During the mid 20th century, to be an Irish man was less of what you were, and more of what you were not. Namely, you were not expressive; your heart was tucked firmly into a back pocket. You were not sensitive; you bore it until you could no longer.
Whether Irish or not, we all know and remember the silent generation. The towering, tweed-capped old men with their gruff voices and ‘stiff upper lips.’ To force a confidence from one would be to force water from stone.
The very idea of poetry, to these strong, stoic men, was laughable. Girlish, revealing, intimate- the antithesis of themselves. Even reading such nonsense was too far. The very thought broke the unspeakable code of masculinity; that raw emotions and personal feelings were themselves unspeakable.
Seamus Heaney, son of Patrick and Margaret, raised on a farm, one of nine. An unremarkable story in itself, on a rural island such as this. A farmer’s son, just like the thousands of farmers’ sons before him.
His landmark poem “Digging” is, put simply, about work. The laborious job of digging turf, of planting potatoes, the job of thousands before Heaney, and no doubt thousands after. A menial, mundane task. Unremarkable.
But somehow, in thirty one lines and eight stanzas, Heaney managed to encompass the grit and determination of entire generations. The ceaseless toil of a father for his son; he will carve a living out of the very ground he stands on. The awe inspiring reverence and love of a son; no matter how far he travels, he is able to “dig” as his father did.
He wrote of my father, and yours. He puts into words his feelings, and theirs, with an affection so subtle and tender to blink would be to waste it. Their repressed emotions are unveiled, naked as the day they were born.
With a few deft strokes of a pen, Heaney broke down the barrier that stood between the rural population and literature. What was previously deemed the language of the high born, the wealthy, the elite, was revealed to be a universal one. A language that revealed the beauty in the menial, the exciting in the mundane. A language that gave the silent a voice.
When I looked into the faces of my older relatives, I could not read them. Their expressions were a nuanced, almost invisible code that outsiders were not permitted to crack.
But now I know I do not have to read the code to understand its meaning. I know their love; it is inscribed on yellowing pages for eternity.
“Between my finger and my thumb/ The squat pen rests/ I’ll dig with it.” Thank you for digging, Heaney. You uncovered more than you knew.
Ruby Campbell (16) from Belfast High School won 1st place in the 16-18 years category for the History is in the Making competition. In response to winning, they said,
When I heard I had won the 16-18 category for the History is in the Making Competition, I was genuinely astonished- my friends can testify I stared blankly at my phone for at least thirty seconds. Writing that essay was so important for me, as I’ve long felt I needed to express my gratitude to Seamus Heaney, and other brilliant writers like him. They have given me so much, and I hope that, in doing this, I have given a little something back. I am so grateful to the RSL for selecting my piece for the anthology, and I am freshly inspired to keep on writing!