The Lammas Hireling

Ian Duhig

This is without doubt a strange poem; that strangeness is an essential part of Duhig’s creation of a magical rural myth, drawing on traditions of country story-telling. He drops us straight into that world of trading livestock at country fairs and the hiring of agricultural labour. There are shades of Thomas Hardy here, but Duhig’s poem is darker, more mysterious.

The speaker begins in narrative mode, creating that setting immediately in ‘After the fair’ and establishing a tone of celebration through the ‘light heart’ and ‘heavy purse’ after his bargain hire of his new cowherd. And that bargain proves a success. A personal relationship with the cattle is suggested by the fact that they ‘doted on him’ and he is successful: the cows give birth only to ‘heifers’, female offspring – young bulls are useless to a dairy farmer – and in a wonderfully appropriate simile of richness, they are ‘fat as cream.’ As well as that, ‘Yields doubled’, the punchy two-word sentence and initial spondee creating satisfied emphasis. The warmth of relationship with the cattle herd extends to his employer, who ‘grew fond of company’. Disturbing notes tug away under this narrative, however. If the labourer is such a magician with cattle, why did he come ‘so cheap’? Is his wonderful success not a little incredible? Why has he now gone? The narrator refers to ‘his time’ in the past tense. And then that stanza ends with a split line and a caesura which marks the shift in the story: ‘Then one night’ and the reader has to move to the next stanza for the continuation, which begins with ‘Disturbed’, forcefully altering the tone.

This is where the poem enters the world of dark folklore, starting with the dreamworld from which the narrator is awoken. The alliterative plosive repetition of ‘d’ creates a steady rhythm through the first line, moving from subconscious dream to conscious discovery, as Duhig links the narrator’s deceased wife with the cowherd – note the balanced spondees ‘torn voice’ and ‘pale form’ in l.8. The same rhythmic device at the beginning of ll.9 and 10 throws the speaker’s discovery into visual focus, finding the cowherd ‘Stock-still’ and ‘Stark-naked’, caught by the ‘fox-trap’. The narrator’s understanding is immediate: ‘I knew him for a warlock’. In a world of superstition and myth, witchcraft is never far away and here perhaps is the explanation for the cowherd’s uncanny success with the cattle herd. The hare has been associated with the supernatural since Celtic times and ‘cow with leather horns’ is an Irish rural term for a hare; all the associations at the end of stanza 2 are with witchcraft and magic.

Nevertheless, it may come as a shock that the narrator’s immediate response is to shoot the cowherd dead. Although the verb ‘hunted’ is used in l.8, the reader is not certain with what the narrator ‘levelled’ in l.13, which means the enjambement leads to a jerk with the plosive ‘blew’ in l.14 and the detail of ‘through his heart.’ The poem has erupted into sudden, terminal violence. The shot, however, confirms the suspicions of witchcraft. Appropriately under the light of the ‘moon’, often figuring with such associations, the dead body of the cowherd metamorphoses into a hare. Again the similes chosen by Duhig are drawn from different areas of rural life, the fur ‘like a stone mossing’ and the hare’s eyes ‘rose like bread’.

The magical strangeness of the story continues in the final stanza, with the body in the sack impossibly getting ‘lighter at every step’ and there being no ‘Splash’ when it is dropped into the river. The cowherd, the warlock, the hare, has disappeared into thin air inside the sack. And not only has the narrator lost the magical success of his herd, but instead his cattle are blighted, supernaturally: ‘elf-shot.’ The poem ends with guilt, as the narrator spend his nights making shotgun pellets out of coins and his days, it seems, in the confessional of a church, asking the priest to ‘Bless’ him. He is conscious of sin and is consumed by his guilt, confessing every hour.

That confession places the poem in a Catholic Irish world, but it’s also a world which contains pagan witchcraft and mythology. The two do not exclude each other, and it is apparent that the whole poem is the narrator’s ‘confession’. But from where does the narrator’s guilt stem? Is it the killing of the cowherd, or is his guilt a spiritual version of being ‘elf-shot’? Or are subtle associations hinted at between the cowherd of whom he grew ‘fond’, who ends up ‘Stark-naked’, and the ‘dreams of my dear late wife’?

Watch this filmed version of Duhig’s poem:

And listen to his own comments and reading of the poem here.