Heaney and the Famine: At a potato Digging and For the Commander of the Eliza

Continuing my preparation for teaching Death of a Naturalist, these two poems sit at the centre of the collection and lie at the heart of any discussion of Heritage and of the meaning of Irishness explored in the poems. We have seen that Heaney uses a poem such as Digging to draw attention to the inherent Irishness of the act of digging and the potato crop and also to show how his ‘digging’ – the metaphorical search for truth in all around him will lead him to examine his shared ancestry. In the first of these poems he establishes a clear link through time to each and every worker in the fields in the 1960s to their starving forebears of the 1840s (no need for him to state a century in section 3, since ‘the forty five’ is utterly ingrained in the psyche of all Irish: the time of famine; the time of migration; the time when the British rulers of the island put imperial notions of power above simple human responses to the suffering of their fellow man, as explored in ‘Eliza’.

At a Potato Digging


A mechanical digger wrecks the drill,

Spins up a dark shower of roots and mould.

Labourers swarm in behind, stoop to fill

Wicker creels.  Fingers go dead in the cold.


Like crows attacking crow-black fields, they stretch

A higgledy line from hedge to headland;

Some pairs keep breaking ragged ranks to fetch

A full creel to the pit and straighten, stand


Tall for a moment but soon stumble back

To fish a new load from the crumbled surf.

Heads bow, trunks bend, hands fumble towards the black

Mother.  Processional stooping through the turf


Recurs mindlessly as autumn.  Centuries

Of fear and homage to the famine god

Toughen the muscles behind their humbled knees,

Make a seasonal altar of the sod.



Flint-white, purple.  They lie scattered

like inflated pebbles.  Native

to the black hutch of clay

where the halved seed shot and clotted

these knobbed and slit-eyed tubers seem

the petrified hearts of drills.  Split

by the spade, they show white as cream.


Good smells exude from crumbled earth.

The rough bark of humus erupts

knots of potatoes (a clean birth)

whose solid feel, whose wet inside

promises taste of ground and root.

To be piled in pits; live skulls, blind-eyed.



Live skulls, blind-eyed, balanced on

wild higgledy skeletons

scoured the land in ‘forty-five,

wolfed the blighted root and died.


The new potato, sound as stone,

putrefied when it had lain

three days in the long clay pit.

Millions rotted along with it.


Mouths tightened in, eyes died hard,

faces chilled to a plucked bird.

In a million wicker huts

beaks of famine snipped at guts.


A people hungering from birth,

grubbing, like plants, in the earth,

were grafted with a great sorrow.

Hope rotted like a marrow.


Stinking potatoes fouled the land,

pits turned pus into filthy mounds:

and where potato diggers are

you still smell the running sore.



Under a gay flotilla of gulls

The rhythm deadens, the workers stop.

Brown bread and tea in bright canfuls

Are served for lunch.  Dead-beat, they flop


Down in the ditch and take their fill

Thankfully breaking timeless fasts;

Then, stretched on the faithless ground, spill

Libations of cold tea, scatter crusts.



. . . . the others, with emaciated faces and prominent, staring eyeballs, were evidently in an advanced state of starvation. The officer in charge reported the incident to Sir James Dombrain, the Inspector General . . . . . and Sir James “very inconveniently,” wrote Routh, “interfered.”    Cecil Woodham-Smith: The Great Hunger.

Routine patrol off West Mayo; sighting

A rowboat heading unusually far

Beyond the creek, I tacked and hailed the crew

In Gaelic. Their stroke had clearly weakened

As they pulled to, from guilt or bashfulness

I was conjecturing when, O my sweet Christ,

We saw piled in the bottom of their craft

Six grown men with gaping mouths and eyes

Bursting the sockets like spring onions in drills.

Six wrecks of bone and pallid, tautened skin.

“Biadh, biadh, biadh,” in whines and snarls their desperation

Rose and fell like a flock of starving gulls.

We’d known about the shortage but on board

They always kept us right with flour and beef

So understand my feelings, and the men’s,

Who had no mandate to relieve distress.

There was relief available in Westport

Though these poor brutes would clearly never make it.

I had to refuse food: they cursed and howled

Like dogs that had been kicked hard in the privates.

When they drove at me with their starboard oar

(Risking capsize themselves) I saw they were

Violent and without hope. I hoisted

And cleared off. Less incidents the better.

Next day, like six bad smells, those living skulls

Drifted through the dark of bunk and hatches

And once in port I exorcised my ship

Reporting all to the Inspector General.

