Foreword (Wintering Out)

Heaney – selective biography Heaney in 1972 The call of ‘pastures new’ Ulster before Berkeley – Heaney biding his time The Berkeley experience – Heaney on the move Post Berkeley – Heaney burning bridges Tipping point ‘Wintering Out’- publication and reactions ‘Wintering Out’ – the title Style … ‘inward broody’ The ‘languagey’ poems The religious divide of Heaney’s upbringing Sectarianism – the difficulties of remaining neutral place and rôle of the poet in times of social distress Finding ‘common ground’– the Glob effect Irish ‘underlay’ – identities and territory, history, tongue Historical links: pre-Christian > colonial > post-colonial> contemporary symbols , spirits , parables, the elements Wintering Out the poems: individual commentaries and notes Afterthoughts Finding the blend; the poet’s […]


‘What the Californian distance did was to lead me back into the Irish memory bank’ (DOD142). The first poem of Wintering Out introduces a series of pieces in the collection that identify closely with beloved locations by featuring the sounds of and associations with Irish/ Ulster diction and pronunciation. Heaney refers to them as ‘languagey poems’ (DOD126). Recalled at a restless moment and from a huge distance, Mossbawn is a sacrosanct place of Heaney’s childhood, a blessed legacy ‘ forever part of his inner landscape’ (HV 21). The poet spotlights an age-old, traditional feed for livestock as it winters out: Fodder (required when, seasonally, grass has ceased to grow and provide renewable natural pasture); he identifies with the phonetic version […]

Bog Oak

‘What the Californian distance did was to lead me back into the Irish memory bank’ (DOD142). Ulster dialect and pronunciation are woven into the first piece (‘Fodder’) as a shared inheritance of Irish people whatever their religious denomination. The image of a recycled Bog Oak, preserved by the peat bogs that surrounded Heaney’s childhood home, is presented as further ‘common ground’; the poet adds Irish identity, climate and history to the mix. The peat bogs, ‘sacred places’ (MP94) for Heaney, stored and preserved what was deposited in them also acting, layer by layer, as a historical archive. Heaney acknowledges the aged Bog Oak as a usable wood retrieved from the peat and source of recycling income. Sight of it transports […]


The first of three place-name poems: ‘Anahorish’, ‘Broagh’ and ‘Toome’ are existing communities within a 2 or 3 mile radius of Mossbawn where the poet’s happy childhood unfolded. Heaney attended Anahorish Primary School and featured the townland in a number of pieces. Enigmatically Anahorish does not appear by name on current Ordnance Survey maps yet its identity is memorialized by Heaney and jealously guarded by its inhabitants. Heaney sings the music of a name that became part of his essence (Anahorish), celebrating a topographical inheritance founded in the distant past and shared by people of all persuasions. He offers an anglicized transliteration of the Gaelic etymology: My ‘place of clear water’. Anahorish is Heaney’s Garden of Eden, his pastoral paradise, […]

Servant Boy

Heaney’s poem, based on the experiences of a childhood neighbour Ned Thompson, makes a powerful statement about Irish dispossession at the hands of anglo-scottish invaders and their descendants. The deteriorating circumstances he witnessed upon his return from his sabbatical year at Berkeley served only to confirm the seemingly unchanging fate of the Catholic minority. Heaney portrays a male servant of indeterminate age, averse to his subservient status (boy) left with little choice but to turn the other cheek and bide his time in the hope of improved circumstances: wintering out/ the back-end of a bad year. The young male goes about his menial routine (swinging a hurricane-lamp through some outhouse): an unskilled hand like countless others over the centuries (a […]

The Last Mummer

Heaney revealed that his ‘last mummer is, like the servant boy (of the previous poem), an alter ego of sorts, He, too, is ‘resentful and impenitent’(DOD130). The narrative interlaces themes of dispossession, endangered tradition, ‘progress’, superstition, remnants of Scottish New Year ‘good luck’ custom and symbols of Catholic communion set against a landscape literally as old as the hills of Ireland. The poem moves from action to elegy. If Heaney’s servant boy symbol of Irish subjugation was disgruntled but placid by nature, his last mummer, portrayed as the last survivor of an age-old Irish mystery-play tradition, is driven beyond ‘patience’ and ‘counsel’. I The representative of Old Ireland has come prepared for direct action: a stone in his pocket,/ an […]


