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29 JUNE 2001
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The Henhouse Boy

He was discovered in the henhouse where she had confined him. He was incapable of saying anything.

Seamus Heaney, Irish poet and professor at Oxford and Harvard, was awarded the Nobel Literature Prize in 1994. One of his 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 a henhouse at the bottom of her garden.

Sister Irene Maher of Nazareth House in Cape Town remembers: l 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 seriously 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.

The International Child and Youth Care Network

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