The Biretta


The hat worn by a priest in an  Irish Victorian painting provides Heaney with poetic charge; he compares the biretta he views in an art gallery with others he has seen or handled as an altar boy in his local church.

Heaney presents the biretta‘s shape via the august opening lines of Caesar’s record of the Gallic war (Like Gaul … divided Into three parts). Its sombre confection (black serge) and its pillbox form bring river associations (triple-finned … shipshape). Heaney confesses hewas intimately familiar with every slope and edge of this emblem of the Catholic church itself, neatly presented (trimly articulated) and resolute (decided).

Its plush crimped satin interior and serious weight (heavy too) seemed at odds with its embellishment (sported) – a decorative light flossy tassel whether tickling his fingers or used as a corrective if he was doing something wrong (the backs of my fingers remember well). He recalls the imprint it left on the celebrant (dark red line on the priest’s brow).

As a serving altar-boy he was handed the biretta prior to the thin fastidious movement that traced  the up and out and in sign of the cross as the celebrant delivered Mass; the priest’s stern intonation is emphasised in the text (name of the Father and of the Son AND of the Holy Ghost).

Bored, the boy imagines the biretta as a kindred spirit, both of them just putting up with it (batten down), slightly averse (half-resist) to the goings-on (chalice drunk off … patted lips).

He recalls his first-time shock when a religious fanatic leapt to his feet (an El Greco ascetic rose before me) thunderously controlling (shout … preaching hellfire) …  a wrinkled, lizard-like saurian, fiery (stormy) zealot hammering home his message: Adze-head on the rampage.

Catholic terminology still resonates (Sanctuaries. Marble. Kneeling boards. Vocation).

Each celebrant wore the biretta differently: some flat (squashed) others not (clean and tall): whichever way, a remnant of a former time (antique as armour in a hall) that, sure as heck, scared everyone to death (put the wind up me and my generation).

Heaney re-works with the boat associations of the orginal canvas – as the frail paper craft of Dante’s poetic imagination in the Purgatorio, celebrated in verse (poetry lifts its eyes and clears its throat); as the intricate artifact found in Derry and kept in the National Museum (small boat out of the bronze age) fashioned with exquisite delicacy (oars are needles), made of worked gold, as fragile as a bird-egg (hatched-out shell) and brought to utter perfection – refined beyond the dross into sheer image.

Of all the representations Heaney plumps for the biretta in Matthew Lawless’s painting, The Sick Call), a solid, pathetic and Irish Victorian canvas.  Why this one … because it has has revealed a priest whom he can respect (reverence): a man visiting the very ill, unfaltering (undaunting), a man with one foot in the world (half domestic), appreciated when it mattered (loved in crises), as steady as the boat in which he travels as each long oar dips and rises, virtuous for having declined life’s pleasures (sad for his worthy life) and totally  suited (fit) for his duty of care.

Heaney speaking to DOD (326): In the boat, you have a priest, and the priest is clearly thinking of the sick parishioner who’s waiting for him and for the holy viaticum (Eucharist as given to a person near to or in danger of death).