Heaney’s 3-poem sequence approaches the title from different angles: a man steeped in country practices announces his intention to go; the effigy he intends to leave behind will transmit the messages of home to him; creatures natural to the Irish landscape-home are under threat from lurking, man-made dangers. A disastrous future for Ulster is on the cards. Land is all-encompassing: the ground beneath the poet’s feet; the extent of the family farm; his Ulster homeland; Irish territory. I The voice is that of a countryman by instinct (first person and barely anonymous) setting out his routines: measuring his personal domain in age-old units (I stepped it, perch by perch); separating and selecting natural growth that will serve many purposes (Unbraiding […]

Gifts of Rain

Widely regarded as one of the collection’s major pieces, the title introduces the element at the source of all life (Water is certainly a ‘shape-changer’ MP99), dominant feature of Irish climate, determinant of landscape and symbol of cleansing and renewal. Heaney wrote the poem in Berkeley: images, descriptions and associations stem from his Irish memory bank. Allegory is in-built: Heaney’s Ulster is under threat of political and social inundation and he is in ‘inward, broody’ mode. He returns to his home-ground especially the cherished Moyola river of his neighbourhood . I Prolonged rainfall associated with bounty (the Gifts of rain) becomes a recipe for flooding: whether full spate (Cloudburst) or continuous steady downpour now for days. Enter a living creature […]


Heaney’s second of three ingenious place-name poems contains a phonetic energy that identifies the poet’s specific Ulster background and alludes to the ‘Irish underlay’ of place, time and language that he explores in Wintering Out. As Heaney points out in the notes that follow the ‘languagey’ poems bridged the gap between his working language (English) and his Ulster Irish origins. The poet rehearses the pronunciation of a village that lies within an emotional stone’s throw of his childhood home at Mossbawn: Toome. He describes in words the oral gymnastics required to produce the genuine Ulster sound: My mouth holds round/ the soft blasting (the burst of compressed air from the throat released by consonant plosive [t]). Distance lends enchantment: Toome, […]


Wintering Out features three ingenious place-name poems; this third piece provides the phonetic evidence that distinguishes those with a genuine Ulster background from outsiders; the poem alludes to ‘Irish underlay’, the common factors shared by Ulster folk for which Heaney searches in Wintering Out. The poem ‘acts as the linguistic paradigm for a reconciliation beyond sectarian division’(NC46-8). The poet confessed that the ‘languagey poems’ (DOD124) eased his professional conscience by bridging the gap between his working language (English) and his Ulster Irish origins. The village landscape that backed on to the river Moyola provides words planted into the Ulster vernacular by historical English and Scots occupation: trenches for vegetable growth (long rigs), wide-leaved docks (broad docken) and a tree-fringed track […]


In a poem that foretells (Oracle) of a poet-in-the-making Heaney relives a childhood moment that demonstrates his strong spirit of independence, his sensitivity to the world around and his busy imagination. Once upon a real time, child Heaney’s eagerness to wriggle free of parental control, run ahead and play hide-and-seek in the hollow trunk/ of the willow tree provided a passport to a secret spirit world in which he could commune with Nature (its listening familiar). This moment of first communion was immediately disrupted by intrusive, repetitive calls: as usual, they/ cuckoo your name/ across the fields. He recognized the sounds of family closing in, navigating the barriers separating them from him: You can hear them/ draw the poles of […]

The Backward Look

A complex variant of Heaney’s ‘languagey’ poems, the piece explores linguistic impurities that have crept into the spoken word and adulterated the Irish language. The poet’s principle concern is linguistic dispossession. By use of a kind of Audenesque ‘verbal contraption’ he reflects on the wider erosion of the Irish domain. The landscape might have changed little but the language that describes it has suffered from crossbreeding. In his Backward Look, the poet measures the impact of repeated invasion and incursion. His message is carried by the emblematic Irish snipe. Heaney recognizes changes in the sounds and movement of the startled snipe, pretending all is well (sleight of wing) but under closer scrutiny showing signs of injury: A stagger in air […]


