“The Forge” by Seamus Heaney (1969)
All I know is a door into the dark.
Outside, old axles and iron hoops rusting;
Inside, the hammered anvil’s short-pitched ring,
The unpredictable fantail of sparks
Or hiss when a new shoe toughens in water.
The anvil must be somewhere in the centre,
Horned as a unicorn, at one end and square,
Set there immoveable: an altar
Where he expends himself in shape and music.
Sometimes, leather-aproned, hairs in his nose,
He leans out on the jamb, recalls a clatter
Of hoofs where traffic is flashing in rows;
Then grunts and goes in, with a slam and flick
To beat real iron out, to work the bellows.
The day before our 22nd wedding anniversary was the day my husband died, and I was on the other side of the world in Barney Devlin’s Forge – in the heart of Heaney country. Barney’s son was there too, regaling us with all the craic behind Heaney’s “The Midnight Anvil,” how his da had struck it twelve times to ring in the millennium, while someone held up a phone so the sweet sound could travel all the way to a brother in Canada.
This past Father’s Day morning, I walked to the forge again in the rain and under a foreboding grey sky. I was with my oldest, dearest friend. By the time we reached Hillhead, the rain had stopped, and the sky had turned bright and blue. As if someone had ordered it, the cars stopped whizzing by, and save for the birds, all fell silent.
Inexplicably, I was compelled to reach for my phone to begin recording the silence. And too sharply, I told my friend to be quiet, not knowing why. Within seconds, it made sense, as the church bell began ringing out from the village below. Twelve times.
I could barely breathe, aware once again of the sharp stone of grief that I could have sworn had finally been dislodged from my chest.
A private man, my husband had insisted that death was a private business. When the time came, he wanted to die alone, just to sleep on. There was to be no fuss, no funeral, no flurry of condolences, not even a goodbye if he could help it. And only because he expected me to accept and respect his wishes – and because I had promised – I complied. Against my will, I privatized my mourning and got lost in the distance between the desert southwest of these United States and a blacksmith’s forge on the side of the road in rural South Derry.
I wanted what I couldn’t have. I wanted to visit a grave and bring flowers, perhaps freesias because he loved their scent. I wanted the bits and pieces of a public goodbye. I wanted to fill the air with his favorite music. I knew he wanted none of it. No ceremony. No punctuation mark. Just an empty space.
That morning, at Barney Devlin’s forge, I got what I wanted.
Now you may say it was just a coincidence, but I like to think the earth paused to let Heaney’s Midnight Anvil – “the one with the sweeter sound” – ring out twelve more times for my best friend, for me, and for our dead husbands, the men who loved us so well and for so long.
So today, when I found out that Barney Devlin had died, I was immediately transported back to that forge, to the other side of a Door Into The Dark, to a lovely conversation with him on a rainy afternoon last June.
Barney lived for almost a century, with heart and craft and good humor, bringing into his tiny forge thousands of visitors from all over the world. He loved the craic. He loved it when people would stop and give him the time of day.
Tonight, I think only Heaney would know what to say about Barney’s passing. He would have the right words.
Back on that November evening, I recall before leaving the forge, I stopped to sign the visitor’s book. Leafing through it, wondering what I could write that would possibly do it justice, I spotted at the bottom of a page full of positive impressions of Barney and his forge, this note from Seamus Heaney – a tribute that is as fitting an obituary as any.
For Barney, old friend and good example of how to do good work and stay true.’I’ll maybe write a poem.’
Goodbye, Barney, and thank you. Hammer On!
(This piece also published online in the Irish Times Culture section).