Today I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time. Dear husband and I were standing on 5th Avenue and 79th Street, right near Central Park. We were able to catch some of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. There’s nothing I love more than pomp and circumstance. And by chance, we were both wearing green.
Next to me stood a man in a kilt playing the bagpipes. That reminded me of my friend Hughie, whom I met here, a man who would have been very much at home in that outfit being a Scot. Because of Hughie I felt closer to the people there. In Hughie, “I had found my Celtic roots.”
In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, I want to post a favorite poem by the Irish poet Seamus Heaney. It’s called Digging. In it the poet celebrates the achievements of his forebears, who were potato farmers. About his father he wrote:
“By God, the man could handle a spade. Just like his old man.”
These were skilled laborers (notice all the technical language about planting) with an incredible work ethic. The father was still bending over the flowerbeds in old age, and the grandfather could barely stop to take a drink.
Through Digging, Heaney captures the essence of the Irish people, a people that works hard and is tough, proud, and persistent.
The best part about Digging is its sensuality. The poet describes the act of cultivation in such loving detail, you can practically touch and smell the new potatoes. Even the use of short choppy words mimics the rhythm of digging.
This poem is about respect for family tradition — Heaney is figuratively digging into his family’s roots. But times have changed, farming has become more mechanized, and the poet has chosen a different path. He no longer wields a spade like his father. Instead, “snug as a gun” in his hand is a “squat pen.” Heaney hopes that he can match the achievements of his father and grandfather using a pen to “dig” with instead of a spade. Why the imagery of the gun? To emphasize how powerful the pen is — more has been accomplished in the world with words than with violence.
In fact, Heaney became a successful poet and eventually was awarded the Nobel Prize. So his pen did bring honor to his family. And the impact of his “digging” (i.e., writing) went far beyond the confines of his father’s narrow farming community.
I think a lot of people can relate to this poem because they respect their forbears and take pride in their accomplishments but perhaps do not work with the same “tools” they did. In my case, my parents’ primary tool for bringing about change would have been religion; for me, it’s secular advocacy. But like the poet, I often wonder whether I measure up.
I want to use this opportunity to introduce you to a new undertaking by my sponsoring organization, Malecare, which also involves a lot of “digging” and hopefully will bring about change that is long overdue. Malecare has launched a petition which it will submit to our legislators around election day. The purpose is to “make prostate cancer a national public health priority.” We are hoping to get 100,000 people to sign it. Here is the gist of the petition:
“We, the undersigned, call on the President of the United States and the Congress to make Prostate Cancer research a national public health priority. Specifically, we ask the President of the United States to ensure that promotion and funding for Prostate Cancer research is, at all times, comparable to those levels allocated for Breast Cancer.
This is a reasonable and achievable goal: parity for prostate cancer when it comes to funding.
Here is a perfect example of how you can change the world with the stroke of a pen. With each signature, i.e., each keystroke, we will chip away at the “stubborn earth” and hopefully, create a revolution in the way people think about prostate cancer. We are sowing the seeds of change. Seeds of hope.
I urge you to sign the petition and ask everyone you know to do so as well.
Let us prove that the pen is indeed mightier than the spade.
Here is the poem. I will talk more about the petition in a future post. To sign it, go to .
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
Where he 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.
— Seamus Heaney