The Wishing Tree

On the road out of Ardboe in Co Tyrone down towards Loch Neagh on a sharp right-hand bend, headstones are planted around a ruined church once a monastery. Views over the lough are awesome. At the entrance to the cemetery stands an impressive 10th century High Cross and behind it the site of the ‘Pin Tree’ that blew down on Christmas Eve 1997. It had been poisoned by myriad metallic objects hammered into its ‘wishing tree’ trunk.

Heaney was thinking about his wife Marie’s mother Eileen Devlin (the wishing tree that died) when he wrote the piece though he never names her. The Devlin family home was little more than two miles away from the cemetery. Eileen and Tommy Devlin are laid to rest there.

He pictures the ‘Assumption’ of the wishing tree, rocketing skywards from its location (lifted, root and branch, to heaven) exposing in its slipstream (trailing a shower) the hopes and distresses of individuals (need by need by need) that had ironically caused the tree’s downfall in the shape of metallic objects (coin and pin and nail) they embedded in its trunk (driven into its hale sap-wood and bark). In Heaney’s imagination the debris cascades down as the tree-rocket leaves the Earth’s atmosphere (streaming from it like a comet-tail) in pristine condition (new-minted) but growing ever less distinct (dissolved)

Heaney’s flight of fancy signals the passing of a woman who was ever to the fore in life (vision of an airy branch-head) witnessed by those who gathered to grieve (damp cloud of turned-up faces) close to where the tree had stood.

  • root and branch: in its entirety;
  • trail: (n) wake, slipstream;
  • drive: hammer, ram, sink;
  • hale: healthy;
  • sap-wood: soft outer layer within the outer bark of a tree;
  • pin: tack;
  • stream: cascade, spill;
  • comet: celestial object of ice and dust and a tail of visible particles pointing away from the sun;
  • new-minted: newly produced, brand new;
  • dissolve: disperse, evaporate;

In a poetic sense the tree follows a similar route to the ‘soft-eyed calves’ of ‘The Milk Factory’ … somehow present in a radiant glow of absence, ‘assumed into fluorescence’; in Eileen Devlin’s case a memory-comet wandering deep space in perpetuity. 

  • 3 triplets (T) in 3 sentences including colon; line length 9-11 syllables;
  • some prominent rhymes in T2 but no formal scheme; flow determined by accretions of enjambed lines;
  • triplet of people’s needs reflected in triplet of damaging metallic objects ‘coin and pin and nail;
  • comparison woman > tree… tree > ascending rocket; Cape Canaveral-style launch scene; Heaney will have viewed footage of these spectacular moments;
  • 1st person elegy to an anonymous in-law; Heaney would have been present as family;
  • assonant effects: [ɔː]..saw…all; [ai] died…by…by…like…I…rising; [i] wishing…it…lifted…driven… pin…streaming…comet…minted…dissolved…vision; [ei]trailing…hale…nail…came…tail…faces; [i:] tree… been...need… need…need…steaming;
  • alliterative chains: front of mouth [l] [w][h]; reprises of alveolar [t/d], bilabial [p/b], velar [k/g] nasals [m/n], sibilants [s/z/sh], labio-dental [f];


  • 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;


Join the Conversation - Leave a comment