Leaning into Seamus Heaney

There are times when I need to hear the voice of Seamus Heaney. I am one of the lucky ones who got to go to one of his poetry readings back in 2009 and it will remain a highlight of my life forever.

Here he is with those twinkly eyes that I loved so much and his magnificent Northern Irish accent. I hope you enjoy this treasure even half as much as I do:

For Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney has been very much on my mind of late. Today is the third anniversary of his death and I miss him with a passion. He was there for me when I really needed him ~ in the aftermath of my mother’s death ~ reading with that wonderful voice of his at the Kilkenny Arts Festival in 2009.

It’s strange how there can be people who never know what a mark they have left on a life. I never spoke to Seamus Heaney but he spoke to me through his poetry and humanity.

Tonight, as I read through some of his poems, I feel even more blessed than ever to be among those who have shared this world and country with him.

How do you say ‘thank you’ to someone who has died? I wish I knew the answer to that but, for now this is the nearest I can come to it.

Rest in Peace,  dear man, and I hope you have feasted on some glistening blackberries this late August day.


Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.

(Seamus Heaney 1939-2013)





Seamus Heaney Remembered with Love

Today marks the second anniversary of the death of Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995.

Seamus Heaney Image: Eamonn Farrell/Photocall Ireland
Seamus Heaney
Image: Eamonn Farrell/Photocall Ireland

Seamus Heaney’s poetry, as regular readers will know, has been very dear to my heart, especially since I heard him read at the Kikenny Arts Festival in August 2009, just weeks after my mother’s death and at a time when my father was very frail indeed.

Heaney’s work is wide-ranging in terms of theme but, for me, his writings about his family, particularly his late parents, resonate very strongly and never fail to bring solace.

Last night, I was perusing the various volumes of his work that have their home on my desk beside the computer and found myself returning over and over to what I suspect may be his shortest poem of all.

The Strand

The dotted line my father’s ashplant made

On Sandymount Strand

Is something else the tide won’t wash away.

(Seamus Heaney, Opened Ground: Poems 1966-1996Faber and Faber)

The tide has ebbed and flowed rhythmically over the last two years and it certainly hasn’t washed away any of the lines crafted by Seamus Heaney. If anything, it has brought more and more of them up onto the shores of new waves of poetry lovers from all across the world.

Conversation of a Lifetime

Mount Congreve Garden, Co. Waterford

I came across a question yesterday on Twitter, with a picture of a seat overlooking an ocean,  that had me thinking long into the night. Here’s what it was:

If you could spend an hour on this seat talking with one person (past or present), who would it be?

While I was thinking about the possible contenders, I decided that the seat should be in precious Mount Congreve, but I found it very difficult to nominate one person.

Part of me wanted to have the pleasure of an hour with a personal loved one who has died but I decided that I couldn’t face seeing him/her walk away at the end of the hour.

The person I finally came up with was Nobel Prize winning poet, Seamus Heaney ( 1939-2013), whose poetry I adore and who made such a lasting impression on me when I heard him read at The Kilkenny Arts Festival in 2009.

Here’s one of his poems that I’d loved to have him read to me in that wonderful voice of his:


Masons, when they start upon a building,
Are careful to test out the scaffolding;

Make sure that planks won’t slip at busy points,
Secure all ladders, tighten bolted joints.

And yet all this comes down when the job’s done
Showing off walls of sure and solid stone.

So if, my dear, there sometimes seems to be
Old bridges breaking between you and me

Never fear. We may have let the scaffolds fall
Confident that we have built our wall.

Seamus Heaney

So who would YOU choose to chat with for that one special hour?


The National Ploughing Championships are underway in Ireland at the moment and it’s like the country has been taken over by ploughing fever.

In the midst of this, I’ve been thinking about people who have the courage to plough lonely furrows in the pursuit of a vision, very often at huge cost to themselves but ultimately for the betterment of society. How often do we look back and see how a now ‘famous’ person died in destitution, never to see the fruits of  his/her labours recognised and accepted as ‘genius?’

Horse Drawn Plough c.1900 Source: www.livingmemory.org.uk
Horse Drawn Plough c.1900
Source: http://www.livingmemory.org.uk

And, of course, the mere mention of ploughing always makes me think of this most evocative poem written by the great Seamus Heaney:


My father worked with a horse-plough,
His shoulders globed like a full sail strung
Between the shafts and the furrow.
The horse strained at his clicking tongue.

