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52 MAY 2003
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Seamus Heaney

Yesterday Clinton, a visitor to our web site, suggested Heaney's poem, Limbo. The poem, he says, “raises many questions about Motherhood and child bearing ...” against the backdrop of the church in Ireland.

Poet Seamus Heaney, winner of the 1995 Nobel Prize for Literature was born in County Derry, 30 miles northeast of Belfast. The eldest of nine children, he became a teacher and a writer who now lectures at Harvard.

Heaney earns much praise from fellow writers. American poet Robert Lowell called him the most important Irish poet since Yeats, easily recognized as the most popular Irish poet writing today. His most recent contribution to literature has been his translation of the Anglo-Saxon epic poem, Beowulf. Echoes of Robert Frost, Ted Hughes, George Manly Hopkins, William Wordsworth, and Thomas Hardy are said to be heard in his work. For an umbrella impression of his work, one critic has mentioned that Heaney writes predominately about things that lie deep in the earth. So far I can’t argue against him. *


Fishermen at Ballyshannon
Netted an infant last night
Along with the salmon.
An illegitimate spawning.

A small one thrown back
To the waters. But I’m sure
As she stood in the shallows
Ducking him tenderly

Till the frozen knobs of her wrists
Were dead as the gravel,
He was a minnow with hooks
Tearing her open.

She waded in under
The sign of her cross.
He was hauled in with the fish.
Now limbo will be

A cold glitter of souls
Through some far briny zone.
Even Christ’s palms, unhealed,
Smart and cannot fish there.

The story in this poem leads the reader to ask as many questions as it answers. What has happened to the mother who makes such an unspeakably horrible choice to drown her newborn son? What becomes of the mother who with freezing hands quietly drowns him?

The infant is found by fishermen who have been netting salmon. What shock has leapt through their souls as they discover what lies in their nets?

And what religion can be so stern as to teach that illegitimacy is so unacceptable that a mother would choose to destroy the outcome of an liaison outside the accepted parameters of marriage?

The mother must forever remember her child in limbo, one of a cold glitter of souls. Even Christ Himself feels his wounds and cannot draw near the drowning sight as though he never intended such an act to be performed under the sign of His cross.

The poem calls to mind one experience I had when I was teaching. A beautiful 17 year old student of mine became pregnant during the school year and when she “began to show” the administrators expelled her, adding one more obstacle she would have to overcome, that of a reduced opportunity for an education. The most I could do was box up my children's baby clothes and give them to her.

She did have the tenacity to attend night school to earn her high school diploma. I often think of her and hope she has a good life with a child who would be 30 years old now. I hope he is a great comfort to his mother, but the odds are against that, aren’t they?

* Information on the poet and comment on the poem are from In a Dark Time:

* * *

MORE on heaney

The “Henhouse Boy"

One of Heaney's earliest poems was written while he was a young teacher in Belfast. The poem reflected on the horror news story of the time about a young boy who had been kept by his mother for many years in isolation at the bottom of her garden. He was discovered in the henhouse where she had confined him. He was incapable of saying anything.

Sister Irene Maher of Nazareth House in Cape Town remembers:

"I only met Kevin, the child in question, later in his life. The Sister who admitted him to a Nazareth House at the time related how the boy perched on his cot and cawed like a hen all through the first few weeks following his admission. During my stay there with the group of children, I saw him grow up, responding to love, enjoying music, but at the same time requiring a lot of medical treatment especially to his legs; in fact, he had to have a great deal of surgery to straighten them. His speech was also affected. Kevin left Nazareth House eventually for sheltered employment with the Sisters of Charity. This poem Bye, Child was probably among Seamus Heaney’s first.”

* * *

Bye, Child

When the lamp glowed
a yolk of light
In their back window,
The child in the henhouse
put his eye to the chink

Little henhouse boy,
Sharp faced as new moons
Remembered your photo still
Glimpsed like a rodent
On the floor of my mind.

Little moon man,
Kennelled and faithful
At the foot of the yard,
Your frail shape luminous
Weightless, is stirring the dust,

The cobwebs, old droppings
under the roosts
And dry smells from scraps
She put through your trapdoor,
morning and evening.

After these footsteps, silence,
Vigils, solitudes, fasts,
Unchristened tears,
A puzzled love of the light,
But now you speak at last.

With a remote mime
of something beyond patience,
Your gaping wordless proof
of Lunar distances
Travelled beyond love.

This feature: The Henhouse Boy, Child and Youth Care, 14, (1), (1996) p.12

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