Seamus Heaney: Ireland’s Contemporary Treasure

As winter fades toward spring we are reminded of the culture represented by the wearing-of-the-green. St. Paddy’s Day is almost upon us with its parades, green beer, and four-leaf clovers. This is a time of festivities, celebration, and honoring our roots and what better way than to pay homage to Irish poetry. Some truly great poets have come from Ireland, such as W.B. Yeats, Oscar Wilde, and Jonathon Swift. I would like to discuss a contemporary poet whose portrayal of Ireland is at once intimate and even unflattering.

Seamus Heaney was born on April 13, 1939, in County Derry. His family was Catholic in Protestant dominated Northern Ireland. He was the oldest of nine children and his childhood in the country would forever influence his poetry (source). Heaney recalls watching the American soldiers practice maneuvers in nearby fields in preparation for the Normandy invasion of 1944 (source). When he was 12 years old he received a scholarship to a Catholic boarding school and left behind his country home. As he progressed through numerous educational institutes he traveled further from the land of his childhood and the occupations of his ancestors. Much of his poetry reflects the seeming dichotomy between the country boy and the educated man (source). This is well represented in his first book of published poetry, entitled “Eleven Poems.”


The first poem of the collection (read it here), gives a vivid look into Irish country life and Seamus Heaney’s feeling of detachment. Picture the poet sitting at his writing desk looking out on his father digging in a flower bed. All that physically separates them is a pane of glass, but this seemingly insubstantial barrier is what gets to the heart of the poem.

“Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; as snug as a gun.”

Heaney likens his pen to a weapon which he feels he needs to protect himself against the criticisms regarding his chosen career.

“Under my window a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down”

Though his position in the window may be elevated, we get the sense that Heaney feels superior to such manual work and he is not comfortable with this feeling.

“The cold smell of potato mold, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.”

The sight and sounds of this stanza are vivid as the symbolic spade cuts the last remaining ties to his family’s traditional means of earning a living. He chooses to no longer follow the choices of his forebears.

“Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.”

The final stanza reminds us of the first in that Heaney’s chosen weapon, his pen, is his tool, and he wields it with as much skill as his forefathers did the spade. He is not cut off from the land, though, for he can share his love of the land through his writing.

“The Haw Lantern”

Shortly after his mother died, in 1984, Heaney published a collection of poetry called “The Haw Lantern” and the poem by the same title (read it here) deals with some of the frustrations Heaney felt at the violence in Ireland during the 1970’s. The Haw refers to the hawthorn bush whose red berries sometimes bloom in wintertime in open defiance of the elements.

The wintry haw is burning out of season,
crab of the thorn, a small light for small people,
wanting no more from them but that they keep
the wick of self-respect from dying out,”

He is disappointed in his native Ireland.

“it takes the roaming shape of Diogenes
with his lantern, seeking one just man;”

Diogenes, according to myth, carried a lantern through the streets in search of one honest man. The inference here is that Diogenes would be unable to find one just man in the dire political situation of Ireland. Diogenes takes his lantern and ‘moves on’ as the poem ends.

Seamus Heaney went on to lecture and teach throughout England, Ireland and the United States and has been awarded just about every award a poet can achieve, including the Nobel Prize for literature in 1995, “for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth which exalt everyday miracles and the living past” (source). I believe Seamus Heaney intended his poetry as a kind of lantern of Diogenes, probing our consciousness, and separating out the bogus from the true.



Haw Lantern, The.

Nobel Prize. Org.

Poetry Foundation.

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