Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Seamus Heaney: "Digging" in Ireland

Portrait of Seamus Heaney (b. 1939), by Peter Edwards
National Portrait Gallery, London;
I have a postcard of this painting
taped to my file cabinet at work.

For St. Patrick's Day stores are sprouting plastic shamrocks, a paltry substitute for the island rock of green that grows deep down in many of us, even if we're not Irish: green and purple hills, icy lakes, soft woolen caps, pocked stone fences and crosses, rain on the roof, a fiddle, a fire on the hearth, a glass of stout, a never-ending talker on the other side of the table, an old history of pain and struggle, faith, and writing. A smile, a song and a lament.

Poet Seamus Heaney is a lighthouse in an island country cultivated with literary lighthouses. He was born in County Derry in Northern Ireland, and many of his poems are rooted there in the rural countryside of his childhood. I just love this one, one of his most famous, about his father the digger. See how he alludes to a gun, which was a familiar and ugly character in the Northern Ireland of his youth. In the YouTube video is a montage of clips in which he recites "Digging" in many different venues, at different ages, with different timbres in his voice. Think of that. One life, one family, one man, one poet, who harvests and feeds us riches like this, in and out of just one poem. Oh my dear friends, the world in one person! See the spade and hear it slide into the wet dirt. Smell the iron, the wet steel, the potato mold. Feel the hands of father and son, one with a shovel and one with a pen. Hear the pen, Heaney's shovel, that digs for sustenance, and replants it too, to come up for us again and again, like Swift, Wilde, Beckett, Lewis, Joyce, Yeats, Shaw, and a lot of other pen-diggers. (There are no women in my list, for I have not studied Irish women writers, but here is a list to explore; no doubt you could help me too.)

After the video, I've lined up my own St. Patrick's Day parade of photos taken over two summers, 2006 and 2007, while I helped students traipse around Dublin, Killarney and Cork. I have not been to Northern Ireland, or I would share scenes from those counties. Six out of thirty-two Irish counties are in Northern Ireland. As you probably already know, Southern Ireland became the Irish Free State in 1922, now known as the Republic of Ireland, and is no longer part of the United Kingdom. I knew Ireland as the Celtic Tiger in the mid 2000s high-tech boom, but now, Ireland has the highest ratio of household debt relative to income of any developed country in the world. I really feel for those young families who thought prosperity would last forever. As Roger Cohen recently said, maybe it's time for "emotional prosperity" since the financial kind is becoming a thing of the past for many of us.

   by Seamus Heaney

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

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

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade,
Just like his old man.

My grandfather could cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner's bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, digging down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

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.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I'll dig with it.

- from Death of a Naturalist (1966)

 Students on study abroad program, Cork

Graveyard on the Hill of Slane, site of St. Patrick's Paschal Fire
County Meath, Ireland

County Kerry

 Residential neighborhood
Kinsale, County Cork

 Cork, County Cork

Kinsale, County Cork

 Trinity College, Dublin, County Dublin

 Killarney National Park
County Cork
The sheeps' heads are red, not because they are Irish redheads, 
or because they are bleeding, but they are marked by their owners

 Killarney National Park
County Cork

 Street in Cobh, County Cork

Window in Cork, County Cork

 Blarney Castle, County Cork

Ha'penny Bridge, Dublin

 My dear friend of the mind-heart, Inge,
at Four Knocks, the 5000 year-old passage tomb
in County Meath; Inge taught on the study abroad program

Me, photographed by Inge, who taught in the program in 2007,
looking at abstract art in the 5000 year-old passage tomb
at Four Knocks, County Meath

Beech tree in the church yard at Tara
County Meath


erin said...

I love how he is tender to his father, grandfather, conceding he is not of the stuff of those men, But I've no spade to follow men like them. Listening to him read causes me to think on the value of men and here is where his concession heartens.

His father grew more than potatoes. He grew soil and rock and momentum. He grew work. He grew man himself. He grew a poet son.

Beautiful way to start this fine day, Ruth. thank you.


Bonnie said...

A wonderful way to set the scene for St. Patrick's Day. You dig right through to my heart with your pen Ruth.

Helena said...

Lovely sceneries. Hadn't heard of Seamus Heaney before. You look so youthful!

Maureen said...

Marvelous post, Ruth. Heaney is one of my favorites and this reading (really, multiple readings) is wonderful.

Such a contrast is drawn between the man of the soil and the man of letters, and yet the latter also carries in his heart the call of the land.

I've spent time in England, Scotland, and Wales but not yet gotten to Ireland. I hope to go there, as it was the home of relatives on my mother's side.

rauf said...

i remember all the pictures Ruth. Lovely

Recently watched an Amy Adams movie 'Leap year' with many interruptions. The movie takes you through some breath taking Irish countryside.

George said...

