fourteen: Ian Duhig, The Lammas Hireling

Last week (apologies for another late post), another collection that I didn’t really ‘get’; this time, because it was so densely allusive I didn’t have a clue as to what was going on half the time. I hate writing that; I feel like a fractious child demanding that everything make sense to me. But it’s hard to engage with work you simply don’t understand, and if, as this review of The Lammas Hireling suggests, Ian Duhig has shed ‘the arcane references of his earlier work’, then I really don’t think I’ll be looking out that earlier work.

Perhaps Duhig’s impenetrability would be solved by research, wider reading and a better understanding of Irish poetry; perhaps the point is that it’s poet’s poetry, difficult, riddling, allusive. I did like its earthy, everyday nature, giving voice to disparate characters, telling their stories, despite its clever-cleverness. But none of it moved me much. Favourites were ‘Blood’, ‘Died for Love’ and ‘The Lammas Hireling’, which had me spellbound though I’m sure I don’t understand it, and which won the 2000 National Poetry Competition:

After the fair, I’d still a light heart
And a heavy purse, he struck so cheap.
And cattle doted on him: in his time
Mine only dropped heifers, fat as cream.
Yields doubled. I grew fond of company
That knew when to shut up. Then one night,

Disturbed from dreams of my dear late wife,
I hunted down her torn voice to his pale form.
Stock-still in the light from the dark lantern,
Stark naked but for the fox-trap biting his ankle,
I knew him a warlock, a cow with leather horns.
To go into the hare gets you muckle sorrow,

The wisdom runs, muckle care. I levelled
And blew the small hour through his heart.
The moon came out. By its yellow witness
I saw him fur over like a stone mossing.
His lovely head thinned. His top lip gathered.
His eyes rose like bread. I carried him

In a sack that grew lighter at every step
And dropped him from a bridge. There was no
Splash. Now my herd’s elf-shot. I don’t dream
But spend my nights casting ball from half-crowns
And my days here. Bless me, Father, I have sinned.
It has been an hour since my last confession.

You can hear the poet reading it here.

The Lammas Hireling, Ian Duhig (Picador, 2003)

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1 Response to “fourteen: Ian Duhig, <i>The Lammas Hireling</i>”


  1. 1 Colin Ingram 21 May, 2008 at 12:22 pm

    Back in 2003 I was writing strange, sinister, surreal poems and was looking for published work of this nature for inspiration and enjoyement, I bought this poetry collection when it was first released from a local Waterstones (Stoke-On-trent). Up until that point I hadn’t heard of Duhig or read any of his poetry; I read the ‘Lammas Hireling’ poem in the shop and it was enough to convince me to purchase the book.

    Although on reflection, the poems inside seem to represent a hotch-potch of styles and subject matters, it was the dark, mythical, unusual nature of the title poem that drew me into its web, an arcane combination of old sounding language (muckle; elf-shot) and its almost fantasy-like narrative and sinister feel.

    I loved the esoteric feel of the poem and could only really conclude that it was a dark fictional narrative poem derived from Hare myths, folklore and perhaps Duhig’s Irish connection – perhaps it had a Celtic connotation; but truthfully, I wasn’t sure of its undertakings completely; either.

    Although some of the poems seem to deliver wry, sometimes black wit (American Graffiti 1 & 2) and a rather at times prosiac style: Meet The Duhigs; Concrete Poetry and Northumbrian Graffiti; I loved the Hireling poem enough to rate it as one of my top 100 poems of all time (#23 if you must know!), unique and well-crafted, its haunting imagery and language “..stock-still in the light from the dark lantern” combine a mythic past-time tale feel with a contemporary and original narration. It purges the mind’s darker recesses without being same-old Gothic, depressing or as kids these days feel is approproiate – “emo” (the dreaded language of the yoof!).

    Simply put the rest of the book may be a farrago of ideas and experiences not entirely in sink or linear, but the poem itself is of enough excellence (it claimed first prize in 2001’s National Poetry competition – no mean feat!) to stand tall and proud (perhaps hare-like?) amongst the other additions.

    An excellent hare-raising poem (oops…sory – I couldn’t help myself!). Shame the rest of the book’s a bit hit & miss…


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