Seamus Heaney was born on April 13, 1939, in Castledawson in Co Derry. He went on to become a Nobel Prize for Literature winner in 1995.

What better way to celebrate Heaney's life than by reading his beloved poem "When All The Others Were Away at Mass." 

The poem is taken from Heaney's "Clearances III - In Memoriam M.K.H., 1911-1984" and recalls a morning shared between the young author and his mother, peeling potatoes.

Heaney died on August 30, 2013, at the age of 74. In 2015, his poem "When All The Others Were Away at Mass" was chosen by the public as Ireland’s best-loved poem of the past 100 years in RTÉ’s A Poem for Ireland poll.

Upon the award, Heaney's son Mick said: “We are delighted and honored that my father’s sonnet 'When All the Others Were Away at Mass' has been voted by the public as the Poem For Ireland, particularly given the magnificent shortlist it was part of.”

He continued: "Dad was never happier than when reading or writing poetry, so for his work to be part of a project that shows the sweep of Irish poetry and underlines its crucial part in our culture is a wonderful tribute to his life and work, for which our family are truly grateful."

President Michael D. Higgins made the announcement in front of a live audience during the filming of a special episode of RTÉ's "The Works" at the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin.

An independent jury compiled a shortlist of ten poems chosen from public nominations. The public was then asked by RTÉ to vote for their favorite.

This poem is taken from Clearances, a sonnet sequence that he published in 1987 on his mother’s death. It is the third in a series of eight sonnets Heaney wrote in memory of his mother, Margaret Kathleen Heaney.

When All the Others Were Away at Mass by Seamus Heaney

In Memoriam M.K.H., 1911-1984

When all the others were away at Mass

I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.

They broke the silence, let fall one by one

Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:

Cold comforts set between us, things to share

Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.

And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes

From each other’s work would bring us to our senses.

So while the parish priest at her bedside

Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying

And some were responding and some crying

I remembered her head bent towards my head,

Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives –

Never closer the whole rest of our lives.

* Originally published in 2015. Updated in April 2024.