This was a wonderful and special gift to me, Ruth, because my family is originally from what is now Northern Ireland. I have written of book on the Gaelic history of my family and much of it took place in County Derry, which is the source of my Zen Master's name. I have spent time in County Derry (never would I utter the word "Londonderry"), as well as the other six counties of Northern Ireland. My family, the McHenrys, had all of their lands and other property confiscated by the Tudors, especially under Elizabeth I, in what has been historically remembered as the Plantation of Ulster. I won't go on with this, but it's a very sad story. What the English did to the Gaelic tribes and Catholic populations was as brutal as one can imagine. All of this was the prelude to that fateful day in 1729 when, John McHenry, my paternal ancestor seven generations removed, arrived in America as an orphan. Deep in my soul, I carry both the melancholy and the music of those diggers and writers from Ireland.

Loring Wirbel said...

We just had a Haney mini-fest at Black Cat Books in January! You chose wisely with your excerpts, and the pics made me laugh, something I sorely need. I just am not in much of a mood for cabbage and green beer, though Marilyn and I have been trying to convince Carolyn S-M that four-leaf clovers really DO exist, and one must watch for them and cherish them in times like these.

ds said...

Oh, there is so much to say--and so little time to say it. How I, too, was so moved by "the island rock of green that grows deep down in many of us, even if we're not Irish." How I've fallen in love with Mr. Heaney. How many of those places you've been I saw last fall (and how many not)--I know where to return, and where new to explore, now...
Finally: Eavan Boland, Eavan Boland, Eavan Boland!!! If you never read any other Irish woman, read her. Her poem on the Famine Road will make you weep...

Thank you, Ruth.

Margaret said...

...I have to come back here to soak all of this in slowly. But those photographs... I must visit this place within the next few years. Will has said he has always wanted to visit here... I can just imagine what it would do to his creative poetic spirit and Chelsea's artistic flair!

Dutchbaby said...

I never met a potato I didn't like and this potato-based post continues my love affair.

The images of the men cutting turf are just like the Dutch "veenstekers" harvesting peat out of the Dutch bogs.

Your photos of Ireland sent me back to our family trip to Schull in County Cork in 1993, where we rented a 150-year-old farm in the middle of a cow meadow. I'll never forget the farm-fresh local cheese and butter we ate there. We harvested blackberries every afternoon and ate crumble for dessert every night. We saw an overwhelming number of stars in the sky; our two-year-old daughter was too afraid to look up. What a wondrous trip that was.

Thanks for this wonderful post, Ruth!

Sandy said...

Wow, great post - my mom's family was from County Cork...

Loved all the photos.

Evelyn said...

wonderful post.
the pictures are breathtaking, especially the row of houses with the water in the background.
Im happy I read the poem.

The Solitary Walker said...

Yes, a great poet, and a fine poem. (Indeed, I quoted it once myself in a blog-sequence I did on my own father and old family home.)

Ruth said...

Thanks, erin. His father grew more than potatoes. Yes, what an expanse, to man, poet son, work, and to us.

Ruth said...

Thank you, Bonnie. Happy St. Patrick's Day.

Ruth said...

Helena, thank you. I'd like to go back to Ireland and not be working. :-)

Ruth said...

Maureen, I didn't know I wanted to go to Ireland, until I was there. Thank goodness work took me. I hope you can make it over there one day. I haven't been to Wales yet.

Ruth said...

rauf, Amy Adams is so sweet.

The best day is in Killarney, first on longboats, and then horse traps. I felt like a character in Jane Austen.

Ruth said...

George, I can "hear" it in your voice, that the deep wounds that were dealt to your forebears have passed to you in your flesh, blood and soul. Writing the book means you lived and breathed the stories, receiving that painful heritage as a gift, and in return you gave a great gift to your family to write it all down. It is so special that you named your Zen Master after this family county. And now perhaps he is one of your teachers of how to transform it into joy.

Here's to Northern Ireland, and to County Derry. Here's to its namesake, your Zen Master. Here's to the McHenrys!

Ruth said...

Loring, it's true, we finger our four-leaf clovers to smithereens in these times.

Ruth said...

ds, I thought about you writing this post, believing it would bring back fond memories from your trip. I never dreamed I would go, and when I understood why it is such a draw.

Thank you for the recommendation to read the poet Eavan Boland! I was pretty certain I could rely on you for a literary Irishwoman.

Ruth said...

Margaret, yes, go, and Will must go, with his romantic outlook and epic poems. And you and Chelsea should take portable easels for the countryside.

Ruth said...

Dutchbaby, stop, you're killing me!


Ruth said...

Sandy, I wonder if you've been there to visit your family's places. County Cork is so fine there by the Celtic Sea.

Ruth said...

Evelyn, thank you. I love that street in Cobh, the town that helped house survivors of the Lusitania.

