Seamus Heaney and the Monks of Clonmacnoise

In Seamus Heaney’s long, meditative poem Lightenings, there is a section (number VIII) which relates a strange occurrence at the Irish monastery of Clonmacnoise. The monastery (founded in 544 by Saint Ciaran, but which sadly fell into decline during the twelfth century*) was one of the greatest in medieval Ireland, visited by scholars from far abroad because of its reputation for piety and the promotion of learning (the annals – which we only have a 17th Century copy of now – mentioned by Heaney in the poem recorded Ireland’s history from its earliest times right up to 1408). Of most significance here though, is that Clonmacnoise was also known for being a site of miracle – from the time of Saint Ciaran onwards, many wonders had been reported, and it was also known for the great holiness of its monks.

Heaney’s poem reinvents a story of the tenth-century King Congalach, one of several in Irish folklore which records ships sailing through the air, by placing its events at Clonmacnoise. In doing so, he makes more prominent the essential point of the original narrative – namely that the world we live in is much more mysterious place than we realise; that our air is, for those who sail in the air (or in the ether?), heavy with improbability and wonder. For creatures unused to the strange world of mankind, our life is too rich, too thick with strangeness, and this strangeness is concentrated to an even greater extent in the life of the monks of Clonmacnoise:


The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise

Were all at prayer inside the oratory

A ship appeared above them in the air.


The anchor dragged along behind so deep

It hooked itself into the altar rails

And then, as the big hull rocked to a standstill,


A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope

And struggled to release it. But in vain.

“This man can’t bear our life here and will drown,”


The abbot said, “unless we help him.” So

They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed


Out of the marvellous as he had known it.


By setting this story in a notably holy place, renowned for its wonders, Heaney is able to shift our frame of reference. We hear of miracles performed and lives of holiness lived, and are enthralled; but the visitors who sail through our air find our whole existence unbearable, not because it is a horror to them, but because it is too marvellous. From our perspective, the idea of men sailing through the skies in a ship is marvellous, but to those otherworldly sailors it is human life in general, and the life of humans joined together in prayer in particular, that amazes them – they cannot cope with such wondrous things as this. The glory of Clonmacnoise (and of all monasteries) then is not due primarily to its miracles, but to the intensity of its humanity. The monastic life may seem strange, even insane, to some of us, because of the decision to opt out of ‘real’ life but to the visitors it is unbearably strange because it represents an intensification of what being human is all about – it shows them, with great focus, the weight of glory which we all carry.

One could also consider what C. S. Lewis discusses in his series of essays on the medieval world and imagination (collected as The Discarded Image) – that the visitors (who more than likely represent some sort of angelic life; certainly something unfamiliar with material being) find our world oppressive because of the shadow of sin that hangs over it; they cannot ‘breath our air’ because we have been separated from the fullness of divine life by the Fall. However, interesting an idea as this is in and of itself, I think Seamus Heaney is more concerned with the essential wonder of our existence – that the ‘drowning’ sailor is returned to his ship ‘out of the marvellous as he had known it’ is the thematic key to this piece. Looking at the life we enjoy in this way is a reminder of two things – firstly, that whilst we might sometimes envy the life of angels, who are freed from all the problems of embodied existence and therefore seem more pure and/or more glorious to us, in reality it is we that are to be envied, we who are to be marvelled at.

Secondly, Heaney’s poem reminds us that the religious life is not an abstraction from reality, or an escape. It is right that we see it as something strange, because it is – but it appears to us to be so because it signifies a call to become more real, more human, more as we were intended to be. A life lived in complete integrity, with the will aligned with that of God; a life that is truly able, in all things, to ‘pray without ceasing’ is the life we were all intended to live. It is only because of the degree to which we have fallen away from this goal and become accustomed to the mediocrity of sin that we see such a path as insane – in reality it is the sanest thing in the world, and this showing of a life lived in harmony with God and neighbour is the pinnacle of all that humanity should and can be. Let us therefore reflect on how marvellously strange (and strangely marvellous) our world really is, and let us look with gladness at those who choose to be living signs of the true glory humanity is capable of – signs of the marvellous as we have known it.


*After surviving several Viking raids and being plundered by the English in the twelfth century, as well as the impact of the growth of Athlone to the north and the arrival of newly popular continental religious orders such as the Franciscans and the Cluniacs, Clonmacnoise was finally destroyed by the newly Protestant English during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1552.

G. K. Chesterton – A Second Childhood

Following yesterday’s post, which, in light of Pope Francis’ comments regarding Catholic collusion with the secular culture, considered the fundamental duty of all humankind (but particularly Catholics) to stand up for the rights of the unborn, I was inevitably drawn back to the enduring and enlivening philosophy of G. K. Chesterton. This philosophy – that authentic human experience is to be awestruck at the sheer wondrous improbability of being alive at all, and to have the sense of life as a continuous reception of divine gratuity – runs throughout most all of his work, but is expressed with particular vividness in his poetry.

