When All The Others Were Away at Mass
from Clearances III – In Memoriam M.K.H., 1911-1984
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.
Seamus Heaney (1939 – 2013)
This is a personal poem on a precious incident between mother and son that will always be remembered. Both are engaged in a domestic task working in unison and perhaps of more importance is that they had the time together to share in potato peeling while the rest of the family was away at Mass. ‘I was all hers’ are key words as Seamus reveled at having a time of complete togetherness. And he had obviously seen solder melt and form droplets to fall away from the heated iron. And likewise when the potatoes were peeled they would fall and the splash would break the silence of their intense communion and bring them to their senses. You can easily picture this intimate scene.
The sestet lines are much later in the relationship when his mother is dying and the parish priest is in attendance. The priest is dominating the scene with much noise (hammer and tongs). Oblivious to the religious background Seamus remembers that one incident when he was closest to his mother – ‘her breath in mine’ marrying with the octet words ‘I was all hers’.
I think, for all of us, when we empty the purse of life we will treasure such gold coins among the clutter.
This sonnet was chosen by the public (via a poll by the national broadcaster) as Ireland’s favourite poem of the last 100 years. Here is a link to the eight sonnets Heaney wrote in memory of his mother, Margaret Kathleen Heaney.
Seamus Heaney – An Irish poet, playwright and translator is widely recognised as one of the major poets of the 20th century. He is the author of over 20 volumes of poetry and criticism, and edited several widely used anthologies. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995 ‘for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.’ He taught at Harvard University (1985-2006) and served as the Oxford Professor of Poetry (1989-1994). ‘Walk on air against your better judgement’ from his poem, ‘The Gravel Walks’ is inscribed on his headstone.