A Brigid’s Girdle

for Adele*

The poet offers a warm hand of support to a friend with a life-threatening condition; he has known her from his Harvard days. The poem’s elegiac tone is ominous.

Heaney recounts a previous contact with Adele, both the where (rustic table under magnolias in South Carolina) and the when (early spring in South Carolina as blossoms fell on me).

The setting in which he wrote to her is vividly imprinted on his sense-memory: vision – a dwelling house (gable) sharp and majestic (as clean-lined as the prow of a white liner) set against strong Spring light (bisected sunlight in the sunlit yard); emotion –for him a moment of respite (glad of the early heat and the first quiet) snatched from a busy schedule (I’d had for weeks); sound –  both local wildlife (the mocking bird} and the thrilling notes (delicious, articulate. small plinkings) from a stringed instrument (dulcimer) producing a fusion of musical and poetic charge (feminine rhymes) winging its way (flight) to Adele in Boston (migrating to the north).

Heaney reveals the condition already entrenched in Adele (where you faced the music and the ache of summer) and its terminal outcome (earth’s foreknowledge gathered in the earth).

From a previous letter (last time) to his current poem (now) composed at a similar time of year (St Brigid’s Day) resplendent with the first bloom of winter’s end (snowdrop) and its whole panoply of symbolic attachment: sympathy and consolation, innocence and purity, hope.

Think ‘girdle’ think ‘poem’ – Heaney is back home at Glanmore (in County Wicklow), actively engaged in creating a personal gift of poetry for Adele (a Brigid’s Girdle I’m plaiting for you) using a medieval icon of an ancient Ireland peopled by magical beings (an airy fairy hoop). Heaney’s parenthesis echoes Irish dialect words – period dress (one of those old crinolines they’d trindle) requiring stiff hoops to hold its shape (twisted straw that’s lifted in a circle).

He prays that his gift (handsel) will bring a magical power to help a sick woman (heal). The offering has spiritual celebrity (a rite of spring) with a mysterious, graceful, ethnic facet (strange and lightsome and traditional). In the same way that his poetry imitates the plaiting process Heaney urges Adele to step in and out of the girdle (motions you go through going through the thing) to benefit from its healing properties.

  • * Adele: an obituary by Susan Kovacs Buxbaum confirms Rand Brandes’ suggestion that the dedicatee is Adele Dalsimer, a friend of Heaney’s who established the Irish Studies Program at Boston College and who died in February 2000 at the age of 60: ‘Nobel Laureate, Seamus Heaney, said that Adele had “a gift for lifting people’s spirits into vision and cooperation” and made the Boston College Irish Studies Program “a locus of energy….[which has gained the international] respect of writers, critics and all workers in the field.” ’
  • St Brigid: second patron saint of Ireland, renowned for her piety. Most of what is known about her comes from medieval biographies of the saints. Brigid comes across as an extraordinarily strong and self-reliant woman … scholars see numerous similarities between the stories of Brigid and the legends of Celtic goddesses; St. Brigid’s day is February 1, corresponding with “Imbolc,” the Celtic feast of renewal and purification Ancestry.com
  • girdle:  a belt or sash of straw plaited as a mark of respect in pious, rural communities;  folk might step in and out  of the emblematic girdle to cleanse themselves of sin;
  • South Carolina: a State on the south-eastern seaboard of the United States;
  • mocking bird: the bird mimics the sound of the dulcimer; perhaps Adele plays such an instrument but is way up north and has problems wherever she is;
  • plinkings: an onomatopoeic rendering of the sound of a dulcimer, part plucking part metallic;
  • dulcimer: afretted string instrument of the zither family, typically with three or four strings. Its origins are in the Appalachian region of the United States;
  • feminine rhymes: Heaney re-defines a poetic term in relation to the individual sounds emanating from a stringed instrument … as a series of unstressed sounds that somehow resemble each other and so in a sense ‘rhyme’;
  • face the music: figuratively to confront a problem;
  • ache: the word is repeated in Poet’s Chair as the poisoned Socrates feels the first symptoms of what will kill him;
  • snowdrop: a small winter-flowering plant that coincides with the saint’s day;
  • airy fairy: selected to enhance the magical imagery, in other contexts the phrase might suggest ‘something Impractical and foolishly idealistic’;
  • crinoline: an old fashioned stiffened or hooped petticoat worn to make a long skirt stand out
  • trindle: (Northern Irish usage) suggestive of the textile process required for a circular hooped garment ; as a noun it describes awheel, for example that of a wheelbarrow;
  • handsel: (Northern Irish usage) ‘a gift made as a token of good wishes or luck  especially at the beginning of a new year’;
  • the poem is written in 5 quatrains, a four-sentence construct with a loose rhyme scheme abab cdcd;
  • line length is based on 10 syllables;
  • the rich use of enjambed lines makes each sentence all but a continuum;
  • the two separate scenes are distinct in time (Last time … Now); past and present tenses are used appropriately;
  • imagery associated with a sea-going vessel; later vocabulary seeks to stress the mythical side of old Ireland including dialect usages;
  • in the final line words mimic the making process itself;
  • simile using ‘like’ ,alongside comparison as … as
  • use of onomatopoeia in ‘plinkings’ is also synesthetic using sounds to describing words as sounds;
  • potential pun on ‘face the music’;


  • 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: thirteen 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 consonant effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies:
  • the first quatrain of Brigid’s Girdle, for example, opens with alveolar[t[ alongside rear-of-mouth plosives [k] and [g];
  • it is well worth teasing out the sound clusters for yourself if only to admire the poet’s sonic engineering:
  • Consonants (with their phonetic symbols) can be classed according to where in the mouth they occur
  • Front-of-mouth sounds: voiceless bi-labial plosive [p] voiced bi-labial plosive [b]; voiceless labio-dental fricative [f] voiced labio-dental fricative [v]; bi-labial nasal [m]; bilabial continuant [w]
  • Behind-the-teeth sounds: voiceless alveolar plosive [t] voiced alveolar plosive [d]; voiceless alveolar fricative as in church match [tʃ]; voiced alveolar fricative as in judge age [dʒ];  voiceless dental fricative  [θ]  as in thin path; voiced dental fricative as  in this other [ð]; voiceless alveolar fricative [s] voiced alveolar fricative [z]; continuant [h] alveolar nasal [n] alveolar approximant [l]; alveolar trill [r]; dental ‘y’ [j] as in  yet

Rear-of-mouth sounds: voiceless velar plosive [k] voiced velar plosive [g]; voiceless post-alveolar fricative [ʃ] as in  ship sure, voiced post- alveolar fricative [ʒ]   as in pleasure; palatal nasal [ŋ]  as in ring/ anger.

2 thoughts on “A Brigid’s Girdle

  1. What a gift this website is. “Cheers” to the memory of your father, and to you for honoring him this way. I love Seamus’ work, and having this resource deepens my engagement with it.

Join the Conversation - Leave a comment