When all the others were away at Mass

Seamus Heaney

When all the others were away at Mass by Seamus Heaney has been named Ireland’s best-loved poem from the past century. It was chosen from ballots cast by the public, and announced by Irish President Michael D. Higgins. The third of eight sonnets in “Clearances,” a series dedicated to the poet’s mother, Margaret Kathleen McCann, the poem is featured in the recently published Selected Poems 1966–1987, one of two new editions of Heaney’s work that were arranged by the Nobel laureate himself.


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) received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995. His poems, plays, translations, and essays include Opened Ground, Electric Light, Beowulf, The Spirit Level, District and Circle, and Finders Keepers. Robert Lowell praised Heaney as the “most important Irish poet since Yeats.”


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“When all the others were away at Mass” from “Clearances” from Selected Poems 1966-1987 by Seamus Heaney. Copyright © 1990 by Seamus Heaney. 2014 paperback edition. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.


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