Ancestral Photograph

Ancestral Photograph

An old brown-tinted photo that has long hung on the wall, a snap-shot from the rural, family past it records, is being removed. The portrait is a revealing study of the subject it depicts and a witness to three generations of the Heaney family-line.

Heaney translates the visual into words. The picture is that of a proud Irish countryman: with Jaws that puff; with a heavy build, round and solid as a turnip; lifeless, dead eyes captured by the camera’s lens that might be those of a statue; an overbearing nature revealed by facial features, where upper lip/ Bullies the heavy mouth down to a droop.

The man’s accessories: A bowler-hat lending him a theatrical stage Irishman appearance; the prominent watch-chain of a successful man: silver … like a hoop. His nature as recalled by the poet: half arrogant (scorn); half impassive, unemotional dead-pan. This is Heaney’s father’s uncle, instrumental in teaching the latter a thing or two about the farming trade two generations back.

The faded forebear of the Heaney line taken down to be packed away leaves behind him (like the lighter shade left by a bandage … ripped from the skin) a faded patch on the wall where he has been, a historic icon steeped in the family’s ups and downs: an empty plaque commemorating a house’s rise and fall.

Heaney recalls memories of his father and himself two decades before, setting out at once the pecking-order, the wheeling and dealing and the rituals of  Irish cattle markets where the boy herded cattle, where the father won at arguing/ His own price on a crowd and where cattlemen handled rumps, groped teats … then/ Bought a round of drinks to clinch the bargain.

This memory fades and we are returned to the first decades of the 20th century with snap-shots of Heaney’s great-uncle and his father as a young man: Uncle and nephew as they Heckled and herded through the fairdays too. Great-uncle provided the business patter with his barrel stature and jaunty hat pushed back; his mannerism (curtly smack/ hands) that indicated a deal had been struck was later adopted by Heaney’s father.

As he grew older father Heaney lamented a time when ‘men were men’: the replacement of stock-fairs as he knew them by auctions, the disappearance of strong characters associated with them. He down-grades farmers now: shopping for cattle they resemble housewives at an auction ring.

Just two items of that past remain: his father’s stick (emblem of his previous authority) untouched since first it was placed there parked behind the door; and ironically, as if Closing this chapter of our chronicle, the Ancestral Photograph itself about to be consigned to the attic.

  • The removal of a photograph closes a chapter in the family history;
  • the figures of all three generations are brought to life, both in their personal differences and in the family tradition that unites them; Heaney’s observations are caring and warm;
  • cattle auctions replaced fairs, the former more structured less eventful, the latter more colourful, more open to sharp-practice;  auctions are seen by Heaney’s father as somehow  more effeminate;
  • Plaque: heritage plaques are often used to adorn the fronts of houses where some famous figures were born/ lived etc; warm, humorous hyperbole;


  • 5 sextets based around 10-syllable lines;
  • up to a dozen sentences. In the longest of these, four consecutive enjambed lines (that mimic the constant flow of a person who has the ‘gift of the gab’) are replaced by a series of commas punctuating the various tests used by buyers to judge the quality of a beast prior to bidding;
  • Heaney embarks on a challenging rhyme scheme that adds to the complexity of the composition: aabccb ddeffe etc;
  • alliteration: aspirate [h]heckled and herded; voiceless velar [k] crowd of cattlemen;
  • sonic echoes: [ʌ] upper/ bullies; [ɪ] drinks/ clinch; [æ] hat pushed back/ smack/ Hands;[e] heckled and herded;
  • Girds: the verb enhances the larger-than-life appearance: big man, big watch-chain;
  • language of photography: fixed in sepia tints (the fixer is a liquid that sets the image during development;
  • Still: both ‘yet’ and ‘doesn’t move’;
  • dead is an example of  dual-purpose words used so cleverly by Heaney to pack meaning into his verse: ‘dead’ eyes losing their sparkle on photosensitive paper are the eyes of a man long ‘dead’;
  • irony: the great-uncle, free compared with the animals in cattle-pens is himself penned within the picture frame; in that context his history is recorded, metaphorically penned.