Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Tombstone Tuesday: 'Walk on air against your better judgement'

Out of Dublin City, County Dublin to Bellaghy, Magherafelt, County Derry/Londonderry*, I drove to visit the grave of one of my favourite poets, Seamus Heaney. It is an overwhelming sight to see his grave and know there will never again be another word penned by this talented poet and playwright. The first-born son of a farmer, Seamus Heaney would grow to become beloved the world over, winning many literary prizes, including the Nobel Prize for Literature, all the while remaining a down-to-earth and gentle man. For me, Seamus Heaney put Ireland and the Irish people into words.

The epitaph engraved on his gravestone is a line taken from his poem entitled 'The Gravel Walks':

So walk on air against your better
Establishing yourself somewhere
in between
Those solid batches mixed with
grey cement
And a tune called ‘The Gravel 
     Walks’ that conjures green.

As I stood by Seamus Heaney's graveside I said a prayer for all of us, the writers, the poets, the dreamers.


Nearby Seamus Heaney’s grave, his little brother Christopher is interred together with their mother, father and other members of the Heaney family.

Tragically, Christopher Heaney died in February of 1953, at the age of 3 years, after being hit by a car. Seamus Heaney beautifully encapsulates the experience of the loss of his little brother in the heartbreaking poem ‘Mid-term Break’. Here are a few lines from the poem:

Next morning I went up into the 
     room. Snowdrops
And candles soothed the bedside; I
     saw him
For the first time in six weeks. Paler

Wearing a poppy bruise on his left
He lay in the four-foot box as in his
No gaudy scars, the bumper
     knocked him clear.

A four-foot box, a foot for every

St. Mary's Church and the churchyard from the perspective of Seamus Heaney's grave.
The Heaney family grave is second from the left in this image.

Click on photos to view larger versions.

Lines from 'The Gravel Walks' & 'Mid-term Break' in Heaney, Seamus. Opened Ground, Poems 1966-1996, Faber and Faber, London, 2002.
*Note: In the Republic of Ireland the county is recognised as County Derry; in Northern Ireland it is recognised as County Londonderry.


  1. A simple but powerful epitaph. I came late to the works of Seamus Heaney, but I have certainly joined the vast number of his admirers...
    Sad to read his poem for his young brother..thank you, Jennifer.

    1. Chris, thanks very much for your thoughtful comments. It is, as you say, a simple but powerful epitaph, and for me encouragement to set aside fears and go full forward with plans. I feel the same as you do about the poem for Christopher Heaney; the last line of 'Mid-term Break' always brings tears to my eyes.


  2. Jenn, thank you for sharing this. A powerful epitaph and good advice too. The story of his little brother is so sad. I understand why the last line of that poem makes you tear up, "a four foot box, one foot for every year", stunning.

    1. Charlotte, thank you for your comments; they're always very much appreciated. The story of his brother is indeed sad, and I think the poem is a genuine reflection of what it is like to lose such a young family member. I have only shared a few lines of each poem here, since I don't have the right to share the entire poems, but the poems in their entirety are extraordinary reflections on the ordinary. There is a line in 'Mid-term Break' in which Heaney speaks of their mother, saying she "coughed out angry tearless sighs." Brilliant.


  3. Walk on air... Beautiful & touching. Words that make us stop & think about our choices in life. Seamus knew how to use words! Thanks for sharing this.

    1. Colleen, thanks very much for your comments. Indeed Seamus Heaney's words do give us pause to reflect on our lives. As you say, he knew how to use words, most certainly.



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Cheers, Jennifer

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