Getting it Right


Getting it Right

In gratitude to Seamus Heaney


In our baronies of childhood

we lived twenty miles apart,

perhaps half an hour

for the gales from the West

that shook your father’s trees

to rock our copper-beech,

or no time at all

for my fingers following

our Six Mile Water

to cross Lough Neagh’s

petrifying deeps

and meet your Moyola

in the River Bann,

famous with eels.


But we were not to be friends,

not if you’d been our neighbour.

A James – perhaps, not a Seamus.

I was brought up to become

a Scottish Protestant boy

in exile from the country

that was my father’s homeland.

You grew up to be at home

in your history and tongue;

my father banned your accent,

set me to Elocution, as if

your speech was my speech-defect.

Our history lay elsewhere,

even as we were living it,


for I too was growing to know

your horse-powered harvests, the crex-crex

of corncrakes among the stooks,

the stench of retting flax

over crannog and souterrain,

and The Twelfth of July’s bullying

yammer of Lambeg drums.

Years later then, transplanted

to this far side of the world,

when first I found your words

I knew my childhood’s landscape

in your people, your place-names,

and learned for the first time

how we’d failed to make it our home.


One image: when I was seven,

we watched from an upstairs window

the flax mill on fire in the village

my father with authority

pronounced to rhyme with ‘dough’:

Doagh. But your voice tells me

I need remember only

the guttural that closes lough

one sound we Scots always knew

‘strangers found difficult to manage’.

While this fire burns in my mind

I’ll speak it with your voice: Doagh,

getting this right at least.

Never friends, I’ll not be your stranger.


Alan was born in Belfast in 1937 and spent his first 15 years in Co. Antrim before emigrating to New Zealand with his Scottish parents. He retired as a public health dentist in 2005 and lives in Dunedin.

2 thoughts on “Getting it Right

    • thanks for your generous comment, Colin. I’ve let Alan know about it (he’s a New Zealander). Thanks. I agree with you. f

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