‘The Lammas Hireling’ was published in 2000. It is based around Irish folklore and set at the time of the Lammas Harvest, or the festival that celebrates the harvesting of wheat (usually on August 1st). For this festival farmers hired extra hands to assist on the farm. In this poem, one of those farmhands is mysteriously known as the “Hireling”. The poem won the National Poetry Competition the year of its publication in the U.K.
Throughout the poem, the poet creates a dark and foreboding mood as through the farmer’s story he delves into themes of magic, consequence, and folklore.
The poem takes the reader through the story of an unnamed farmer and farmhand that he hires from a fair for Lammas day. The man was cheap, proved himself to be a hard worker, but also ends up being a warlock. When the farmer is awoken one night he finds the man naked with his foot in a trap.
He shoots the hireling dead, puts him in a sack, and throws him in the river. The farmer is left confessing to a priest, worrying over the consequences of his actions.
You can read the full poem here.
‘The Lammas Hireling’ by Ian Duhig is a four stanza, unrhymed poem that’s written in the form of a dramatic monologue. Each stanza contains six lines, also known as sestets, and they vary in length and where the end punctuation appears. Sometimes there are end stops in the middle of lines, other times sentences seem to run on for line after line before concluding. Although the lines do not rhyme perfectly there are examples of half-rhyme. Also known as slant or partial rhyme, half-rhyme is seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance.
This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line, or multiple lines of verse. For example, “time” and “night” in lines three and six of the first stanza with the similarity in the long “i” as well as “witness” and “mossing” in lines three and four of the third stanza with the consonant double “s”.
Duhig makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘The Lammas Hireling’. These include alliteration, enjambment, caesura, and anaphora. The first, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example “disturbed,” “dreams,” and “dear” in the first line of the second stanza as well as “bloody boot” in line four of that same stanza.
Caesura occurs when a line is split in half, sometimes with punctuation, sometimes not. The use of punctuation in these moments creates a very intentional pause in the text. A reader should consider how the pause influences the rhythm of one’s reading and how it might proceed an important turn or transition in the text. For example, like three of the first stanza which reads: “And cattle doted on him: in his time” and lines five and six of the third stanza. The latter reads: “His eyes rose like bread. I carried him”
Duhig also makes use of anaphora, or the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. The word “and” starts five lines and “His” begins two lines in a row (five and six of the third stanza).
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transition between lines three and four of the first stanza and line six of the first stanza and line one of the second.
Analysis of The Lammas Hireling
After the fair, I’d still a light heart
and a heavy purse, he struck so cheap.
In the first lines of ‘The Lammas Hireling,’ the speaker begins by setting the scene. He’s been to a fair and while there found someone that he wants to hire on to help him with the Lammas Festival. As explained in the introduction, Lammas day is the traditional day on which the wheat is harvested, usually falling on August 1st. The “he” whom the speaker refers to in the second line is the farmhand that the speaker hired in order to help with the extra work that day.
While describing this particular day after the fair the speaker says that he still has a “heavy purse” and a “light heart”. He got a good deal for this man’s help, he “struck so cheap”. This should be a sign right from the beginning that something unusual is going on. It is important to the speaker now, as he retells this particular story, to note the unusual price they came to. There is something strange going on as his help should not have come at so low a price.
The speaker also noted that he had a “light heart” that day. This alludes to his disposition. He was still in a good mood, without any great pressure on his mind. The business that day was better than he expected. A reader should also take note of the use of the word “still” here. At this point, he “still” had a light heart. This alludes to the future when that’s no longer the case.
The third line of the stanza is the first to start with “And,” but not the last. After a few occurrences, these “and” lines start to build upon one another creating a list-like convergence of events and details.
And cattle doted on him: in his time
that knew when to shut up. Then one night,
As the lines continue, a reader should grow more suspicious that something strange is going on. When the man was around, the cows were incredibly prosperous. So much so that the speaker is inspired to say that they, as if human beings, “doted” on him. This use of personification gives the reader some sense of the shift that occurred at the farm when this man arrived.
