the lough held a ‘fascination’ for him and in doing so revealed a linkage between the thirty year old poet and his childhood self: It was right in the centre of a big map of Northern Ireland that hung at the front of the master’s room in Anahorish School. And on the shelf of that room there was a piece of petrified wood, or at least wood that had gone through some process that rendered it silicate. It was a more or less scientific exhibit yet it seemed to confirm the more or less magical claim that you’d often hear about Lough Neagh, that it could turn wood to stone. In fact there’s a poem – ‘Relic of Memory’ – about that piece of wood in Door into the Dark.

The mystery that local hearsay claimed as magic was close to scientific truth (waters can petrify wood) – objects lost or abandoned in the lough (old oars and posts) over time (the years) undergo a change in their properties (harden their grain). The mineral deposits that form a crust over them seal in (incarcerate) their previous woodiness (ghosts of sap and season).

Heaney lyricizes the physics: the endless play (shallows lap) and interplay (give and take) of Lough Neagh water-wash (constant ablutions) and permanent, non-hostile immersion (drowning love) shock (stun) what started as wood (stake) into a silicate state (stalagmite).

The poet focuses on the knowledge his education brought: earthbound geological deposits born of pressure and heat (dead lavacoal and diamond) … celestial bodies in decline (cooling star) … the heat effect (sudden birth) of the Earth’s atmosphere upon things that enter it (burnt meteor). Such lessons were elementary (too simple) by current astrophysics and geophysics developments but, and here is the nub, were triggered during Primary school days when his want-to-find-out curiosity took the bait (lure that relic stored) dangled by a classroom exhibit (piece of stone on the shelf) (perhaps he chuckles) and his first naïve but enduring impression of it (oatmeal coloured).

At Ardboe Point and Relic of Memory form sister poems to the Lough Neagh Sequence which follows.

  • relic: supposed item of a holy person’s dead body or belongings kept as an object of reverence; Heaney extends this to include items of shared Irish heritage from quern stones to farm pumps; here the remnants of inter-reaction between minerals and elements;
  • petrify: change organic matter into stony substance by encrusting it with mineral deposits; turn to stone;
  • oar: flat ended pole with which to row or steer a boat;
  • grain: arrangement of fibres in wood;
  • incarcerate: imprison;
  • sap: life-giving fluid circulating within plants and trees;
  • season: moisture content, seasoning;
  • lap: wash gently with rippling sounds;
  • give and take: mutual concessions;
  • ablution: washing cleansing (perhaps ritual); Latin ‘ab’ (out, from); extraction by exposure to water;
  • stun: both render unconscious and shock to render unable to react;
  • stalagmite: column rising from the floor;
  • lava: molten or semi-fluid rock erupted from a volcano;
  • meteor: chunk of matter from outer space entering the earth’s atmosphere and heating up and appearing as a streak of light;
  • lure: something that excites one’s curiosity;
  • store: retain for future use;
  • oatmeal: a colour blend of pale grey, yellow, white with green undertones; variation of beige;


  • 4 sestains in 3 sentences(S); short lines varying between 3-5 syllables;
  • discernible but inconsistent rhyme pattern – S1  aXbaXb –  loose rhymes based on assonances (with a haunting effect);
  • the combination of punctuation and enjambment (the short units lend themselves to rich enjambment) dictates flow and rhythm within the oral delivery potential,  governing pace or pause (note colons and dash);
  • narrated in the present tense as Heaney’s inner eye examines the inter-reaction of water upon  flotsam and jetsam; Anahorish school ‘museum’ recalled in the single past tense;
  • S1 including a colon is richly enjambed; location and local hearsay followed by clarification; personification – inanimate objects imprison, produce ‘ghosts’; vocabulary describing wood properties;
  • S2 (second colon and equally rich enjambment); Lough Neagh personified as compromising, washing; oxymoron ‘drowning love’, affectionate mother drowning child; transformation by means of a blunt instrument; emergence of a new hybrid geology;
  • S3 (richly enjambed, including the dash that permits the change of time and location from cosmos to school table; ‘sudden birth’ suggestive of the speed of oncoming rock missile dealt with by the atmosphere; advance sciences explained in layman’s terms; final triplet reverts to youngster-speak and its ultimate statement of innocence; fishing analogy;


  • 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;
  • the first two sestains are dominated by alveolar plosives [t] [d ], nasals [n] [m] and sibilants [s] [z] [sh] alongside a cocktail of front of mouth sounds: aspirate [h], breathy [w], alveolar [l], bilabial plosives [p] [b], labio-dental fricatives [f] [v]; a smattering of velar plosives [k] [g] completes the alliterative deal;

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