Sir James, I understand, urged free relief

For famine victims in the Westport Sector

And earned tart reprimand from good Whitehall.

Let natives prosper by their own exertions;

Who could not swim might go ahead and sink.

“The Coast Guard with their zeal and activity

Are too lavish” were the words, I think.

Potato Digging presents an interesting form to the reader – a ballad like simplicity in sections 1,3&4 made increasingly distressing by the use of savage imagery of rot, decay and destruction surround a second section – the one which discusses the fruit of a successful harvest which seems to be written in sonnet form, albeit a 13 line sonnet, one which is broken off as the last line introduces the image of the potatoes as ‘live skulls, blind-eyed’, the idea which will be repeated at the opening of section 3 as though the poet’s train of thought has been interrupted by this image and has been carried back to his forebears picking in desperation at the rotted potatoes since there really is no other food available.

In Section 1, the modern mechanised farming practices meet the older, age-old, practices of the farm at a human level and produce the crop whilst the work ‘wrecks’ the drill suggesting something of the destructive power of the new machinery. The actual unearthing may be done by a ‘digger’ (noting the need to call it a ‘mechanical digger’ we might wonder if that phrase might be used of Heaney’s father digging so rhythmically in ‘Digging’), yet it is the labourers in their ‘swarm’, resembling the many birds which will follow behind a plough, a link reinforced at the start of stanza 2 when Heaney uses the simile of the crows to drive home his message – an image which runs through the poem as the crows (carrion feeders) become the ‘plucked bird’ and the ‘beaks of famine’ seen in the third section.

The work is hard and dangerous: ‘fingers go dead in the cold’. Yet the work is attended to by the whole community, ranged in a ‘higgledy line’ across the field, though the image of ‘from hedge to headland’ is suggestive of a line crossing the whole of the island from its very centre to the Atlantic coastline or the Irish Sea. The work is timeless. Heaney uses the enjambment after line 3 to stress the domesticity of the ‘wicker baskets’ used for the collection (his attention to these small details echoes the poem Churning Day in which great care is taken to list the minutiae of butter production). He also introduces another trope with which we have become familiar in these poems – the use of military imagery in a civilian setting: here workers ‘break ranks’ to deliver the crops. In the fourth section the image of the workers: ‘Dead Beat they flop//Down in the ditch…’ with the fall to the ground from tiredness emphasised by the enjambment across the stanza recalls the imagery of the WW1 poets such as Owen or Sassoon. The workers are an army which is pressed to its limit and beyond.

At this stage in the poem the army is able to ‘stand//Tall’ rising across the stanza break suggesting brief relief before the back-breaking process has to restart. The hard work is emphasised by the alliteration in stanza 2 where CK and H dominate and by the metaphor in the idea of the workers fishing for the crop as the field has become a vast ocean rather than the ‘black Mother’  – Earth – though the dominance of black as an image -the crows and now the peat-rich soil should prepare us for the emergence of the earth as a malign force in the third section.

The section ends with the idea which will link the whole poem – memory of the famine and the precarious nature of life on the island of Ireland. In Storm on the Island, Heaney stresses the bleakness and harshness of the living to be had – no hay, no trees, ‘wizened’ earth and wind which ‘dives and strafes’ like a war plane on the attack. The workers genuflect in the face of such a harsh deity and prepare for the small act of worship to the soil which will be seen in section 4 – not a Christian act, but something far older and more pagan-  a communion of tea and the unwanted crusts from their simple lunchtime meal.

In the second section Heaney prepares a sonnet to the potato, the life-giver grown so plentifully in the rich soil of the island. However, as suggested earlier, his imagery causes a break in his thought and he is carried back to the heart of the famine when the ‘flint-white’ potato – all solidity and shiny beauty is turned in to ‘pus’ – the colour remains the same, the image now of disease, decay and death. The sonnet has 13 lines lines in a 7/6 form. The volta at the stanza break reflects a shift from description of the planting process to the wonder at the emergence of the crop much as Heaney does when describing the ‘golden flecks’ of butter emerging in Churning Day. In the first stanza, the potatoes are solid and belong naturally to the ‘black hutch of clay’ as though they are small animals being kept in their natural habitat, they are given ‘slit-eyes’ in the drills, an image which will come to fruition in the third section as the potatoes transform into the skulls of the dead and dying workers. it is also an image which is recalled in the ‘spring onion’ simile used of the starving sailors’ eyes in ‘Eliza’.  The planting process almost reflects human reproduction – the potatoes are ‘seed’ ‘shot’ and white as cream, recalling the ejaculation of sperm, and human hand has tried to improve on the process by planting ‘halved seed’ in an attempt to double the yield.

