Ship in Air

Here’s a nice anecdote told twice, first from some anonymous Irish source, and then Seamus Heaney’s version of it in verse. This was the first poem of Heaney’s I ever saw, back in high school when someone showed me the New York Times, perhaps when his book Seeing Things was reviewed there, or when he’d won the Nobel Prize. But then, in that way in which things go, only later did I realize I’d come upon the original story a few years earlier, in gradeschool, while reading one of Whitley Strieber’s alien books, where it is taken as one among many proofs of alien contact through the centuries:


From an unknown Irish author of the fourteenth or fifteenth century:

One day the monks of Clonmacnoise were holding a meeting on the floor of the church, and as they were at their deliberations there they saw a ship sailing over them in the air, going as if it were on the sea. When the crew of the ship saw the meeting and the inhabited place below them, they dropped anchor, and the anchor came right down on to the floor of the church, and the priests seized it. A man came down out of the ship after the anchor, and he was swimming as if he were in the water, till he reached the anchor; and they were dragging him down them. “For God’s sake let me go!” said he, “for you are drowning me.” Then he left them, swimming in the air as before, taking his anchor with him. (A Celtic Miscelleny, 165)


And Seamus Heaney’s version of this, in “Lightenings” 8 (in his book Seeing Things):

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 marvelous as he had known it.


9 Comments Add yours

  1. terraburrah says:

    There are paintings from those times, showing “ufo’s” floating through the air. Related?

  2. I liked this post. I read that Seamus Heaney did a critically acclaimed translation of Beowulf.

  3. lorac888890 says:

    Thank you for the follow. Seeing Things is quite common in older people and young. Please come back more often.

  4. Thank you. I’d never read either version and this was a treat. In this summer of heat and high humidity, sometimes it feels like I’m swimming in the air too!

  5. owen-tilley says:

    Had a good look around your blog and could stay all day. Thanks for the follow, too. As a published author can I ask you what made you follow the blog of a humble, part-time poet? Thanks again…

  6. terraburrah says:
    Seriously, I had just seen this painting before I read your blog. Scroll down to the painting of the Holy Mother and look over her shoulder. There’s a ship floating in the air behind her. Irony.

  7. annj49 says:


  8. John Looker says:

    This is one of those poems that I have been unable to get out of my head since I first came across it.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s