An expert. He would set the wing
And fit the bright steel-pointed sock.
The sod rolled over without breaking.
At the headrig, with a single pluck

Of reins, the sweating team turned round
And back into the land. His eye
Narrowed and angled at the ground,
Mapping the furrow exactly.

I stumbled in his hob-nailed wake,
Fell sometimes on the polished sod;
Sometimes he rode me on his back
Dipping and rising to his plod.

I wanted to grow up and plough,
To close one eye, stiffen my arm.
All I ever did was follow
In his broad shadow round the farm.

I was a nuisance, tripping, falling,
Yapping always. But today
It is my father who keeps stumbling
Behind me, and will not go away.

(Seamus Heaney)



Dear Seamus Heaney …

Seamus Heaney Source: New York Times, July 12, 2006


Dear Seamus Heaney,

I suspect you wouldn’t care how I addressed you but when I wrote, ‘Dear Seamus,’ it just didn’t feel right so I’ll go with Seamus Heaney, if that’s okay.

Your first anniversary has been very much on my mind for weeks now. It never seems to be the anniversary that ‘gets’ me but the time around it and the end of August is a time that tends to be full of bittersweetness anyway ~ a time of endings or should I say ‘new beginnings?’

I guess you’d go for somewhere in the middle. Your poetry catches me all the time with places of the heart and mind that it identifies – places that resonate totally, and describe exactly,  but for which I had never found a name.

While you died on August 30th last year, your poetry lives on with a freshness that I didn’t think possible. I was afraid that it would somehow fall with the Autumn leaves and never come back.

How could I have been so foolish? You were so tuned into the seasons of life; the twists and turns of the year; the everyday and the forever.

More than anything, I’ve been struck in the last year by the way you, more than any other poet I’ve read, captured sound in your work. While I know I will never hear your unique reading voice  live again, I find the sounds that ring through your poems ever-comforting and present. I think of so many poems here but The Forge is a special favourite.

I wonder how you’d like to be remembered on your anniversary tomorrow. It seems that you paved the way for others ~ as in Changes with lines like:

So tender, I said, ‘Remember this.
It will be good for you to retrace this path
when you have grown away and stand at last
at the very centre of the empty city.’
(from: Changes by Seamus Heaney)


I doubt you’d want tears, or at least many of them. Would you like people to read your poems?  (I doubt many will be able to resist!)  Maybe you’d like people to try writing some lines of their own?

My absolute inclination is to go and pick blackberries in a wild, wild place  with all my senses open to nature, words and lines you wrote:

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for

(from: Blackberry-Picking by Seamus Heaney)

Your presence will be all around in this wild place:

Between heather and marigold,
Between sphagnum and  buttercup,
Between dandelion and broom,
Between forget-me-not and honeysuckle,
As between clear blue and cloud,
Between haystack and sunset sky,
Between oak tree and slated roof,
I had my existence. I was there.
Me in place and place in me. 
Where can it be found again,
An elsewhere world, beyond
Maps and atlases,
Where all is woven into
And of itself, like a nest
Of crosshatched grass blades?
(from: A Herbal by Seamus Heaney)


With all my love and thanks,









‘Early Retirement’ and Heart’s Desire ~ a Couple of Weeks On

I’ve been pretty overwhelmed by the waves of wise, sincere, encouraging and heartfelt responses that I’ve received to my recent  posts here and here about deciding to take ‘early retirement’ in the face of not being able to secure suitable employment over the last four years or so.

There has been so much food for thought in these responses and I’ve been amazed at the extent to which they have been echoing in my mind and seeking to be processed.

I wrote about knocking on doors and even building new ones to knock on, but then someone mentioned ‘avenues’ and that opened up all sorts of new space.  You’d find it hard to believe how many avenues I’ve glimpsed over the last few weeks, from tiny driveways up to ordinary houses to paths in the woods and even pathless woods! There are just so many different angles on this …..

And then, another piece of advice was to Go with what your heart desires most, Jean, and don’t look back. 

This has played and played on my mind, especially as I decided to do a major clean-out of my ‘study’ and kept coming on former ‘work’ stuff from both social research and teaching ~ which meant more to me than I can even begin to describe.