For Tom Flanagan Heaney met Tom Flanagan and was inspired by his Ireland-centred thinking at Berkeley. He explains the dedication: ‘It was Tom’s poem because I lifted the conclusion of it from his book on the Irish novelists (The Irish Novelists 1800-1850). The epigraph to that book juxtaposes MacMorris’s question in Henry V ( ) with Bloom’s answer in Ulysses … (Bloom’s reply) seemed to cut through a lot of the Identity crisis stuff that surrounded us in the early seventies so I stole it for the end of the poem’ (DOD143). The title introduces national stereotypes and the piece will pull the rug from under their feet. I The speaker identifies closely (Our) with the guttural muse of throaty […]

A New Song

The poem spins a web comprising South Derry place names, issues of Irish history (dispossession, uprising), a vanished world, things that happen in real-life (universal: girl-meets-boy; particular: a flood event). Its phonological content adds to the complexity. To help unravel the piece’s message NC refers to the Heaney’s essay ‘1972’ in Preoccupations: ‘discussing his begin­nings as a poet, he writes, ‘I think of the personal and Irish pieties (his roots) as vowels and the literary awarenesses nourished by English (his degree, his working language) as consonants. My hope is that the poems will be voc­ables adequate to my whole experience.’ ’ (NC42); Heaney’s title announces a new music bidding to retrieve a lost domain: a song to be heard, the […]

The Other Side

As sectarian divisions in Northern Ireland were boiling up into major 1970s conflict Heaney takes a peek back at relationships prevailing in the Heaney neighbourhood of the 1940s. ‘The Other Side’ presents a guarded but benign encounter between your family and your Protestant neighbour Johnny Junkin (DOD131). Heaney’s neighbours as he explained to DOD were ‘both beside us and on the other side’, Protestants and Catholics living alongside each other, and in harmony. Wading through vegetation on the edge of Heaney property (Thigh-deep in sedge and marigolds) the young narrator is suddenly aware of a second looming presence at the ‘frontier’ separating them (a neighbour laid his shadow on the stream). Using a religious comparison the man writes off the […]

The Wool Trade

‘How different are the words “home”, “Christ”, “ale”, “master”, on his lips and mine’ Stephen Dedalus Heaney’s epigraph is taken from James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man at the point when the young Irishman, in his dealings with the English Dean of Studies, suffers ‘unrest of spirit’ when it dawns on him that English (‘so familiar and so foreign’ to him) is a major legacy of English occupation. Three of his example words, of things that loom large in a young Irishman’s life (kinship, religion, social activity), lead to the fourth: his sense of Irish dispossession. Dedalus sounds the words out to himself conscious that the Dean, as an Englishman, will read their meaning differently. The […]

Linen Town

High Street, Belfast, 1786 A pen and ink study on tinted paper of Ye High Streete Belfast Anno Dom 1786 features the old Market House in front of which an insurrectionist would be hanged twelve years after; behind the vignette of bustling, fashionable Belfast life a clock is ticking: the political execution will change everything. Heaney uses a depiction announcing the political turbulence leading to the Act of Union of 1801 as a stark appeal to avoid yet another period of strife. His sense, however, that circumstances make recurring violence inevitable in Irish history will prove true: between the submission of the Wintering Out manuscript to Faber for consideration the events of Bloody Friday and Bloody Sunday will once again […]

A Northern Hoard

And some in dreams assured were/ of the Spirit that plagued us so Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner of 1798 provides the epigraph to the sequence. Coleridge’s long fable deals with the consequences of an aberrant act upon both the sinner and those around him; it weaves together matters of conscience, danger, serenity, the supernatural, mental health and salvation; it introduces spirits that come to haunt the mariner’s conscience; it picks out the sad fate of ordinary people caught in a vicious circle; it condemns the mariner to wander the earth re-telling his story in an attempt to leave people sadder and wiser. hoard: stock, store; for the poet his store of words. Heaney presents a five […]


Midnight is to do with being robbed. Loss of language, prosperity and nationhood are dealt with in the collection; to them Heaney adds the contrived extinction of the wolf, once prevalent in Ireland. The spoliation visited on Ireland over the centuries has brought Heaney to a Midnight of gloom: things Irish lost or compromised by a string of occupying armies flooding Irish shores (Since the professional wars) with all the brutality of conquest (Corpse and carrion Paling in rain). The poet laments the disappearance of a predator that roamed free until the British got involved: The wolf has died out/ In Ireland hunted to extinction after the Cromwellian Plantations of the 1650s. Once upon a time packs/ Scoured parkland and […]

