The Ship In the Air

Clonmacnoise is a spectacular old monastery in Ireland (it’s right off the N6 – the road that takes you from Dublin to Galway – If you’re ever in Ireland, I have got to tell you: Go to Clonmacnoise!)

There’s a graveyard, with tilting high crosses up and down the green. There’s a crumbling tower, a crumbling structure placed out beyond on a small mound, and off to the left is a river, and marshes. The water is rather wide there, as I recall, and there are amazing sky reflections. Or at least there can be, and there were when Jean and I went.

The place is magic.

(Oh, and there’s also a “fertility statue” within the monastery which has my name – one of the famous Sile na gigs – the statues who sit there in rather improper legs-spread poses, and they are believed to have fertile powers, and women and men used to come to the monastery, to rub the Sile na gig, in the hopes that they would get pregnant.)

It’s a rich place.

The water, the sky, the crumbling stones, the high crosses on the green, the reflections …

Now, there is an old legend about the place: Long long ago, when Christianity was in a much younger phase, a ship appeared in the air. All of the monks looked up and saw it.

(When you go to Clonmacnoise, you can see at least one of the reasons why this legend makes sense. The water reflects the sky in such a way that they blend together like a watercolor, it is difficult to distinguish between the two.

And something happened with that ship in the air (which I’ll get to). There’s something so spectacular about the legend. There’s something essentially mysterious and un-knowable about it. I love it because if you go to Clonmacnoise (especially during twilight, or early morning, when no one else is there) you will almost be able to see that ship in the air. (Or, at least, it is not difficult to believe that someone WOULD see a ship in the air. It makes perfect sense.)

Seamus Heaney wrote a poem about this legend. It is included in a larger group of poems called ‘Lightenings’, and the poem itself has no name.

Of all that he has written (all of which I love), this poem might be my favorite. I first heard it when my father read it out loud to me, so I will always hear it in my father’s voice.

The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise
Were all at prayers inside the oratory
A ship appeared above them in the air.

The anchor dragged along behind so deep
It hooked itself into the altar rails
And then, as the big hull rocked to a standstill,

A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope
And struggled to release it. But in vain.
‘This man can’t bear our life here and will drown,’

The abbot said, ‘unless we help him.’ So
They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back
Out of the marvellous as he had known it.

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7 Responses to The Ship In the Air

  1. peteb says:

    Ah.. Seamus, Seamus.. he does have a certain way with words, Sheila.. as a Nobel Laureate should…

    Out of the marvellous as he had known it.”

    It almost invites a reciprocal legend/poem from the crewman’s point of view and certainly demands an immediate re-reading of the poem itself.

    I love the lines “And then, as the big hull rocked to a standstill,/ A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope”. To me, they seem to have a characteristic Heaney quality, as well as showing more than a little of the familiarity between himself and Ted Hughes.

    There is a recording available online of Mr Heaney reading this and other sections of Lightenings which might be of additional interest.

  2. red says:


    He was very good friends with Ted Hughes, was he not?

    The line you reference is one that I love as well. “the big hull rocked to a standstill” … you can just SEE it up there in the sky.

  3. peteb says:

    He was indeed, Sheila, a long-standing friendship, IIRC. They co-edited two collections of poetry together in the 90s The Rattle Bag and The School Bag

    .. there are also similar poetic sensibilities in their work, IMHO – that line in particular has almost a Hughes feel to it for me; the slowly unfolding deliberateness of it.. this enormous ship in the air encountering an obstruction and coming to rest in a single line – the words themselves sway in place as that happens – and then followed up with “shinned and grappled“.. lovely stuff.

    They are both poets to be read aloud – if possible with an appropriate accent.

  4. red says:

    I pretty much always read poetry out loud. I got into the habit of it in college, when I started getting into Shakespeare … and it stuck.

  5. red says:

    CW: Perhaps! If you ever go to this place, you’ll see what I mean about its magic. Unexplained stuff could definitely happen there – it seems set up for it!

  6. Linus says:

    A wonderful line. I took a poetry class with him when I was an undergrad, and a few years before the Nobel was bestowed. Unfortunately it wasn’t the right flavor of class, and though I liked him a great deal there ended up being little point in my being there, so I mostly wasn’t. Still, the honor lives in memory and is lively enough.

    Add in my high school English teacher Frank McCourt – I took Frank’s class for two or three semesters, and nearly got away with taking an internship with him as well – and I’ve done well with the Irish luminaries, haven’t I.

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