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The Shortlist

‘When all the others were away at Mass’

‘When all the others were away at Mass’
[from Clearances in memoriam M.K.H., 1911-1984]

by Seamus Heaney


When all the others were away at Mass
I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.
They broke the silence, let fall one by one
Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:
Cold comforts set between us, things to share
Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.
And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes
From each other’s work would bring us to our senses.

So while the parish priest at her bedside
Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying
And some were responding and some crying
I remembered her head bent towards my head,
Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives–
Never closer the whole rest of our lives.

From New Selected Poems 1966-1987 © Estate of Seamus Heaney and reprinted by kind permission of the Heaney family and Faber and Faber Ltd.

About the poem

A sonnet is, according to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a ‘moment’s monument’ and the moment captured here, in fourteen lines, is from Seamus Heaney’s boyhood. This poem is the third sonnet in an eight-sonnet sequence in which Heaney remembers with deep fondness his dead mother.

In the first section, the setting, that of a country farmhouse kitchen, is simple. A mother and her son are sitting in companionable silence, peeling potatoes. It is domestic, familiar, everyday and very special. In the second section the years have passed, his mother is dying and Heaney and his family are with her during those final moments. But the poem returns to that kitchen, years earlier, in the closing lines, which allows the poem to be framed by happy memories.

Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney was born on 13 April 1939 in a ‘one-storey, longish, lowish, thatched and whitewashed farmhouse’ in Mossbawn, a forty-acre farm in Co. Derry. He was the eldest of nine children, two girls and seven boys, one of whom, Christopher, died very young in a road accident. Heaney grew up in a culture that was ‘Catholic, folk, rural, Irish’.

He attended Anahorish Primary School, St Columb’s College in Derry and Queen’s University, Belfast. Having graduated in 1961 with a first in English he did teacher training and taught in St Thomas’s Intermediate School in Ballymurphy, Belfast from 1962-1963.

He published poems during his third year at Queen’s under the name ‘Incertus’ [Uncertain] and during his year in St Thomas’s another poem, ‘Tractors’, was published in the Belfast Telegraph newspaper. In February 1963 Heaney wrote ‘Mid-term Break’ as his brother Christopher’s anniversary approached. Appointed a lecturer in English at St Joseph’s College of Education in 1963, he began lecturing at Queen’s three years later. In 1965 Heaney married Marie Devlin and his first collection, Death of a Naturalist, appeared in May 1966, when Heaney was twenty-seven.

Seamus Heaney

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