Maighdean Mara

For Sean Oh-Eocha

The report of a drowning and its circumstances prompted Heaney to represent the happening as the action of a sea-spirit returning to her element rather than that of an unfortunate woman driven to despair and suicide by her narrow, hard-hearted judges.

Heaney knew of the associated mythology identifying female selkies, said to make excellent wives but, because their true home was the sea, often to be seen gazing longingly at the ocean. If she found her skin she would immediately return to her true home in the sea. Sometimes, a selkie maiden was taken as a wife by a human man and might mother several children by him. In some stories it was one of her children who, oblivious to its significance, discovered her selkie-skin (described in the sequence as ‘garments’) and brought about her departure. A selkie could only remain in contact with a human for a short time before she must return to the sea. In Heaney’s sequence, two men hide the selkie’s skin, to prevent her, for their own base reasons’ from returning to her original form.

The story can also be read as a parable for an Ireland in which ‘tribal taboos and laws can so easily outweigh ‘civilized’ humane values’ (MP114-5) – an unmarried mother prefers killing herself to being spurned by the unchristian community in which she lives.


The narrator has come upon a naked female body in the sea: she is at rest (She sleeps now) cradled by the swell (her cold breasts /Dandled by undertow) even beautified by the process (Her hair lifted and laid). She is bedecked with marine ornament, Undulant slow sea wracks that move in rhythm with the waves and living sea-flora (Bangles of wort) that lay tender claim to her, embracing then releasing her legs: drifting/Liens catch, dislodge gently.

A woman’s suicide is represented as a mermaid ‘s vain attempt to return to her natural environment (the great first sleep /Of homecoming) after serving an eight/Land years sentence of drudgery and enslavement amongst humans (between hearth and Bed steeped and dishevelled) that all but deprived her of her essence: Her magic garment almost ocean-tinctured still.

  • dandled: as of a baby, rocked gently up and down;
  • undertow: undercurrent as, for example, incoming waves are sucked back into the sea;
  • undulant: (from the Latin unda, meaning ‘wave’ or ‘water’) describing the rising and falling movement of the waves; this links it to a variant version of Undine the mythological water nymph figure of European tradition who became human when she fell in love with a man but was doomed to die if he was unfaithful to her;
  • wrack: numerous varieties of seaweed;
  • shin: front of the leg below the knee;
  • thigh: the human leg between knee and hip;
  • bangles: decorative wrist and ankle bracelets;
  • wort: a plant;
  • liens: ties; originally something held until a debt is paid;
  • steeped: soaked (in water);
  • dishevelled: untidy, bedraggled, tangled;
  • ocean-tinctured: containing traces of the sea;
  • loose sonnet format (ll.7+6) in 4 sentences; unrhymed 6 syllable lines; simple present tense;

  • the balance of enjambed lines and punctuation regulates the breath groups of oral delivery with an ebb and flow rhythm;

  • sea qualities: cold but caring; sea plants welcome back one of their own, provide adornments ‘bangles’;

  • movement: ‘undertow … lifted … undulant’; regular and unhurried: ‘drifting/ catch/ dislodge gently’;

  • split adverb in the text will be built into the breath group;

  • the ‘magic’ dimension of her clothing will play an ongoing role in her drama;

  • for assonance and alliteration see below;


Males have been at the root of her misery. The first of them stripped her of independence (stole her garments as /She combed her hair) leaving no option but to go with him (follow /Was all that she could do). To keep her captive he hid her raiment in the eaves, seduced her (charmed her there) and incarcerated her (four walls, /Warm floor) subjecting her to his lust (man-love nightly). The only sounds of the outside world were those of the sea: earshot of the waves.

The creature bore and suckled children (She suffered milk and birth /She had no choice) trying to keep memories of origin alive in her mind (conjured/Patterns of home) but succumbing to her lot: drained/ The tidesong from her voice.

A second liaison (she gives into the wiles of a passing tradesman: the thatcher came and stuck /Her garment in a stack) proved to be her undoing: Children carried tales back ostracizing her within the narrow-minded coastal community. A sonic pun suggestive of a mermaid’s tails confirms her as an outsider.

