Seamus Heaney’s “At A Potato Digging”

Seamus Heaney’s Famine Poem ‘At a Potato Digging’ reflects on the potato crop during the Famine.

At a Potato Digging


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.

– Seamus Heaney