One of these – By The Babe Unborn – has particular resonance with the life-issues discussed in my previous post; but A Second Childhood is perhaps even more poignant, insofar as it interprets the Chestertonian philosophy from the point of view of someone who has lived life and felt its grief, endured its disappointments, and borne the weariness that comes from being a fallen human being. Whilst the former poem draws our attention to the potential for joyous embracing of the world that exists in each and every life yet to be born, A Second Childhood suggests to those of us who have been on this earth for a while now (and are maybe feeling a little more tired than we used to) to stop and look outside of ourselves for a moment – the wonder is still there, and life is always worth living:


When all my days are ending

And I have no song to sing,

I think that I shall not be too old

To stare at everything;

As I stared once at a nursery door

Or a tall tree and a swing.


Wherein God’s ponderous mercy hangs

On all my sins and me,

Because He does not take away

The terror from the tree

And stones still shine along the road

That are and cannot be.


Men grow too old for love, my love,

Men grow too old for wine,

But I shall not grow too old to see

Unearthly daylight shine,

Changing my chamber’s dust to snow

Till I doubt if it be mine.


Behold, the crowning mercies melt,

The first surprises stay;

And in my dross is dropped a gift

For which I dare not pray:

That a man grow used to grief and joy

But not to night and day.


Men grow too old for love, my love,

Men grow too old for lies;

But I shall not grow too old to see

Enormous night arise,

A cloud that is larger than the world

And a monster made of eyes.


Nor am I worthy to unloose

The latchet of my shoe;

Or shake the dust from off my feet

Or the staff that bears me through

On ground that is too good to last,

Too solid to be true.


Men grow too old to woo, my love,

Men grow too old to wed;

But I shall not grow too old to see

Hung crazily overhead

Incredible rafters when I wake

And I find that I am not dead.


A thrill of thunder in my hair:

Though blackening clouds be plain,

Still I am stung and startled

By the first drop of the rain:

Romance and pride and passion pass

And these are what remain.


Strange crawling carpets of the grass,

Wide windows of the sky;

So in this perilous grace of God

With all my sins go I:

And things grow new though I grow old,

Though I grow old and die.

G. K. Chesterton – The Sword of Surprise

To complement yesterday’s post, which contained an excerpt from Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man (which discusses how the perennially unpopular dogmatism of Catholicism is necessary if the ‘nice bits’ – e.g.; God is Love – are to be preserved and not swept away by the passage of time), I here present one of my favourite of his poems – The Sword of Surprise. 

Using some startling imagery, Chesterton captures one of his most persistent and enduring themes – the recurrent feeling of strangeness at being alive, and indeed of there being anything at all. His verses are a plea to God to let him see and appreciate how utterly miraculous man really is, by taking him outside of himself, so to speak. This is a vision that we are granted very seldom – most of the time we are so absorbed in a cloud of self-preoccupation that we do not grasp (and therefore repeatedly take for granted) how singularly strange we humans are.

This theme is concluded, in the final stanza, with words that always leave me reeling slightly, as they drive home a message that should by now be tattooed onto my heart. Human nature, alas, is forever prone to ignore the most obvious things about itself. Anyway, here is the poem:

Sunder me from my bones, O sword of God
Till they stand stark and strange as do the trees;
That I whose heart goes up with the soaring woods
May marvel as much at these.

Sunder me from my blood that in the dark
I hear that red ancestral river run
Like branching buried floods that find the sea
But never see the sun.

Give me miraculous eyes to see my eyes
Those rolling mirrors made alive in me
Terrible crystals more incredible
Than all the things they see

Sunder me from my soul, that I may see
The sins like streaming wounds, the life’s brave beat
Till I shall save myself as I would save
A stranger in the street.

By the Babe Unborn – G. K. Chesterton

One of my favourites among many by the great man, who has few equals when it comes to expressing the sheer wonder of being alive:

If trees were tall and grasses short,
As in some crazy tale,
If here and there a sea were blue
Beyond the breaking pale,

If a fixed fire hung in the air
To warm me one day through,
If deep green hair grew on great hills,
I know what I should do.

In dark I lie; dreaming that there
Are great eyes cold or kind,
And twisted streets and silent doors,
And living men behind.

Let storm clouds come: better an hour,
And leave to weep and fight,
Than all the ages I have ruled
The empires of the night.

I think that if they gave me leave
Within the world to stand,
I would be good through all the day
I spent in fairyland.

They should not hear a word from me
Of selfishness or scorn,
If only I could find the door,
If only I were born.