Ruth said...

Robert, I really love how Heaney harkens back to his upbringing and the land. Cool that you used this poem in your story about your father and family origins.

Dan Gurney said...

Ruth, wonderful poem. I love Ireland.

My wife and I vacationed in County Cork last summer. Oh, my it was lovely. We visited Killarney National Park also.

We went for a music festival in Bantry. My nephew is an accomplished accordionist and his friend is an All-Ireland youth fiddling champion several times over. Oh it was something.

Thanks for this bit of brightness!

Char said...

i so want to go there. what gorgeous photographs and the poem, thank you for the introduction - i loved it.

Oliag said...

How I love this poem Ruth! What I love about reading blogs is discovering gems like this that I have somehow missed....

Whenever Mr O and I talk about returning to Europe we always mention Italy...I just might bring up Ireland after this post!

Terresa said...

Oh, I'm green (suitable color) with envy! A thought passed my head last December to try for Ireland, but revisited Scotland instead. All the more reason to return to the UK to visit the Emerald Isle. Love your road trip pictures and all that green!

Ruth said...

Dan, such beauties in those places. I can only imagine your delight with your nephew and his friend and all that music!

Ruth said...

Char, I hope you can go. I really felt happy to meet people who live a certain cheer, even though their history has been so profoundly difficult.

Ruth said...

Oliag, Italy is on our list too. I had too brief a visit in college (one afternoon in Rome . . . ), and the Amalfi coast calls. But Ireland is a "should" too, I hope you can make it.

Ruth said...

Terresa, Scotland is so wonderful, you did well. Yes, next time see some of Ireland. I would like to get to the west coast . . Sligo, Galway. The land of Keats. Thanks.

Vagabonde said...

What beautiful pictures – I especially like those of the Killarney National Park. I enjoyed the poem too. I was part Irish once, for several years – that is, my last name was Irish – my first husband was Irish and his name was Patrick.

Deslilas said...

I was born in Paris as were born my father, my mother and my four grandparents .
Anyway this beautiful poem speaks to me, it's so easy to make some transpositions with their own ways of living.

Ruth said...

Thank you, Vagabonde, your comment really made me smile.

Ruth said...

Daniel, I think there is something of the farm in all of us. We have had many people feel at home at our farm on their first visit. Maybe it's still in our blood.

Susan said...

Those photos could have been taken by a photographer working for National Geographic Traveler magazine, but they were taken by you! Our Ruthie! What a fabulous eye you have, my dear. That bridge picture just knocks me out.

But what really knocks me out is the last stanza of Mr, Heaney's poem...Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I'll dig with it.
...that's you, Ruthie. That is you.

blueoran said...

Thank you for so many layers of delight here -- Heaney's language comes out of peat-bogs, I'm sure, so dense and thick with sound that you can hear his pen's spade work with his father's in the field ... The pix are peaches too. I'm such an armchair traveller, never been though my father has many times over the years. Our family migrated out of Cobh Harbor in 1778 aboard the Sea Sprite, landing in Boston Harbor and emerging with a radically Americanized version of the old Gaelic name .. And those whorls on the Neolithic tomb, I had then engraving on my wedding ring, with an inscription hidden on the band: "By the rock of St. Columba sworn." That would, of course, be St. Oran's skull, exhumed from the ground on All Hallows. Dee-lightful stuff, friend.! - Brendan

Ruth said...

Susie Q, I consider you a story teller, and that is important writing. I would love to read your memoirs. Well, I already have in your blog posts. But I want more.

These are such devastating times. The cumulative effect is wearing us all down. 9/11, Indonesia tsunami, Katrina, Haiti, oil spill, North Africa-Middle East, New Zealand, Japan, and everything in between. I think the most depressing is realizing that the human systems of the world are so very faulty and annihilating. We have to find ways to sustain our souls.

Take care of yourself, sweetie.

Ruth said...

Brendan, how marvelous!

But I'm stymied! All that lore in your flesh and blood, and you haven't been!! Your wedding band! This particular tomb, Four Knocks, requires a key from the local farmer, much more fun than waiting in ticket lines at Newgrange (where the more famous neolithic fingerprint whorls are from).

Cobh harbor! Where the Lusitania's survivors were rescued and welcomed into Cobh homes. So much incredible history from and to that place. And it's so gorgeous. We walked up above at the top of the city a lot. I have had some synchronicity in Cobh. Both years I went (you can click on my "Ireland" tab for them), there were funerals at the church, with the stream of mourners after. The second was an awful crime, and it really felt like a vortex at that moment seeing the funeral cortege all over again after the first year.

Oh, the peat bogs. I'm in love with that too. You go to the national museum in Dublin and see a real dead mummified person, taken from the peat! Thousands of years old. Great stuff!!

Next time I hear from you, you had better have plans for a trip to Ireland, or I won't speak.


