Famine Poems

The Scar (John Hewitt)

There’s not a chance now that I might recover
one syllable of what that sick man said,
tapping upon my great-grandmother’s shutter,
and begging, I was told, a piece of bread;
for on his tainted breath there hung infection
rank from the cabins of the stricken west,
the spores from black potato-stalks, the spittle
mottled with poison in his rattling chest;
but she who, by her nature, quickly answered,
accepted in return the famine-fever;
and that chance meeting, that brief confrontation,
conscribed me of the Irishry for ever.

Though much I cherish lies outside their vision,
and much they prize I have no claim to share,
yet in that woman’s death I found my nation;
the old wound aches and shews its fellow scar. 

Famine, a sequence (Desmond Egan)

the stink of famine
hangs in the bushes still
in the sad celtic hedges

you can catch it
down the line of our landscape
get its taste on every meal

there is famine in our music

famine behind our faces

it is only a field away
has made us all immigrants
guilty for having survived

has separated us from language
cut us from our culture
built blocks around belief

left us on our own

ashamed to be seen
walking out beauty so
honoured by our ancestors

but fostered now to peasants
the drivers of motorway diggers
unearthing bones by accident
under the disappearing hills  

At A Potato Digging (Seamus Heaney)

A mechanical digger wrecks the drill,
Spins up a dark shower of roots and mould.
Labourers swarm in behind, stoop to fill
Wicker creels.  Fingers go dead in the cold. 

Like crows attacking crow-black fields, they stretch
A higgledy line from hedge to headland;
Some pairs keep breaking ragged ranks to fetch
A full creel to the pit and straighten, stand 

Tall for a moment but soon stumble back
To fish a new load from the crumbled surf.
Heads bow, trunks bend, hands fumble towards the black
Mother.  Processional stooping through the turf 

Recurs mindlessly as autumn.  Centuries
Of fear and homage to the famine god
Toughen the muscles behind their humbled knees,
Make a seasonal altar of the sod. 

Flint-white, purple.  They lie scattered
like inflated pebbles.  Native
to the black hutch of clay
where the halved seed shot and clotted
these knobbed and slit-eyed tubers seem
the petrified hearts of drills.  Split
by the spade, they show white as cream. 

Good smells exude from crumbled earth.
The rough bark of humus erupts
knots of potatoes (a clean birth)
whose solid feel, whose wet inside
promises taste of ground and root.
To be piled in pits; live skulls, blind-eyed.

Live skulls, blind-eyed, balanced on
wild higgledy skeletons
scoured the land in ‘forty-five,
wolfed the blighted root and died. 

The new potato, sound as stone,
putrefied when it had lain
three days in the long clay pit.
Millions rotted along with it. 

Mouths tightened in, eyes died hard,
faces chilled to a plucked bird.
In a million wicker huts
beaks of famine snipped at guts. 

A people hungering from birth,
grubbing, like plants, in the bitch earth,
were grafted with a great sorrow.
Hope rotted like a marrow. 

Stinking potatoes fouled the land,
pits turned pus into filthy mounds:
and where potato diggers are
you still smell the running sore. 

Under a gay flotilla of gulls
The rhythm deadens, the workers stop.
Brown bread and tea in bright canfuls
Are served for lunch.  Dead-beat, they flop 

Down in the ditch and take their fill
Thankfully breaking timeless fasts;
Then, stretched on the faithless ground, spill
Libations of cold tea, scatter crusts. 

The Famine Road (Eavan Boland)

“Idle as trout in light Colonel Jones
these Irish, give them no coins at all; their bones
need toil, their characters no less.”  Trevelyan’s
seal blooded the deal table.  The Relief
Committee deliberated:  “Might it be safe,
Colonel, to give them roads, roads to force
From nowhere, going nowhere of course?” 

one out of every ten and then
another third of those again
women – in a case like yours.

Sick, directionless they worked.  Fork, stick
were iron years away; after all could
they not blood their knuckles on rock, suck
April hailstones for water and for food?
Why for that, cunning as housewives, each eyed –
as if at a corner butcher – the other’s buttock. 

anything may have caused it, spores
a childhood accident; one sees
day after day these mysteries.

Dusk:  they will work tomorrow without him.
They know it and walk clear.  He has become
a typhoid pariah, his blood tainted, although
he shares it with some there.  No more than snow
attends its own flakes where they settle
and melt, will they pray by his death rattle. 

You never will, never you know
take it well woman, grow
your garden, keep house, good-bye.

“It has gone better than we expected, Lord
Trevelyan, sedition, idleness, cured
in one.  From parish to parish, field to field;
the wretches work till they are quite worn,
then fester by their work.  We march the corn
to the ships in peace.  This Tuesday I saw bones
out of my carriage window.  Your servant Jones.” 

Barren, never to know the load
of his child in you, what is your body
now if not a famine road?