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The Lammas Hireling
Oxford English Dictionary (OED) Links On
Lammas is a traditional festival that marks the beginning of the harvest season. The ‘he’ of this poem is a hireling presumably taken on to help with this busy farming time. Things start well, and the hireling is popular with the cattle, which ‘doted on him’. However, this mysterious narrative poem immersed in folklore takes a turn for the macabre at the end of the first stanza following the anecdotal ‘Then one night’.
In a classic example of the archetypal intruder, the hireling is caught ‘Stark naked but for the fox-trap biting his ankle.’ What follows leaves the speaker in a state of such ineradicable guilt that he feels compelled to spend his life in confession.
Notice how the colloquial tone draws us into the narrative, with the phrase ‘muckle’(a large amount) adding to a sense of alienating otherworldliness. The cows ‘only dropped heifers’ in the company of the hireling, as if he were a good‑luck charm. However, the speaker’s ‘dear late wife’ leads him from a dream to the ‘warlock’ and, suddenly, the hireling’s body is dropped over the bridge and the ‘herd’s elf-shot’(riddled with disease). What happened?
Ian Duhig is a freelance teacher and writer of poetry and short stories. He often draws on his Irish roots in his poetry, writing about myths and legends with a lilting musicality reminiscent of the speech patterns of Ireland. He skilfully incorporates elements of traditional ballad forms, songs and hymns into modern contexts. His style is often humorous and his subject matter is diverse.
He was born in England to a large Irish family and currently lives in Leeds. He spent fifteen years working in a homeless hostel, an experience which has informed his writing.
Duhig has won the National Poetry Competition twice, and his collection The Lammas Hireling was shortlisted for both the T. S. Eliot and Forward prizes.