  • eaves: overhanging sections of a roof;
  • earshot: what is within ones range of hearing;
  • drain: (of liquid) to run off, (of emotive memory) to unload oneself;
  • thatcher: installer of straw/ rush roofing:
  • stack: pile of straw;
  • sonnet form in 2 septets; 4 sentence construct; lines almost all of 6 syllables; unrhymed; past tenses;

  • the balance of enjambed lines and punctuation regulates breath groups of oral delivery;

  • paradox: she sell for the charms of an anonymous ‘he’ – male, underhand, lustful, thief, false imprisoner;

  • her dwelling a bare cell; her function reduced to that of a sex object satisfying male lust;

  • cause and effect: pregnancy; metaphor gives expression to the injustice: ‘suffered milk and birth’;

  • the instinctive music of her previous existence (‘earshot … tidesong’) nearly but never completely eradicated;

  • for assonance and alliteration see below;


Driven to suicide she committed herself to the sea, striding into the waves unseen by prying eyes (In night air, entering /Foam). She never retrieved the clothes that would have opened the opportunity of escape so bore on her skin only the unpleasant, decaying associations of male contact: smoke-reeks from his thatch, /Straw-musts and films of mildew.

Her death will free her male abusers from public censure (She dipped his secret there/Forever) and release her, too: from judgmental female voices (uncharmed Accents of fisher wives); from numbing enslavement to male appetites (The dead hold of bedrooms); from despairing loss of hope (Dread of the night and morrow); from painful reminders of infants left behind (Her children’s brush and combs).

The first two lines of the sequence provide the final refrain: the naked corpse has returned to its state of innocence: (She sleeps now) cradled by the swell (her cold breasts /Dandled by undertow).

  • foam: bubbles on a watery surface caused by agitation;
  • smoke-reeks; strong smells of fire-smoke;
  • straw-musts: pervasive smells of damp straw;
  • mildew: damp organic growth on walls or plants with an unpleasant smell;
  • uncharmed: enchantment, magical properties and personal attractiveness removed;
  • dead: at once ’no longer alive’, ‘numb, unfelt’, ‘lacking sympathy’, ‘no longer relevant, thing of the past’;
  • Earlier on, in I969 and 1970, I’d written the group of poems about women in distress – ‘Shore Woman’, ‘Maighdean Mara’, ‘A Winter’s Tale’, ‘Limbo’ … nar­ratives and monologues (that) formed one segment of the contents’ (DOD124);
  • both parts share exemplary or emblematic figures of suffering or endurance, those of Part Two having a genuine role in establishing the chilly, disconso­late mood of the book. These latter, who are predominantly women, move out of prehistory, history and literature into the contemporary world, although they acquire something of an almost mythical or legendary quality too. This is created largely by the imagery of moonlight and sea in which they are bathed, and which they share with ‘Roots’… the mermaid­ suicide of ‘Maighdean Mara’ lies in water’ (NC50);
  • Perhaps the most usual way poets devise to be anonymous is to turn to myth and legend (whether classical, Christian or folk-derived), and Heaney takes this path as well. In a rather self-conscious early poem called ‘Undine’ he writes in the voice of the water-nymph as she recollects her liberation from the earth (from his second collection ‘Door into the Dark’ of 1969) … the poem announces ( ) Heaney’s inter­est in assuming (as in ‘The Wife’s Tale’, ‘Mother’, ‘Limbo’, ‘Shore Woman’ and elsewhere) a special type of anonymity: what it might mean to imagine oneself inside a woman’s experience. In this regard, Heaney makes use of folktale as well, summoning up the legend of the capture of a mermaid (‘Maighdean Mara’) to account for a woman’s suicide’ (HV22-3);
  • The historical and political themes in Wintering Out are carried, in a number of poems in Part One, by particular imagined or recalled human figures … They are complemented, in mood and meaning, by various figures in Part Two … (including) the mer­maid (or suicide) of ‘Maighdean Mara’ … (who) suffer some kind of human diminishment: isolation, repression, disenchant­ment, exploitation or betrayal’ (NC30);
  • 2 sextets in 3 sentences; unrhymed 6 syllable lines; simple past tenses replaced by present tense in the repeat of the poem’s first couplet;
  • the balance of enjambed lines and punctuation regulates the breath groups of oral delivery;
  • synesthetic effect: she is clothed in an invisible garment reeking of relatively unpleasant smells redolent of the land life she hated and the sea-death she preferred;
  • dual intent of ‘dipped’: immersed and thereby rid herself;
  • enumeration of items she will not miss includes maternal instincts;
  • couplet repetition suggests that the legend will remain as it was told;
  • 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: fifteen 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 lines of (i), for example, bring together initial nasals [n] [m] alongside a cluster of plosives (bilabial [p] [b], alveolar [d] [t]) and introducing soft sibilants [s];
  • 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/ anger.

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