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Portrait used with permission of artist Colin Davidson www.colindavidson.com

Portrait used with permission of artist Colin Davidson http://www.colindavidson.com

On the first anniversary of Seamus Heaney’s passing, I found myself musing about how the poet handled the subject of death in his work. Over the decades of his exemplary career, respected critics regularly noted the sense of loss, death, a mourning for the past in Heaney’s work. Very often this was accounted for by reference to the poet’s Northern Ireland roots, in particular, the political turmoil which led to death and destruction from the beginning of his career in the 1960s.

I would argue that one tragic death in particular had a profound and far-reaching psychological effect on Heaney, ie, that of his three and a half year-old brother in February 1953 when the poet was just thirteen. In ‘Stepping Stones’, a series of interviews conducted by Dennis O’Driscoll and the closest we will ever come to a Seamus Heaney autobiography, the poet recalls how ‘Mid-Term Break’ was the first poem penned for what would become his first published collection in 1966, ‘Death of a Naturalist’. ‘Mid-Term Break’ famously treats the death of little Christopher Heaney and ends with the memorable line, ‘A four foot box, a foot for every year.’

In the 2006 publication, ‘District and Circle’, Heaney returns to the same subject matter in the last poem in the book and it’s the only poem of Heaney’s that ever brought tears to my eyes. It deals with death in an all-encompassing, universal way, which ‘Mid-Term Break’ does not – the earlier poem is much more concerned with describing the particular, personal tragedy of a child’s death in a road accident. ‘The Blackbird of Glanmore’ draws on the symbolic value of the blackbird as a portent of death in Irish folklore and Heaney recalls not only his brother’s, but also his father’s death, as well as foreseeing his own. I think it’s a fitting choice for ‘Irish Poem of the Week’ on the anniversary of Seamus Heaney’s death.


The Blackbird of Glanmore

On the grass when I arrive,
Filling the stillness with life,
But ready to scare off
At the very first wrong move.
In the ivy when I leave.

It’s you, blackbird, I love.

I park, pause, take heed.
Breathe. Just breathe and sit
And lines I once translated
Come back: “I want away
To the house of death, to my father

Under the low clay roof.”

And I think of one gone to him,
A little stillness dancer –
Haunter-son, lost brother –
Cavorting through the yard,
So glad to see me home,

My homesick first term over.

And think of a neighbour’s words
Long after the accident:
“Yon bird on the shed roof,
Up on the ridge for weeks –
I said nothing at the time

But I never liked yon bird.”

The automatic lock
Clunks shut, the blackbird’s panic
Is shortlived, for a second
I’ve a bird’s eye view of myself,
A shadow on raked gravel

In front of my house of life.

Hedge-hop, I am absolute
For you, your ready talkback,
Your each stand-offish comeback,
Your picky, nervy goldbeak –
On the grass when I arrive,

In the ivy when I leave.



Colin Davidson, Portrait of Seamus Heaney (2013) http://www.colindavidson.com @colin_davidson

Seamus Heaney, Death of a Naturalist, 1966 (Faber & Faber)

Seamus Heaney, District and Circle, 2006 (Faber & Faber)

Dennis O’Driscoll, Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney, 2008 (Faber & Faber)

Blackbird photo, flickr.com