  • biretta: tricorn hat worn by Roman Catholic priests;
  • Gaul: Celtic region of Western Europe in Roman times stretching roughly from Northern Italy to the North Sea coasts of France and Belgium; ‘three parts’ alludes in a light-hearted but learned way to the opening words of Julius Caesar’s De Bello Gallico account of the Gallic War: Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres (‘the whole of Gaul is divided into three parts’}
  • fin: raised projection with an aerodynamic property;
  • serge: hard-wearing worsted fabric;
  • shipshape: trim, tidy (British naval derivation);
  • pillbox: straight-sided flat-topped hat;
  • trim: neat;
  • articulate: allusion to its separate parts;
  • decided: making a firm statement;
  • crimped: pleated, corrugated;
  • sport: display, show off;
  • flossy: of untwisted silk threads;
  • tassel: decorative knot of hanging threads
  • brow: forehead
  • celebrant: priest performing the Eucharist;
  • fastidious: with painstaking detail;
  • In the name of etc: text spoken to accompany the sign of the Cross;
  • batten down: sit securely;
  • chalice: wine cup used in the Eucharist
  • patted lips: to remove any residue of the Communion wine;
  • El Greco: 1541–1614), Cretan-born Spanish painter; born Domenikos Theotokopoulos; his portraits and religious works are characterized by distorted perspective, elongated figures, and strident use of colour;
  • ascetic: person leading a lifestyle characterized by severe self-discipline and abstention from all forms of indulgence;
  • preach hellfire: express the view that sinners will suffer God’s wrath in the fires of hell;
  • saurian: lizard-like, resembling avertebrate of the group Sauria (such as the dinosaurs and lizards):
  • adze: blunt tool with an axe-head;
  • rampage: shouting violently and uncontrollably;
  • sanctuary: place of safety;
  • squashed: crushed, distorted;
  • put the wind up us: scared us out of our wits;
  • waft: float;
  • Purgatorio: (Part Two of Dante’s Divine Comedy) which Dante describes in the opening lines of the canticle as the place in which ‘the human spirit purges the self, and climbing to Heaven makes the self worthy’.
  • bronze age: prehistoric age around 3000BC between Stone and Iron when tools were made of bronze;
  • worked; fashioned;
  • hatched out: shell left after the young animal has emegrd
  • dross: worthless rubbish, junk;
  • Matthew Lawless: Irish born artist (1837-1864); The Sick Call exhibited in the National Gallery of Ireland; Heaney’s appraisal: a nineteenth-century genre piece, a solidly realistic rendering of a rowboat on a river
  • reverence: respectful form used to address clerics;
  • fit: up to the job;


  • In conversation with DOD Heaney offered fascinating insights: … the Lawless hat is so ordinary, so unstylish, it seems like an objective correlative (the artistic and literary technique of representing or evoking a particular emotion by means of a symbol which becomes of that emotion) . It’s certainly the opposite of what the hard-edged tricorn biretta stood for: the hard line, the pulpit bark, the articulated and decided authority of unam sanctam catholicam et apostolicam Ecclesiam.  the memory of holding a biretta by its central fin is still there between my finger and my thumb. As an altar boy, I was always fascinated by the materiality and weight of it and, as a child, I tended to be frightened of priests with birettas on their heads. At the same time there was something trim and shipshape, almost airborne, about the feel of the thing. When you took it into your hand from the priest’s hand, there was a momentary tempta­tion to launch it into the sanctuary like a paper dart or a little black-winged stealth bomber. In the end I let that impulse stand for poetry’s impulse to outstrip the given so turned it instead into the boat of imagination that Dante launches in the opening lines of the Purgatorio … and into the little gold boat [rom the Broighter Hoard in the National Museum (DOD 326-7);
  • MP(220) commends The Biretta as one of the marvellous highs of a collection where, often, sparseness of style matches sparseness of content;


  • 10 quartets in a 16-sentence structure based on 10 syllable lines;
  • rhyme scheme abba/ cddc though not universally sustained;
  • descriptional use of compound words;
  • vocabulary of watery associations; vocabulary of reverence;
  • metonymy: poetry for Dante;
  • perfection expressed via abstract adjectives: ‘sheer’, elsewhere ‘utter’;
  • threat comparison: knight’s helmet, priest’s headwear;
  • reference to Mass, literature and bronze-age culture
  • warlike representation: Gallic war; stealth bomber suggestions of ’triple finned’?
  • prepositions together: up and out and in’
  • 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:

  • 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;
  • for example, the first lines interweave bilabial plosives [b][p], labio-dental fricatives [f][v], velar plosive [k] with alveolar plosives [t] [d] and sibilant variants [s] [z] [sh];
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;