The Tollund Man

‘I did ‘The Tollund Man’ in Ballydavid in Kerry at Easter in 1970. Marie and I had gone there for holidays regularly …’ (DOD124); I Heaney makes the pledge he will fulfil in 1973 a year after Wintering Out is published: Some day I will go to Aarhus. His pilgrimage will aim to bring him face to face with Tollund Man his body recalled now (from photographs taken by PV Glob): his stained peat-brown head; the gentle swellings (mild pods) of his eye-lid; the leathery crown (His pointed skin cap). The body had been miraculously preserved by the Jutland peat bog (the flat country nearby/ Where they dug him out), leaving, too, remains of the thin food he consumed prior […]


Heaney concentrates his creative attention on a ‘Mother Earth’ figure of Norse legend (Nerthus) in whose name the Tollund bog-body of the previous poem was allegedly sacrificed. Her pagan beauty is set in tree form, within a sexually suggestive meld of landscape and female symbol of fertility: ash-fork staked in peat. The eye is drawn from mildly provocative long-distance shot (‘fork’) towards textures and shape suggestive of the female reproductive zone: Its long grains gathering to the gouged split. Jutland and Ulster landscapes have much in common; why not, then, a tree tolerant of all extremes of climate (A seasoned, unsleeved taker of the weather) preserved in an Ulster bog identical in all but the language to describe it: Where […]


For Barrie Cooke Poem dedicated to the British born artist and family friend living in Ireland since 1954 (Cooke painted a portrait of the poet). Heaney reveals to DOD (p148) that as he and his wife actively contemplated changes in the direction of their lives they visited Cooke who had fashioned a self-sufficient existence for himself in Kilkenny. The poet went on outings with Cooke, a 2-and 3-dimensional artist fascinated by natural materials and designs. The clues mount up: on a walk cairns would have provided Cooke with a creative distraction. He is the cairn-maker. Cairns are a feature of the Burren landscape since the earliest times and Heaney’s Cairn-maker latest in a line of builders. The poet observes the […]


The humane portrait of a road-worker-superman, at once man of the earth dressed in fit for purpose (The moleskins stiff as bark) and man joined to the earth, driving a heavy pneumatic tool into the carriageway (the drill grafting his wrists/ to the shale). A modest labourer, perhaps, but no pushover: where works have created a chicane for drivers (the surface ( ) weavy) and caution is required, the navvy polices the situation. When camber tilts/ in the slow lane he is in charge: he stands / waving you down. Heaney is familiar with the boggy landscape through which the road passes (The morass the macadam snakes over) and the bog’s voracious appetite for anything that strays onto it: it […]

Veteran’s Dream

One of a string of individuals memorialized in Heaney’s poems provided by his 1940s neighbourhood. The warm-hearted child that Heaney was is reflected In Veteran’s Dream by his compassion for the physical and mental state of retired soldier Mr Dickson, my neighbour whose post-traumatic stress disorder born of Great War experiences in the trenches rendered his life not dream but nightmare. The time setting is established by the man’s experiences: (he) saw the last cavalry charge/ Of the war and got the first gas. He takes his injuries with him into his subconscious memory world, walking with a limp/ Into his helmet and khaki. Some near-death experiences are of distant concern: gas has yellowed his buttons; cavalry attack that leaves […]


The positive connotations of ‘Oracle’ (a youngster destined to be a poet growing up in a healthy environment) give way to a much darker Augury: the mask and body of a sick fish warn of impending threats to well-being. The ’inward broody style’ characteristic of Wintering Out underlines in allegorical form the threats facing both Ulster community and more widely by Mankind. Initial signs of normal health (The fish faced into the current) belie life-threatening changes: Its mouth agape as it searches for oxygen, Its whole head opened like a valve. The narrator bows to his companion’s prognosis: You said ‘It’s diseased’. Closer observation reveals the signs of sickness: an oval shaped pale crusted sore/ Turned like a coin dangling […]