Irish Culture and Poetry.

This my granddaughter Daisy who was invited to sing at the opening of  St. Patrick’s Day Concert in the  U.K.

Daisy is singing here.

She is singing an old Irish Song, Poem, Prayer. ‘ Céad Míle Fáilte.’

These words in the Irish language mean ‘ Welcome.’

My Ireland

I am Sheighle and I am Irish and I want to tell you about my dreams of my ancient days and lead you into the reality of the present.  More than five thousand years have passed since my community of the Stone Age built our most famous temple called Newgrange.  Newgrange is a large circular mound with a stone passageway and chambers inside and  a retaining wall at the front and it is ringed by stones engraved with artwork. It is older than the Egyptian Pyramids.

Here we practised our ceremonial rites and worshipped our gods.  We revered the Sun and other elements and accepted them as our notion of god…we worshipped the wonder and strength of Nature.  When we built Newgrange about the year 3200 BC we aligned it with the rising sun and the sun’s light still floods the chamber during the Winter Solstice.  We were farming people we grew crops and raised cattle wherever we settled and all our tools were made out of stone, wood, animal antler or bone.  Building Newgrange was a major achievement.

Culture changed and people developed new skills and about the year 500 BC as the Bronze Age in Ireland drew to a close, the Celts arrived in Ireland with a new cultural influence.  Celtic influences spread across much of central Europe and into Iberia and the British Isles. The Celts used iron and so had the technological ability to spread as they did.  Over the course of a few hundred years the Celts obliterated the existing culture in the island and Celtic culture became way of life in Ireland. The language spoken was Celtic and the first written Irish appeared. It is called Ogham, the script consists of a series of grooves on the corner of a stone.

In many ways, it was a culture based around war.  Ireland was divided into multiple kingdoms and disputes were settled by a battle.  The blacksmith, druids and poets were held in high esteem within these kingdoms; the blacksmith made the weapons, the druids made the prophesies and soothsaying and the poets put into verse the exploits of the warriors to be sung around the cooking fires.  Tara in County Meath was an important site throughout the Celtic period as it was a royal centre and ultimately, the seat of the High Kings of Ireland.  Celtic art and crosses are still to be seen in modern Ireland and the Celts built large earth works of various kinds and burial mounds and large circular enclosures.  The Celts believed that demons and spirits were everywhere and they depended on the druids (their priests) to protect them.  The druids performed all the religious rites and acted as philosopher doctor and lawyer in Celtic society.  The Celts loved music; they loved to boast and to make up stories, especially about fairies and leprechauns.

*My memories of so much heritage cannot be told in one long fable so I encourage you to visit my country of mists and magic and U2 and Riverdance.*

Ireland is a small island in the vast Atlantic Ocean off the north-western coast of mainland Europe and next stop to the west is the land mass of the Continent of the Americas.  Ireland is a Republic of 4.6 million people whose history is long and complex and this presentation will involve only a small amount of historical fact.

Since Ireland was first conquered by the Normans in 1167 this Atlantic Ocean Island has risen with its people over and over through centuries in the fight to regain its right of identity.

Through many centuries Ireland served England, as an experiment, as England attempted to use its neighbour Ireland, as a foil for its supposed sophistication, naming Ireland, as a fantasy land of fairies and dreamers.  Ireland’s island status acted as a protection against invasion of England by sea, so it played an important part in England’s security plans.  England conquered Ireland and steadfastly set about changing its culture, language and ultimately its religion. The Irish language was forbidden and English was employed throughout.  Native Irish words, expressions and nuances crossed over from Irish to English mixing the Celtic language and the Anglo Saxon language to become spoken as Hiberno English. (This means that the language retains some native words and has some grammatical differences.)

During the intervening centuries until the present, Irish Rebellions were a constant irritation for England and Ireland was aided frequently by foreign forces especially the French.  There was massive emigration from Ireland following the devastating famines of the 1840’s.  This dispersed hundreds of thousands of Irish men and women throughout the major cities of the world, of Britain, North America, South America and Australia while a million of Irish citizens died from starvation.  Very sadly, today, those same countries and more are welcoming young Irish citizens due to the latest famine, a major financial famine.

