The photo above is from Glendalough, “Valley of the Two Lakes,” in Ireland where a sixth century monk named Kevin, Coemhghein in his native tongue, made his home. In this place, the legend of Kevin’s love for nature and animals was born— a legend that Irish poet Seamus Heaney borrowed over a thousand years later to craft a reflection on doing the right thing.
Why is it that the phrase “doing the right thing” often conjures thoughts of obligation, burden, or hardship, as if doing the right thing is always a huge undertaking and always synonymous with forgoing one’s own needs for the sake of others? Without a doubt, there are times that it is. The stories of heroic sacrifice are the ones that make headlines and go viral in social media.
But a few years ago, when I heard Irish poet Seamus Heaney introduce his poem “St. Kevin and The Blackbird,” I was touched by his description of the story as “a little meditation” on “doing the right thing for the reward of doing the right thing.”
Heaney, who won the Nobel prize for poetry in 1995, wrote this poem the year after. There are many poems for which he’s far better known and far more celebrated, yet this is the one I carry with me.
Hear Seamus Heaney introduce and read his poem.
The story of St. Kevin, like most legends, is an outlandish tale. As Kevin is deep in meditation, he holds his upturned palm so still that a blackbird lands in it, nests, and lays her eggs there. The saint then chooses to stay motionless, as if a tree, until the fledglings have been safely hatched and left the nest. For the record, it takes two weeks for blackbird eggs to hatch.
Heaney was not troubled by the fact that “the whole thing’s imagined anyhow” and instead took it as an opportunity to explore the landscape of compassion. “Imagine being Kevin,” he gently instructed, so I did.
I don’t know if it was Heaney’s intention or not, but as I envisioned St. Kevin’s tender care for such a small creature and her brood, I thought less about fantastical, heroic measures, and more about the countless little things we each do to bring comfort, care, or support to one another, things that require only small effort, not great sacrifice, but that can make a huge difference to someone else.
We might lose sight of the value of such acts precisely because they are not epic gestures. Instead, they come in the form of chance good deeds from strangers, mundane chores we do to make daily life more comfortable for those around us, small favors, a note of sympathy at the right moment, or even a simple pause to express appreciation to someone. The list goes on and on.
I realize it might seem quite an unrealistic leap to go from the hero’s tale to everyday kindnesses, as my mind did, but it was Heaney that took me there. “Doing the right thing for the reward of doing the right thing,” he said, is “a labor of love.”
While “hero” moments make great stories, they don’t come often, nor to everyone. The little moments, on the other hand, are available to us all, every day.
And that’s why I carry this particular Seamus Heaney poem close to heart.
PRODUCTION NOTES & CREDITS
I edited the audio of Heaney’s voice from a 2009 reading hosted by Faber and Faber, his longtime publisher in London, on the occasion of Heaney’s 70th birthday. My intent was to help focus the ear on the poetic turns of phrase he chose in his introduction which I found to be almost like an addition to the poem itself. To hear Heaney’s unedited remarks, see the original video at https://youtu.be/wKGmQcSFbMc.
I used a piano improvisation graciously recorded for me by Barbara McAfee a few years ago to accent the poet’s words, pairing the soundtrack with a short video I took of the stream that runs through Glendalough during a visit there in April, 2014. The stream sounds can be heard during the closing credits.
“St. Kevin and the Blackbird” from OPENED GROUND: SELECTED POEMS 1966-1996 by Seamus Heaney. Copyright © 1998 by Seamus Heaney. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC in the United States and by permission of Faber and Faber, worldwide excluding the U.S.