In the sestet we find success as ‘good smells’ herald the new crop which ‘erupts’ from the earth as an unstoppable force of nature giving promise of plenty as they are ‘piled into pits’ and the train of though breaks down.

Heaney’s macabre image of the ‘blind skulls’ recalls the macabre ‘plate of eyes’ found in Blackberry Picking’ and he uses it to launch the reflection on the famine found in the quasi-ballad section 3. Again the structure is of quatrains as in the framing sections, but here the rhyme really breaks down into pararhyme, with rhymes like ‘stone/lain’, ‘hard/bird’ ‘sorrow/marrow’ or ‘lands/mounds’ reflecting the idea that nature has broken down and that the natural balance has been broken.

Ideas from earlier in the poem are revisited – the higgeldy line of pickers now becomes the ‘higgeldy skeletons’ establishing a clear link through time between the modern pickers and their ancestors. These ancestors share animal characteristics, but this now manifests itself in ‘wolfing’ the rotten crop, suggesting not only their despair and desperation, but also the potential for violence and cruelty seen in that predatory animal. Heaney also establishes the vast impact of the famine. At the end of the second stanza of the section he uses the single sentence line ‘Millions rotted along with it’ to establish first the contrast between the single infected new potato and the impact on the whole crop, but then to draw the reader’s attention to the effect: the millions of dead derived from such simple beginning. He links this image by the repetition of the word ‘millions’ to the ‘wicker huts’ in which people lived, the adjective catching memory of the ‘wicker creels’ now used solely for collection. In 1845 we realise, this was a society of the poorest barely subsisting in dire conditions. It was a society in which ‘a people hungering from birth’ in which the adjective ‘hungry’ has been turned into a verb -a way of life –  are reduced to the very lowest form of existence -‘like ants.’

Yet Heaney does not use this section to offer overt criticism of the system of government or the failure of the British Government to intervene in any way, rather he uses the ‘stinking potatoes’ as the instruments of the famine – he personifies them rather like the Harpies of Greek Myth to have ‘fouled’ the land in such a manner that even today – the poem returns to the present at ‘where potato diggers are‘ the wound is still felt. Heaney uses the 2nd person here as he seems to offer a challenge to the reader directly. I don’t see this as an attack on the British as I have seen in some writing on this poem –  there is no preparation and no indication that he is suggesting the you be seen as an attack on the imperialist Government, but rather a breaking of the wall to invite all readers to experience the pain and suffering he describes. He will save his ‘attack’ for the Eliza’ poem which focuses on the aftermath and response of government, not the actual famine itself. After all, it is nature which caused the famine, he suggests, however culpable the British rulers may have been in the deaths which followed.

In the final section  -2 stanzas of ballad form we return to the present. All is returend to the ‘light’ as the gulls swarm now in ‘gay flotillas’ removing the potential threat of the earlier description, and all stops for tea. The effort of the labour is suggested in line four with the caesurae which bring the action to a deal halt half way through the line and then fracture the action of sitting down before falling across the stanza break as discussed earlier. Tea arrives in ‘bright canfulls’ reinforcing the new positivity of the poem in this section, but as we read on we wonder if, like the paint on the canisters of tea, the hope is only to be found on the surface. At the end of the poem Heaney breaks the assumed rhyme pattern abruptly. Describing the libations  poured to the ‘famine god’ (small G, suggesting that this is not a Christian deity), Heaney ends the poem on the jarring half rhyme of ‘fasts’ with ‘crusts’.  The words do not rhyme cleanly but the link is clear for all to see: fasting is a voluntary act of refusing food, usually as part of a religious purification act. For the truly starving, crusts are a luxury – no starving man would refuse a crust or throw one away, yet on this ‘faithless’ ground this action may be seen as an offering to an older deity – the Mother Earth (some editions in section 3, stanza 4 line 2 offer the text as ‘bitch earth’ offering a rich vein of discussion, though this is not the reading in the Faber edition of the poems I use in school), and it might also offer a warning against taking food for granted; the ground is faithless, it will not return their offering each year necessarily.