These changes seem positive, but there is a foreboding tone to these lines that is unavoidable. In the last line, the mood becomes much darker. The line is enjambed, leaving the reader with the three-word phrase “Then one night”. This forces the reader to jump down to the second stanza to find out what happened next. This is the shift that was hinted at throughout this stanza.
disturbed from dreams of my dear late wife,
stark-naked but for one bloody boot of fox-trap,
In the second stanza of ‘The Lammas Hireling,’ the speaker begins with the alliterative phrase “disturbed from dreams of my dear late wife”. Here, he starts to explain what happened on one very important night but also gives the reader a little more information about his life. His wife is dead, and he was absorbed in dreams about her when something happened. This comes as something of an omen, he knows that whatever disturbed him it now requires that he get out of bed and investigate his surroundings.
He does so, and finds “his pale form”. This is the hireling the cows doted on so fondly. The third line adds to the mystery of the scene. He is “in the light from the dark lantern,” an oxymoron. The man has gotten stuck in a fox trap and is “stark-naked”. These two things are quite strange separately but together they create a scene that would be quite surprising to behold in the middle of the night.
I knew him a warlock, a cow with leather horns.
To go into the hare gets you muckle sorrow,
When the farmer saw the man there he “knew him a warlock”. He was up to something that night, performing some kind of ritual. There are several obscure references in these lines. The poem is intentionally vague and otherworldly. Dialectic words like “muckle,” meaning “much,” confuse things further. Even without understanding every reference Duhig makes in ‘The Lammas Hireling’ the tone and mood come through loud and clear.
In the last lines of this stanza and the first of the third stanza, he uses the phrase “To go into the hare gets you muckle sorrow, / the wisdom runs, muckle care”. This is one of the most obscure references in the poem. Luckily for readers, Duhig commented on this line stating that it came from an Irish witch chant that is almost identical to the lines the poet uses.
the wisdom runs, muckle care. I levelled
His eyes rose like bread. I carried him
In the next six lines of ‘The Lammas Hireling,’ the poet concludes the witch chant reference and then shoots the hireling through the heart. The use of enjambment at the end of line one of this stanza makes this turn of events all the more surprising. He “blew the small hour through his heart”. His fear at that moment, in the small hours of the night, encouraged him to take this action. It is debatable whether or not he would’ve done so if it had been the middle of the day.
As soon as the hireling is dead light comes into the scene. The “moon came out,” the speaker says. Suddenly a transformation comes over the hireling. Through a simile, the poet describes how his body became covered in fur “like a stone mossing”. The natural imagery in these lines continues as the speaker describes a further transformation and gathering of the hireling’s features. In the last line of this stanza, he says that the hireling’s “eyes rose like bread”. This is likely meant to relate back to the harvesting of the wheat that started off the whole poem.
The use of caesura and enjambment in the last line again encourages the reader to jump down into the fourth stanza and conclude the speaker’s harrowing tale. In contrast to the violence of the murder, there is some tenderness in these lines as he “carried” the body, or at least it appears that way until one gets into the fourth stanza.
in a sack that grew lighter at every step
It has been an hour since my last confession.
In the first line of this stanza, the speaker adds that the body was not carried in sorrow or regret but “in a sack”. He sought to dispose of it as quickly as he could. Luckily for him, it “grew lighter at every step” until he finally dropped the hireling off a bridge. The lightness of the sack symbolizes the farmer’s receding fear but also alludes to the transformation going on inside.
The third line informs the reader that when the farmer tossed the bag into the water it didn’t make a splash. This raises a series of questions. It could be poetic license on the writer’s part, hoping to make the scene even stranger, or was there anything in the bag at all by this point?
Despite getting rid of what he saw as a malevolent force on his farm, things do not improve for him. Instead, the cows get sick and he suffers from insomnia. His nights are consumed by bullet-making. They’re made out of “half-crowns’ which are silver. Silver is a very common feature in folklore, believed to possess the ability to kill creatures that normal bullets only injure or don’t impact at all.
The final lines of the poem reveal that the story has all along been a confession told to a priest. He says the traditional “Bless me Father for I have sinned” line and adds at the end that its been only “an hour” since his last confession. This speaks to his unshakeable guilt over what he did to the hireling, as well as his fear that what he did wasn’t enough and that the creature is going to come back.