Brendan said...

OK, El Silento, but let me ask you this: what does language fail to reach that only going can achieve? Do you think Billy Shakespeare encountered every person he created? Did Poe ride the Maelstrom in any less harrowing way? When Heaney wrote "The Tollund Man" -- sight unseen -- did his vision err when he wrote,

... Some day I will go to Aarhus
To see his peat-brown head,
The mild pods of his eye-lids,
His pointed skin cap.

In the flat country near by
Where they dug him out,
His last gruel of winter seeds
Caked in his stomach,

Naked except for
The cap, noose and girdle,
I will stand a long time.
Bridegroom to the goddess,

She tightened her torc on him
And opened her fen,
Those dark juices working
Him to a saint's kept body,

Trove of the turfcutters'
Honeycombed workings.
Now his stained face
Reposes at Aarhus ...

Don't know if he ever went, but the poem is as naked as any view can get ...

Today -- for St. Paddy's -- I posted a long (way too long for digital culture) poem ("Iona Tale") about the visit to Iona that I never made but have for so many years, under the influence of my father's tales, who has been there many times, as well as all my reading. Is my vision untrue, or insubstantial, for not having put feet to actual ground? Or is landscape the proscenium?

I've got to go to Iona to bury some of my father's ashes when he dies (his request), so, yeah, I'll try to make a run from Dublin to Cork and spend some time in the ancestral 'hood ... - Brendan

Ruth said...

Brendan, you have defended your thesis very well, for as you see, I speak!

But alas, my incredulity was nothing to do with you having within you what is needed to speak of your Ireland. I believe it is all inside us, if we can open its windows and give it voice.

I don't know if Heaney went to Aarhus, but how like this dug-out man is to the bog man in the national museum. A person could create an entire history looking at his leather skin, the wrinkles, that no doubt were tightened in her torc, and no doubt he dug some turf like Heaney's pa.

And wouldn't you know we keep connecting, señor. My department sends students on an exchange with Aarhus University, that city of ancient runes.

I scrolled down through your epic poem of "Iona Tale" and I confess I was daunted in the wee hours of morning. But as I've told you before, I embrace and celebrate all your verse, as you write from a skilled hand and mind. I did not have the time to read it this morning, but without reading it, I believe, based on what I have read that pours out of you, your vision could not be untrue. Don't we know a few souls who live, live in geographic locations and have no vision their place at all? It is not being there that matters.

So my incredulity then had to do with you being able to withstand the urge to be there, and smell the whiskey-laden breath, touch the cold stone at Four Knocks, rub the heather, feel the cold water of the long lakes through the long boat's bottom, lock eyes with the sheep brethren, gaze out over the vast counties of Ireland from Tara, sit in pubs until far into the morning fiddling and starting to talk like them. How could you resist it? Maybe you fear it will fall short of your St. John-like revelations?

Jeanie said...

What a divine way to celebrate this holiday where everyone is Irish! Your photographs are wonderful -- they offer such a terrific view into this beautiful country, one which I would love dearly to visit. All the more, now.

Isn't the Irish voice wonderful? I was watching Frank McCourt take public TV viewers on a tour through Dublin pubs, and I'm not sure what I loved most -- the atomosphere, the music, the stories he told about writers and other characters or just the fact that this brogue lulled me into a place that seems like home. Does it matter? I think not.

blueoran said...

Thanks for the generous response. Maybe my trepidation of going to those place is like you say -- that the "St John-like revelations" would be overwhelmed by the substance (and banality) of factual objects. Rilke I think had this fear of Things; after the seeing-poems like "The Panther," his work became so much more subjective, and he shied from deep emotional intimacy,as if such proximity would annihilate his voice. I'm sure a lot of my armchair manifestoes are so because I'm stuck where I am; I don't get much opportunity to travel, our budget being so tight for so many years. Necessity has made a coracle of my chair. But the Wheel continually turns, and I may end up living at Skellig Michel one day, my writing desk overlooking the wild North Sea. Til then, I imagine ... Brendan

Ruth said...

I totally get that, utterly. We have such constraints too that keep us from doing all that we might wish. I admire your mind-heart's ability to rise above time and place and express and create the truly remarkable renderings of imagination that you do. Ah, the North Sea. I was watching a video of Galway yesterday, with its sea, stark landscape, stone buildings and fences, and men in boots walking the mud. What is it that comes so gloriously alive in us from that? Such fire of inspiration, that defies time, space and place.

Ginnie said...

I'll be thinking about emotional prosperity the rest of the day, Ruth...and about wanting to go back to the Green Isle again, as though for the first time!

Andressa said...

Ireland is my heart.

deb colarossi said...

i think I may give up blogging and just read and reread and yearn and meander and weep and sing and rejoice ,
at the home of Ruth.