It may seem strange but the most stubborn single sheet of paper that refused to be shredded was this one which I revised and revised and used as a working  Hand-Out with my Open University students ahead of their exams for each of the ten years I had them.


Its impact reminds me so much of the immortal words of  Seamus Heaney in Postscript:

And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.

It also makes me think of how ‘early retirement’ is very much like an examination.

Yes, Make sure that you answer the question asked.

Now the shredder is purring so I’d best go and give it the Hand-Out!







To Seamus Heaney with Love ~Gatherings from Ireland # 339

I’ve spent the last hour or so reading through The Penguin Book of Irish Poetry (2010) which is edited by Patrick Crotty and my thoughts keep returning to Seamus Heaney whose death has left such an indelible mark on 2013. 

Even though I was flicking backwards and forwards through this tome which stretches way back to before 1200, I found that my fingers were determined to stay on page 738 which is right in the middle of the section devoted to the poetry of Seamus Heaney. I can hear his voice, just as it was that balmy summer night  in 2009 when I heard him read in St. Canice’s Cathedral in Kilkenny.

His passion, humanity and absolute love of words and poetry were so palpable as he poured his heart into reading each poem as if for the very first time. I wonder did he have any concept of his own greatness and the extent to which he touched people with his  brilliance and insight into life’s senses, layers and connectivities?

The lines that keep asking to be read tonight are these from:

A Sofa in the Forties

All of us on the sofa in a line, kneeling

Behind each other, eldest down to youngest,

Elbows going like pistons, for this was a train


And between the jamb-wall and the bedroom door

Our speed and distance were inestimable.

First we shunted, then we whistled, then


Somebody collected the invisible

For tickets and very gravely punched it

As carriage after carriage under us


Moved faster, chooka-chook, the sofa legs

Went giddy and the unreachable ones

Far out on the kitchen floor began to wave.

Seamus Heaney’s Nobel Prize ~ Gatherings from Ireland # 264

It was on this day in 1995 that Seamus Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Railway Lines Photo: Frank Tubridy
Railway Lines
Photo: Frank Tubridy

One poem from the great master has been dominating my thoughts today, as I recall the enormous sense of occasion and history that I felt  on October 5th, 1995.

I remember well cradling our four-month-old baby  and marvelling at Seamus Heaney’s ability to capture the innocence of childhood which seemed to be both behind and in front of me.

 The Railway Children

When we climbed the slopes of the cutting
We were eye-level with the white cups
Of the telegraph poles and the sizzling wires.

Like lovely freehand they curved for miles
East and miles west beyond us, sagging
Under their burden of swallows.

We were small and thought we knew nothing
Worth knowing. We thought words travelled the wires
In the shiny pouches of raindrops,

Each one seeded full with the light
Of the sky, the gleam of the lines, and ourselves
So infinitesimally scaled

We could stream through the eye of a needle.

Seamus Heaney (1939-2013)

Seamus Heaney’s Presence ~ Gatherings from Ireland # 234

It was early when I woke to the dawning realisation that Seamus Heaney has died and felt a wave of  disbelief and sadness sweep over me.

I decided to abandon everything and go to Newtown Wood  ~ my place of solace.

Newtown Wood, Tramore, Co. Waterford.
Newtown Wood, Tramore, Co. Waterford.

The path in the wood has been cleared over the last week or so and I got to thinking about Seamus Heaney’s  many references to space and his Clearances. 

I had been reading somewhere yesterday how he talked about space in terms of carrying buckets, saying that carrying two buckets was easier than carrying one and that he had walked in the space between them.  It stretched my imagination to breaking point to even think about this way of describing himself.

There was birdsong all around and it felt that the birds were determined to pay their homage to a poet who had written so appreciatively of them. Nowhere is this more profound than in Changes in which he describes a nesting bird and finishes with:

So tender, I said, ‘Remember this.

It will be good for you to retrace this path

when you have grown away and stand at last

at the very centre of the empty city.

Standing under an oak tree, looking down at Newtown Cove, a cluster of ripe blackberries glinted at me. And yes, I thought of Seamus Heaney’s Blackberry-Picking as I grazed:

You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet 
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it 
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for 

I realised as I savoured the blackberries that Seamus Heaney’s presence will always remain. He has given  us so many ways to view the world in all its simplicity and complexity, sorrow and joy.

How fortunate  we are that, as he wrote in Digging:

But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests.

I’ll dig with it.