At Banagher

An unexpected alter-ego of a kind – Heaney recognises an alternative embodiment of his own vocation. From his travels around Co. Derry he picks out an itinerant tradesman emblematic of old Ireland and detects similarities between himself and this wandering seamster. Just as the tailor has a way with clothes so the poet has a way with words – they both spend their time making up, unpicking, altering and putting back together.

Without any warning (then all of a sudden) poetic charge can enter the poetic consciousness (appears to me) – on this occasion a remnant of old Ireland, a sharer of Heaney’s ancestry who mirrors in figurative form many of the poet’s traits (journeyman tailor who was my antecedent).

The man’s posture has something leprechaunish about it (up on a table, cross-legged) as he engages in the first stage of an alteration (ripping out a garment he must recut or resew). In similar fashion the poet drafts and redrafts pieces.

The tailor’s face intrigues him: the mouth tensed in concentration (his lips tight back) around the regulation length of cotton (thread between his teeth), his silence that of the reticent individual he is (keeping his counsel always, giving none), his gaze (eyelids) fixed and unalterable (steady as wrinkled horn or iron), living in his own world (self-absenting), itinerant yet at home with himself wherever he might be (both migrant and ensconced). How much of his own manner is Heaney beginning to recognize?

The tailor is invited (admitted) into people’s homes (kitchens) and intimate belongings (clothes) thanks to the magical talent he possesses (his touch has the power) that creates ‘new lamps’ from old (turn to cloth again).

There is nothing here that does not mirror Heaney’s status as a poet with a public voice.

Heaney is jolted (all of a sudden) into confession (he appears to me) of his own incompleteness – guarded (unopen), honourable certainly (unmendacious) but yet to define his true role (unillumined).

  • Banagher: a small parish near Londonderry;
  • Journeyman: an experienced worker employed by others; a solid performer;
  • journeyman tailor: an itinerant tradesman offering a service;
  • antecedent: person with a shared ancestry or social background;
  • ripping out: alterations require the unpicking of previous sewing;
  • tight back: held tensed;
  • keeping his counsel: by his silence revealing nothing of what he thought or intended;
  • self-absenting: distancing himself from things going on around him;
  • migrant: moving from place to place;
  • ensconced: settled in a comfortable place;
  • clothes … cloth: the former dependent on the latter;
  • unopen:, as a person who gives nothing away so about whom one knows nothing;
  • unmendacious: judged to be honest;
  • unillumined: who has not seen the light, who has yet to see the light; spiritually unenlightened;
  • Richard Tillinghast compares the vocational image with lines from “Adam’s Curse,” by Yeats:   That beautiful mild woman, your close friend, / And you and I ( ) talked of poetry. / I said, ‘A line will take us hours maybe./  Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,/ Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.   
  • 4 unrhymed triplets; line length based on 10 syllables; 2 sentences;
  • few enjambed lines are possible to describe a staged process or list of traits;
  • ‘antecedent’ stands out as an archaic word of Latin root; ’ensconced ‘ of 1600 vintage;
  • insights into the poetic process: ideas that come on unexpectedly; poems that require to be reworked: vocabulary of ‘more than once’: recut, resew;
  • use of adjectival/ adverbial compounds: cross-legged, self-absenting;
  • comparison seeking to convey a texture: eyelids/ wrinkled horn or iron;
  • triple adjectives with prefix un- preferred to ‘not’ which would not have blended with his 3 adjectives;


Heaney toasts the seamster (so more power to him) he once watched at work (on the job there) noting he was less comfortable being observed (ill at ease under my scrutiny) given his personality (years of being inscrutable) as he got on with the job (threaded needles or matched the facings, linings, hems and seams).

Heaney zooms in: needle position (just off centre); eyes narrowed for close focus (squinting); the split ends of the cotton moistened (licks the thread and licks); thread pulled firmly through the needle’s eye (sweeps it through).

After fiddly concentration, a deliberate adjustment (time to draw both ends out even), a double musical tuning of their tautness (plucking them sharply twice) then on with the job (back to stitching).

The poet wonders whether the tailor had some deeper quest (does he ever question what it all amounts to or ever will?) or just lived from one moment to the next (where he lays his head?).

If the tailor is comparable with a spiritual figure of global importance who renounced family and wealth and walked the roads of life in search of Enlightenment (my Lord Buddha of Banagher), the life lesson this seamster teaches certainly enlightened Heaney (the way Is opener for your being in it).

  • more power to you (your elbow): a British expression used to encourage someone or express approval of their actions;
  • scrutiny: close observation;
  • inscrutable: difficult to understand or interpret;
  • facings: a strengthening piece of material sewn on the inside of a garment, especially at the neck and armholes;
  • linings: layers of different material covering the inside surface of a garment;
  • hems: edges which have been turned under and sewn;
  • seams: lines where two pieces of fabric are sewn together; ‘a triple play on the joins between edges of cloth, on the poet’s name and on the Greek for “sign”’, suggests Nicholas Jenkins in Walking on Air (TLS of July 5th 1996);
  • off centre: not quite in the centre;
  • squinting: focusing on an object with one or both eyes partly closed, screwed up;
  • Lord Buddha: the founder of Buddhism; Siddartha Gautama( circa 563-circa 483 BC); born a prince in what is now Nepal, became an ascetic and teacher after achieving enlightenment while meditating;
  • ‘(Heaney) the intense cherisher of domestic rituals now remembers the uprooted travellers in his family, like a “journeyman tailor who was my antecedent”, a man “both migrant and ensconced”, absorbed, wherever he was, in his craft… Puns proliferate here, because they are like minute meeting-points for separate verbal orders, miniature enactments of Heaney’s desire to find the intermingling of worlds. Nicholas Jenkins Walking on Air in the TLS of July 5th 1996:
  • 4 triplets in 6 sentences including 2 questions about deeper issues; no rhyme scheme but some loose rhymes; line length between 10 and 12 syllables;
  • ‘balance between punctuated and enjambed lines;
  • ‘so’ used as a conjunction;
  • words derived from the same Latin root: scrutiny/ inscrutable;
  • musical reference adds to the varying resonance of sense data: plucking the cotton/ plucking a guitar string; the man is tuning the cotton;
  • Heaney uses interrogatives owing to the tailor’s reticence; they are rhetorical;
  • lexis of the tailor’s trade sits alongside description of feelings betrayed on the surface ‘ill at ease’;
  • use of vocative (Oh) My Lord Buddha;
  • paradox: tailor ‘unopen’; the way ahead ‘opener’;
  • 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 or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies:
  • the first triplet, for example gathers sibilant sounds [s] [z] together with bilabial plosives [p] [b] alveolar plosives [t] [d] and alveolar [l];
  • it is well worth teasing out the sound clusters for yourself 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/ ang

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