During the nineteenth century many Irish exiles, like Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw who were the shining stars of London’s culture considered that it would be through contact with the Art of other countries that a modern Irish culture would be formed.  Back in Dublin, the plan was to reinstate the Irish language as a protest against being anglicised.  The revival began the desire for political independence.  The Gaelic League was founded in the 1800’s and its members painfully studied and repossessed the Irish language while continuing to speak English in public life.  W.B. Yeats followed Wilde and Shaw to London in the 1880’s.  This was the route to fame for artistic endeavour at the time.

Yeats, however, was sickened by being considered a form of entertainer in London, rather than a serious Celtic Poet.  He made the decision to return to Dublin to create there, his foundation for a Cultural Revival.  Both James Joyce and W.B. Yeats agreed that the Irish needed to have a clearer sense of identity but disagreed on how this should be achieved.  Yeats was fascinated by the past and wanted to craft a uniquely Irish style in literature with a Celtic tradition.  Yeats looked to folklore and myth and the idea that part of Ireland’s future must come from its past.  Joyce, on the other hand, saw Ireland’s past as a hindrance to Ireland’s progress.  Ultimately, Joyce considered it necessary to leave his county in order to forge a new identity for his race.

The Irish Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney grew up in a divided landscape…he was drawn to both the Irish and English poetic traditions.  He lived through the death of the rural world into which he was born as Ireland emerged as a global modern country.  Seamus Heaney was an Irish Nationalist in a country where gunmen grew vegetables, a contradiction of existence.

Life in Ireland today in 2020 is, to a certain extent, a contradiction of existence.  After a brief moment of artificial wealth, a period referred to as The Celtic Tiger, Ireland was one of the first countries to suffer from the global financial crisis.  External and internal forces of greed, corruption and irresponsible banking literally drained the life from the body and soul of many Irish men and women.  But, we have struggled and we are reviving and Ireland is the first country in Europe to show a return to normality.  Much of this has to be due to the Irish mentality of “Sure everything will be alright”.

And sure things are looking good; something is working when top global companies decide to settle in Ireland.  Global companies have many good reasons for setting up in Ireland; we have a well educated workforce, Ireland is the only English speaking country in the Euro zone, our tax laws are favourable, laws that were in situ when we joined the European Union in the year 1973 and it is accepted that the country and its people offer a pleasant environment in which to work.  (There is a long list of companies that operate from Ireland.  Amazon, Apple Inc., Baltimore Technologies. Cisco, Dell Ireland, Dropbox, EBay, EMC, Facebook, Google Ireland, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Intel Lindkin, Microsoft Ireland, Oracle, PayPal Twitter, Kentz, Pfizer, at the moment Yahoo is negotiating to move to Ireland.)

As I told you earlier the Celts loved music and story telling and we Irish continue in this tradition with our writers and poets and our love of both traditional and modern music. Ireland has become a venue for major music acts throughout the year..  Festivals celebrating the Arts take place all year round in Ireland with many workshops lead by writers and musicians. Sporting events enjoy a very full calendar of Gaelic Games such as hurling and Gaelic football, soccer and rugby.

Very often it is in times of difficulty that readers turn to poetry for help in understanding a situation, or in an effort to sort out inner feelings.  Sometimes only poetry can clearly say the words that we struggle to find when faced with either some dilemma or delight.  It is unfortunate that poetry may be considered by some as irrelevant or by others, with a sense of fear. Worst of all, is when poetry is considered elitist and beyond the scope of our everyday conversation and understanding.

Poetry can cope with every aspect of life and it is well worth the effort required to inform ourselves and to set about enjoying the magnificent art of poetry.  Believe in the truth of these words when you see the beauty and wonder of nature or the simple majesty of innocence.  Examine your thoughts and feelings and you may find that many times you have brought to mind some poetic work that still works its wonder on your memory.

The poem is the product and work of the poet whose craft is the formation of words in a way to excite the imagination of the reader just as the conception of the poem has excited the poet.  The poem must stand on its own merit.  A thing apart. Only when we have read a poem, and pondered on its existence and perhaps tried to analyse its intent, should we turn our attention to the constructer or builder of this piece of art, that is, the poet.

Too often, the life of the poet is the thing that is scrutinised to the detriment of the poem and on many occasions the media is hugely responsible for this distraction.  Celebrity has become a sensation of modern living and again too often the person and the humanity of the person has been obliterated by the fashion of scandal as a way of life.  In my opinion, this is why some critics have called Heaney’s poetry bland.  The have confused the words of the poet with the life that he has led.

