The first thing we notice about “At a potato digging” is that it is set on a farm. This applies to both the poems and we find that they both use normal farm activities to portray much larger events in Ireland’s history. In “At a potato digging” it uses a potato digging to contrast against an earlier time in history which was the potato famine, whereas “A difficult birth, Easter 1998” uses the birth of a lamb which is then connected to the birth of the Irish peace conference.
In the first verse of “At a potato digging” we are given a description of were the poem is set, which is a farm where the workers are following the mechanical digger as it pulls up the potatoes. The workers are said to “swarm” behind the digger, which suggests that there are many of them and they are quite active. This is a contrast to the past during the famine due to the workers starving to death so there would not be many and the ones that were alive would have had no energy because of the lack of food.
In the last line of the first verse we find “fingers go dead in the cold. ” This seems normal on the surface but we soon find out that it becomes reality later on in the poem. At the begging of “A difficult birth, Easter 1998” it has a common farming activity just like “At a potato digging”, but in the poem it is a ewe giving birth. This is a contrast to the other poem because it has a positive start whereas the other is negative. There is juxtaposition in this verse of the farm event and the historic Irish event.
This is done deliberately so that for the next three lines we are not sure whether the poet is talking about the sheep or the Irish people. This is an example of ambiguity. In the next verse of “At a potato digging” we find that the workers are referred to as crows due to the stooping motion of them as the bend down to pick up potatoes. This is another contrast to the past because there were no potatoes to pick up. The description of the line as “higgledy” suggests that the workers have to leave the line to empty the full baskets, which yet again contrasts to the past.
The word “higgledy” is also used when the poem goes back to the past but to describe the people. This is a big contrast because the line is higgledy due to the vast amount of potatoes but the people are higgledy because of the lack of them. The word “mother” is used to describe the earth because of how it is giving birth to the potatoes and because it is providing for the people, but later in poem the word “bitch” is used to show how the earth has turned on them. “Bitch” is used because it is a bilabial plosive and gives a sharp angry meaning to the word.
This word is used to show how the people feel because the earth has betrayed them and has become vicious and evil instead of maternal and loving which is how it used to be. We get religious references through out the poem but here we see that the Irish people pay homage to the famine god. This shows us how scared they are because they thank the god just to make sure that a famine does not happen again. Famine god is an oxymoron because famine is bad whereas as god is good. This provides some irony.
As you go through the poem you can look below the surface meaning and see something much more complicated. For example when the workers are bending down to pick up potatoes and it says “humbled knees” this then could lead on to the workers picking potatoes because they do not want to face another famine so they pick them as a sort of ritual. This then explains the “humbled knees”. Enjambment is used in this verse to show the constant movement just as the sentence stays constant without pause. In the fifth verse it describes a good potato and how they resemble stone hearts of the earth.
The goodness of the potatoes is obviously contrasted later in the poem because at the moment the smells coming from the ground and the potatoes soon change from good to bad in the second half. The line “live skulls, blind eyed” is about the potatoes and how they look like skulls and the marks on them are called blind eyes. But as the new verse starts it repeats the line and the metaphor becomes literal due to it now talking about the people because they are living skulls and they have gone blind because it is a symptom of starvation.
This line is used again to shock the reader and to show them how the people looked and the effects on them due to the famine. The “live skulls” shows that the people were near death. The word “balanced” suggests weakness and that the people were wobbly which then brings back the word “higgledy” but instead of it being used to show plenty of potatoes it shows a lack of them. Another contrast is that the workers are no longer working in the fields but are dying because they are not strong enough to work.
We then find that the workers are scrounging the land for potatoes and because they cannot find any they eat the blighted ones and die. Then there is an example of ambiguity with the line “beaks of famine snipped at guts” this could either suggest that it is actual birds eating at the corpses or it could be describing the famine as a bird eating at the guts of Ireland. The setting then changes back to the present with a contrast of gulls in the sky instead of birds of prey and that the workers are exhausted due to picking potatoes which did not happen during the famine.
Then the workers eat lunch and take their fill because there is plenty, which contradicts the past. Their fast does the same because they choose not to eat but during the famine they had no choice. Then spill libation of tea to the famine god because they will always be scared of another famine taking place. In “A difficult birth, Easter 1998” there is not a future and a past because it is al set at one time, but this does not stop the connections from the farm event and the important event.
For example in the second verse it says “while they slog it out in Belfast, eight decades since Easter 1916, exhausted, tamed by pain. ” This could be talking about the men at the peace conference and the Irish nation because they are tamed by the pain of the past and the slogging it out could be the men at the meeting. The word “slog” could also be talking bout the suffering of the Irish people who were exhausted by the famine and this could be an echo of that. It could also be referring to the lamb because she would be tamed and exhausted by the contractions.
When it says the ewe’s water broken and it describes it as an ocean this is a hyperbole, which is used here to exaggerate the amount of water that has spilled. The ewe ten drinks the bitter water maybe to try and clean itself this could be used to show how Ireland is cleaning up all the bitter times in the past with the peace meeting. The gentleness of the ewe is shown when it licks the writer’s fingers in appreciation of her help this could be a metaphor of how the Irish people feel towards the people trying to make peace.
Also the burning of the tongue could be connected to the burning anxiety of the Irish people who are waiting for the result of the peace conference. The writer then awaits the government to finish making the deal. She then has to take things into her own hands and starts to pull the lamb out which is like the Irish people starting the peace deal. The lamb has a big role in the poem because it links it to Christianity because lambs are connected to Christ the lamb was also born in stable and the last line of the poem “the stone rolled away” is related to the rebirth of Christ which then makes it seem that this could be the rebirth of peace of Ireland and the whole Irish community.
Then there is a second lamb born which could suggest even more hope because if the first peace conference was difficult there may be a second one that could make peace once and for all in Ireland. “A difficult birth, Easter 1998” ends with a note of optimism and hope for the future but “At a potato digging” it ends with a sense of fear and an over shadowing feeling of the famine and that it could one day return.