St. Patrick’s Day Poem: Seamus Heaney

It’s St. Patrick’s Day, a national holiday here in Ireland.

A couple of hours ago, sitting at my kitchen table in Dublin, I could hear the drums and hoop-la of the parade in the streets, gathering nearby, preparing to march off down O’Connell Street and into the throng of the city crowds. Now, it’s helicopters circling.

In a little while, great swathes of the population and the visiting diaspora will be getting down to the serious business of green-clad, good-natured St. Patrick’s Day boisterousness. They’ll be drinking and dancing in the streets long into the night.

It’s good to blow off steam. It’s good to have a day when the rest of the world pays attention to you. I just wish it was paying attention to who we are and what we are, instead of the cartoon version everyone wants us to be.

Ireland is a country of such beauty and such heart, even in the depths of difficult times. I don’t think we have to draw a veil, smooth it over and pretend everything’s OK. I think we can be in a terrible hole and still be capable of great kindness, hospitality and joy. It’s our strength – why hide it?

I’m celebrating by re-reading the classic poem, ‘Digging’ by Seamus Heaney, our former poet laureate. I didn’t go to school in Ireland and wasn’t exposed to his poetry growing up. It found me much later. I love how it relates the work of writing with his father’s work, his grandfather’s – how his act of observation takes the rough, everyday manual work in the field or on the bog and raises it to an art.

With a spade or a pen, this is who we are; this is what we do.

Lá Fhéile Pádraig Shona.


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.

Listen to Seamus Heaney read Digging at The Poetry Foundation.

Featured Image by Dublin Airport, in an attempt to put a long-raging argument to rest.

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