Seamus Heaney in 1995 won the Nobel Prize in Literature “for works olyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.”

Seamus Heaney was a celebrated poet, a Nobel Laureate.  A celebrity of the highest calibre.  He was a poet who lived and worked in the limelight but never sought to be centre stage nor sought to outshine his contemporaries, but did so, through his natural talent.  Heaney loved poetry and he understood and admired poetry in all its guises.  He could understand and enjoy ancient works and classics and still be moved by both modernity and the poetry contained in Rap.  He was a normal everyday man.  He was warm and kind and a giant scholar with an authentic intelligence always willing to share his words and his time.  This fact has been recorded over and over by people throughout the world.  Seamus Heaney made being a great poet look easy through his captivating sense of delight in the ordinary.  His poetry, like the man, lacks arrogance and makes us look at our ordinary lives and the ordinary things that happen each day and cause us to wonder and delight in just being alive.

Most of all, to delight in the ordinary, in communication with others and the sharing of experience to elevate the normal ordinary understanding to a new level, that of the extraordinary.  For instance, time taken to watch the sunset and to share that experience, or hearing a piece of music or simply sharing time with a friend can all be extraordinary if we allow it to be so.  Through his poetry, his choice of words, his subject matter and clarity of thought Seamus Heaney is telling us that all things, all time and all situations can be amazing.

Heaney struggled with contradictions all his life.  He grew up in a divided landscape…he was drawn to both the Irish and English poetic traditions.  He lived through the death of the rural world into which he was born as Ireland emerged as a global modern country. Seamus Heaney was an Irish Nationalist in a country where gunmen grew vegetables, again, a contradiction of existence. He was also able to understand both sides of the political and emotional conflict that haunted Northern Ireland without being harnessed as a spokesman for either side… these lines explain it all “Two buckets were easier carried than one. I grew up in between.”  And also.  An IRA sympathiser has his demands for political commitment refused and angrily demands as to when will Heaney write something for the IRA.

The poet retorts. “When I do write something, whatever it is, I’ll be writing for head…from the “inside out”. He said that he could hear a word, a phrase or have an idea, and he would let it germinate in his imagination until it became the root of a poem. In other words, it was his interior world that fashioned his poetry. This was the technique that gave substance and quality to the craft of writing poetry. A craft and technique that won for him the Nobel Prize in Literature

Seamus Heaney was born April 13th. 1939 at the family farm called Mossbawn near Castledawson Northern Ireland, about thirty miles from Belfast.  He was the eldest of nine children.

His father, Patrick as well as being a farmer was also a cattle dealer and a very popular figure at cattle markets and fairs throughout the district.  His mother Margaret was a member of the Mc Cann family from Castledawson many of whom worked in the local Clark’s linen factory.

Heaney’s family was Catholic and he was raised in the Irish Nationalist tradition.  Seamus attended the local primary school which was a short distance from his home.  When he was twelve years old he won a scholarship to Saint Columb’s College, a Catholic Boarding School in Derry.  There he excelled in English, Irish and Latin.  In 1957 Heaney began his study of English language and literature at Queen’s University Belfast and he also began to write.  During his third year at University his poems began to appear in the University’s literary magazines.  On graduating he trained as a teacher and after some time teaching and lecturing be became, in 1966, a lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast.

Seamus Heaney is one of the world’s best-known poets, his work encompasses, not alone poetry but literary criticism and translation.  He has held prestigious teaching positions in Europe and the USA.  In the words of the Nobel Academy Heaney creates “works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past” Heaney is a wise poet.  He talks about the beautiful and the monstrous.  He climbs out of the earth and takes us with him never losing touch with the reality of life and death.  Seamus Heaney is regarded as the elder statesman of poetry; he has received the T.S. Eliot Prize (2006) Nobel Prize for Literature (1995) Whitbread in 1996 and 1999.  He was both the Harvard and Oxford Professor of Poetry and was made a Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres in 1996.

The first poem that we will read is “Digging” written during the summer of 1966.  Heaney has said that it was “the first poem I wrote where I thought my feelings had got into words and the first place where I felt I had done more than make an arrangement of words: I felt that I had let down a shaft into real life”.


Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.


Under my window, a clean rasping sound

When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:

My father, digging.  I look down


Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds

Bends low, comes up twenty years away

Stooping in rhythm through potato drills

Wherehe was digging.


The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft

Against the inside knee was levered firmly.

He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep

To scatter new potatoes that we picked,

Loving their cool hardness in our hands.


By God, the old man could handle a spade.

Just like his old man.


My grandfather cut more turf in a day

Than any other man on Toner’s bog.

Once I carried him milk in a bottle

Corked sloppily with paper.  He straightened up

To drink it, then fell to right away

Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods


Over his shoulder, going down and down

For the good turf.  Digging.


The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap

Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge

Through living roots awaken in my head.

But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.


Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests.

I’ll dig with it.


“Digging” is one of Heaney’s earliest poems written when he was twenty seven years old.  It is essential Heaney, rooted in the earth and place.  He invites the reader into the private world of his family.  We can see through the images that he paints with the pen and the atmosphere that he creates with his words.  He enters time dimensions of the present, the past and the future.

The title of the poem is in the present active tense and we can imagine something happening, something being done, as we read the poem.  Digging.  We can imagine a young person, interrupting his writing (the young Heaney) the pen is held between finger and thumb “The squat pen rests” the writing is stopped – the pen rests as the writer hesitates and contemplates what is occurring outside, outside in nature and outside the realm of his thoughts.

The first two lines introduce us to the poet writing but also to something else, he uses a simile to remind us of his surroundings, the North of Ireland.  “the squat pen” “snug as a gun” Nothing more, but our minds take on board the subtle inference that there are guns in existence nearby.

Next, we are invited to learn about the poet’s father as he digs and digs, a farmer bent low, digging potato drills.  We can see the man’s foot on the edge, the lug of the spade as he pushes down into the earth for the potatoes the hard cold potatoes that the children love to pick.  Heaney changes the tone of the poem and takes us from the present into his family’s past as he tells us that his father handles the spade with skill just as his father did before him.

A picture is painted for us of his grandfather cutting turf, great amounts of turf and we see a man so immersed in his toil that he can hardly stop to drink the milk carried to him by his young grandson “corked sloppily with paper” we feel the energy of the man neatly cutting and heaving the sods out of the earth and over his shoulder.  He digs deeper and deeper, “for the good turf”

The smell of potato mould and the sound of turf cutting make their way through the roots formed in the earth.  The roots of family and place and a sense of belonging, all these roots swarm into the psyche of this poet and he is “taken aback” for a moment.  He has not chosen to dig the land as his father and his father’s father have. He acknowledges that his planting of roots will take a different form.  He brings us with him once again from the past to the present “But I’ve no spade to follow men like them” Heaney tells us with conviction what his future will be; he will dig and plant with words.  “Between my finger and my thumb the squat pen rests.  I’ll dig with it”.

The poem “Digging” was a kind of initiation for Heaney; his is a work of excavating the past, he unpeels layers to reveal, veiled and unveiled the misty remembered past.  Digging is at the heart of his work.


Sheighle Birdthistle.

(They Toga and The Rose.  Demons and other Friends.  Mine and Mine.)

I was born in Limerick. Ireland, a long time ago.  My parents had eight children four boys and four girls. I am number seven. My school days were a mixture of joy and disorder.  Poetry and Ballet were my passion and occupied most of my life.  For me, poetry put my ballet parts into words.  Sandy and I married at a young age and we had our four children,a son and three daughters in quick succession.  We now have seven grandchildren, who delight us just as our own children delighted us.

I studied English and Philosophy for my Batchelors Degree and Women’s Studies as a Post Graduate. I have a Master of Arts Degree in Modern Literature.  Harvard Summer School was a wonderful experience. A semester studying the work of Sylvia Plath and the work of Anne Sexton, while attending readings of poetry and enjoying the playful squirels in the College grounds.

Coming to live in France and founding The Poetry Corner encouraged me to publish my third collection of poems.  I am still passionate about writing and research and love to have discussions about my poetry.



This was even better,

a full stop privacy.


It was there.  There,

in the middle of the vineyard


stark in the midday sun.

Like a hangman’s dream


it loomed into her consciousness

taking over her compliant existence.


Her adult life was a quest laid out

by a higher order, or so it seemed.