Whereas Potato Digging focuses on the actual natural cause and response to the famine, Eliza is a different beast: one which explores a factual event from the time and passes judgement on those involved.  It is a more political poem and one which is anti-poetic in form, being a single stanza of freeverse, written in the manner of notes for a formal report. In  the epigraph at the top of the poem Heaney quotes from a history of the time and establishes the subject – the report which might have been made to the relatively enlightened Dombrain, who ruled Galway from Westport on behalf of a British government at the height of its imperialist power and for whom Ireland was an irritation to be treated with utter disdain. Dombrain’s act of charity wqas dismissed as interference in a quotation which neatly exemplifies the power of the civil servant to use euphemism to suppress inconvenient truths.

The poem opens with the voice of the captain -unnamed and unknown, possibly the reason for the title of the poem: ‘For the Commander…’ suggests that Heaney is offering the man a voice in his own right, possibly a chance to expiate his guilt as he shows some conscience when faced by a situation beyond his experience at a time when he can hide behind the idea that he was just obeying orders.

His language is terse at first yet full of detail which develops into long sentences as the speaker tries to make sense of the events unfolding. We see the meeting takes place between his vessel and a rowboat ‘unusually far’ out from land. He attempts to communicate with the rowing boat in Gaelic – he is keen to add this detail suggesting that he has tried to engage with the land in which he is stationed when the meeting happens. Heaney places his surprising thought process at the end of line 5 as he questions whether they are silent from ‘guilt or bashfulness’ -guilt at being caught possibly smuggling and then bashfulness – a polysyllabic image of embarrassed children in the presence of an adult which captures the perceived relationship between the Empire and its colony, though when seen from the perspective of the stronger in the relationship.

His ejaculation of the blasphemy ‘O my sweet Christ’ alters the tone at once. Heaney’s wonderful simile of the ‘spring onions in drills’ captures the sense of horror wonderfully. The shrunken eye-balls sticking out on stalks from dark surrounding holes in the faces are imprinted on our minds, after which the ‘wrecks of bone…’ seems to add little to the description of horror. Breaking the pattern of the lines Heaney uses the voices of the sailors in their native tongue as they call for ‘Bia’ (food) to the boat. He splits the call as though the third iteration of the word stands apart from the first two in some way. Their voices have an animal quality with their ‘whines and snarls’ and it is the potential violence in the ‘snarls’ which the Captain will recall as he gives himself the excuse of the potential violence he perceives in their futile attempts to hit his much bigger boat with an oar. Indeed, whilst he notes the danger to themselves in this action, he is oblivious to the obvious in his description of the sailors as sounding ‘Like dogs that had been kicked hard in the privates’ – it is him and his masters who have delivered the kicking. One which is intensified by the adjective ‘hard’ inserted by Heaney to stress the unnatural cruelty of the ruling class – a kick in the privates is sufficient to cause extreme pain. These men/dogs are ‘howling’ because of the effort taken to ensure the pain is as severe as possible.

Noting tersely his wish not to engage ‘less incidents the better’, the captain falls back on the excuse used throughout time for the failure to respond morally to those in extremis – just obeying orders: ‘I had to refuse food’ he says. Yet he knows that there is charity available in Westport and his ship is well stocked with provisions. It is no wonder his conscience is haunted by the ‘six bad smells’ (the spondee substitution on ‘bad smells’ adding substance to the ghosts who haunt his mind) and the he writes his confession (in a religious sense) to the Inspector General (Dombrain) in order to exorcise his ship.

At this point Heaney’s voice takes over to comment objectively on the aftermath. ‘Good’ Whitehall, the seat of government drips with irony as it offers ‘tart reprimand’ (sharp and direct) to Dombrain whose acts of charity go against the Darwinian principle sof survival of the fittest which are imposed by the imperial force. Notwithstanding the geographical proximity and centuries of co-existance, the Irish are reduced to ‘natives’ in the eyes of the powerful, with all the layers of pejorative criticism which that word embodies. The idea of such action being ‘too lavish’ is simply too bizarre to credit. Heaney places distance between himself and the report by his closing ‘I think’ and by not applying overt judgement allows the reader to do so.

At times understatement is so much more powerful than overtly subjective writing. Heaney promises to ‘dig’ with his pen in the poem ‘Digging’. In this poem he does so. He is open to the nuance of the Captain caught between his obedience to authority and his feelings of horror. It is clear that the true villains are in Whitehall, not on the ocean, yet this was a chance missed, however small, to take action to help a fellow human.