Digging by Seamus Heaney

Between my finger and my thumb  
The squat pen rests; 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 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, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.
The cold smell of potato mould, 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.

Seamus Heaney, “Digging” from Death of a Naturalist. Copyright 1966 by Seamus Heaney. Reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC.

Source: Death of a Naturalist (1966)


Homily of Monsignor Brendan Devlin at Funeral Mass for Seamus Heaney


Just as I hold that it is not for a Christian minister to embark on eulogy or to praise the talents and achievements of those who have  gone from us, neither is it for me to audit the virtues and good works of  Seamus Heaney, (after all, as Wisdom tells us of great men, “ their good works go before them”.) And yet, when we read that series of sharp witted paradoxes that we call the Eight Beatitudes and which are the core of the Sermon on the Mount, what you might call the identikit portrait of the ideal Christian, it cannot but strike us how many of them apply readily to our memories of Seamus Heaney.

“How blest are those of gentle spirit; those who hunger and thirst to see right prevail; those who show mercy to others; those who want to see peace established.”

How much of that is a description of the man we knew, of the brilliant literary critic, of the articulater of the years of pain in the North.

But understand me well, this not my effort to recuperate him, as the French say, to harness him in the ranks of the soldiers of Christ. How unsufferably patronising that would be! I think rather of something more deep-seated than such easy conformism. I remember something he wrote a lifetime ago when he recalled the early stirrings of a poetic imagination as he recited as an altar boy the words of the Litany: “Mystical Rose, Tower of David, Tower of Ivory, House of Gold, Ark of the Covenant, Morning Star.” I too recall such stirrings at devotions in the twilight of a May evening. Like many of our generation we had both inherited, he on the plains of South Derry, I in the hills of Tyrone, the imagination and with it the memory of a community. What was important was not so much the prayers we did or did not say as the prayers that had been said before us for generations, generations whose hard won loyalties were so authentically embodied in the man and so vibrantly expressed in his work.

Therefore as we commend Seamus Heaney to the mercy of the Lord, which is the primary purpose of a Catholic funeral Mass, we do so in the faith and hope of an age-old community, who lived their lives and died their death in the Lord Jesus and who, still living in that same Lord, await us their descendants and heirs in that eternal life which we hold to be sealed in us by our common baptism.

In that sense, all of us have long since been given to God by our forefathers in the Faith and by the hope which nourished them and which they looked to see fulfilled in us. The Gospel of Saint John quotes Jesus as saying: “Everyone the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will not cast out,” and as repeating: “Father, of those you have given me I have not lost anyone.”

In our natural consternation in the presence of death and the termination of our earthly supports, we can only turn our eyes on life in that spirit of Christian optimism which, it seems to me, breathes in much of the work of Seamus Heaney and which I believe to be his inheritance from our troubled past.

It was in similarly troubling circumstances, as the shadows of evening descended on that Upper Room of the Last Supper that Christ’s disciples heard him speak the words that we have just read in the Gospel. Amid the foreboding of those last days in the life of Jesus with their crowding events, commands and prophecies, they were urged by their Lord to overcome their sorrow through a renewal of their faith and trust in God.

“Let not your hearts be troubled,” He said. “I go to prepare a place for you and if I do so, I will come back to bring you with me, so that where I am, you also may be. And as for the way there, I am the Way and the Truth and the Life. “

As we part from Seamus Heaney for a while and send him from us on that way, what our forefathers called “slí na firinne”, we accompany him in faith and hope and with the viaticum of our prayers.


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