Digging by Seamus Heaney

This month I made a trip home for the first time since last Christmas. It is perhaps the longest period I’ve gone without at least a flying visit and although this trip was less than a week, we managed to take in the three places closest to my heart – Dublin, Donegal and Tyrone.

My childhood was spent between Dublin and Tyrone, with summers in Donegal and it was cathartic to see those three varied landscapes after so long away. The cobbled streets of Dublin, the greens of Trinity College, cosy pubs with pints of Guinness and steaming bowls of mussels with brown bread, the fresh-faced winds on stony coastlines, the peace of sheltered, sandy beaches of Donegal, the green valleys of my Tyrone home, it was exactly what I needed.

And it brought Seamus Heaney to mind.

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.

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