from Seamus Heaney’s Digging
When I was a schoolboy, we were taught Seamus Heaney’s seminal poem ‘Digging’ like we were taught the Hail Mary and the Our Father! It was a rite of passage for any Catholic school pupil of 12 or 13 to learn that poem by heart, even if it sucked the heart out of that poem. The poem was also my first introduction to the mysterious ‘Toner’s Bog’.
But with maturity comes wisdom and now the poem has become symbolic as the foundation stone of Seamus Heaney’s 5 decades as one of our most gifted and celebrated poets. As he draws parallels in his poem between his father’s spade and his own pen, there is that cathartic moment when he reassures himself that his pen will be his spade, that ‘Ill dig with it’.
As I got older I grew more comfortable with the imagery of that poem insofar as it reflected my own upbringing. My father cut turf on Ballymacombs bog in the traditional manner, a summer of hard labour that this particular writer despised, and avoided if possible. But the key question in ‘Digging’ was about ‘Toner’s Bog’; where it was, or even if it existed at all.
In reality, Seamus Heaney was not given to ‘fiction’ in his work, so it was always going to be the case that such a place did exist, but few if any could tell me where ‘Toner’s Bog’ actually was. Until that is, the first anniversary of Seamus’ death in August 2014, when I first set eyes on the mythical bog where Seamus brought milk to his grandfather, ‘corked sloppily with paper’. And here it is…
A few native trees have grown on what would have been the bog itself, while mature woodland has now crowded the horizon and has hidden the Sperrin Mountains which can (just) be seen lurking behind. This is not far from Ballymacombs Bog where we had our own turf plot, but regrettably our moss was long ago consumed by landfill from the local authority rubbish tip.
Now, here is the poem itself for your enjoyment…
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.
Toner’s Bog features in my Seamus Heaney Tour as part of my InSite Tours Ireland series. Learn more here.