Lack of control over so many circumstances

and nothing to help.


Her well of ideas floundered every time

That was one of her problems


lack of freedom to think and find a way

to explain ones particular existence.


And a way to accept and choose ones part,

a player in the amazing dramas of life.


Thoughts like these flitted through

her consciousness, escaped and returned.


Who does not search for explanations

the existentialist question about life


and reality of existence, ones  particular life

and the why and wherefore of everything?


Hers was a mind that hungered for answers.

She thought that everyone else had the answers.


She sat under the tree shaded

by its dark gaunt branches…


she sought trees with this kind

of architectural growth …


a Beckett tree, she privately mused.


Slowly, she drank from the bottle

Clutched tightly, in her tired hand.

(c) Sheighle Birdthistle

My Love


My first love was complicated

In fact so is all my love story

His eyes compelled me

As he sauntered past my home

A firm mix of Elvis and Paul Newman.

I longed to kiss his sardonic lips

And so calm my beating heart  and

The warmth that set my body afire

Now we still catch a look and smile

What might be or has been loved

We are both less and more of whom

We were when he was a cute eighteen

And I had my first passionate kiss

A girl of thirteen and still warm

With the touch of his passionate kisses.


(c) Sheighle Birdthistle

The magic of an Ancient Stone Circle Near Lough Gur. Co. Limerick. Ireland;


I walked into the hazel parch

And plucked a bough from the bush

Inhaled the scent of sorrow

In that place of hush and secret

Ordered  by a strange power

With bough outstretched,

To ramble over fertile green,

Over bog of rich dark turf

Alive in its death shell, warmly

Nourishing the perfection

Embalmed within its depths.

As moonlight crept from clouds

And crows cawed their way home

To nests in high dark trees,

Cows lowed in meadows

That now seemed ominous.

Darkness clawing at my soul

That strange power urged

Me onwards to a place

Where stones heaped on stone

Rose in a circle

A wide wide circle.

Gossamer fog fell

As I fell to my knees

And prayed and scourged

My innermost soul

For understanding.

(C)2013 Sheighle Birdthistle

Ogham is an Early Medieval alphabet used to write the early Irish language, Primitive Irish. Evidence shows that Ogham was in use since at least the 4th century, long before the arrival of the Latin alphabet to Ireland.


The ancient Ogham script (pronounced ‘oh-am’) is most often found on Ogham stones that date back to the third century. Most examples of the writing is found on Ogham stones of which there are over 350 found mostly in southern Ireland as well as in Scotland, the Isle of Man, Cornwall and Wales.

The transition to the use of the Roman alphabet took place about the sixth century. Most examples of Ogham writing confer the name of person that they represent, thus the stones are often memorial symbols. When carved on stones the first letter was at the base and the inscription read from the bottom up. Ogham is occasionally called the ‘Celtic Tree alphabet’ as many of the letters of Ogham refer to trees.

The origin of Ogham is unclear with some scholars suggesting that the language was invented to allow the native Irish communicate in code that the Roman Britons would not understand. Other scholars contend that the language is of Christian origin and exists as a means of religious communication.

Poems written in Ogham.  An old Irish poem attributed to Amergin, the chief Druid of the Milesians in Irish mythology. This, along with four other poems by Amergin, appears in the Lebar na Núachongbála (The Book of Leinster) a 12th century manuscript which contains some ogham script.

Ogham Alphabet.

The Five Vowels. A E I O U

Click on the above image to see my name in Ogham.

And finally ……



Come take my hand and let us go

And roam through the desert of life

Listening to the whisper of the wind

And the chuckle of birds who watch.

Grab the vines trailing and fly, if only

For a moment in time, fresh and free.


Sense movement plump your skin

Hair tousled flying wild and weightless.

Then scramble across rocks barefoot

Feeling layers of origins touching us

And lie down in bogland and hear whispering,

The voices of our ancestors and their breath

Mingling in our senses like flowing blood.

Capture then the wind, and hover over lands

Unvisited and shed tears for battled lives unlived.

Let the wind gather us in harmony and song,

Or scream, with the horror and wonder of freedom.

I am your voice and your inner child I am dead

But I live.  Dance with me, lie with me. Love me.

I am the shadow that escapes the sun.

(c) Sheighle Birdthistle.