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Penance by Tony Curtis
From Gillian Goetzee's complete Key Stage 3 study unit, click here.

And still they live in unforgiven places,
on the sides of arthritic hills,
where low walls hide the sea and
the sea
hides the dead, though the dead
still whisper
in their silent graves, ‘I’m cold,
I’m cold.’

Enough bog here to stoke the fires of Hell,
and stones so many you’d think
they grew
in the soil. Though nothing
ever grows.
God knows there was more
wood on Calvary

This morning, on a high road beyond Cleggan,
I passed the ruins of a deserted cottage,
and a ruined cottage that looked deserted,
only a man eyed me. I asked where the road went?
‘To the end,’ he said, ‘the end
.’ Then shuffled off.

Past, suffering, death

This poem is set in Connemara, a country area in The Republic of Ireland. It is now a tourist destination, but it was a place where many people died of starvation in the middle of the nineteenth century.


The main food of many Irish people was potatoes and when a potato disease spread through the country there was hardly anything to eat. Some people argue that the English who ruled Ireland then could have helped more, and perhaps the English made the famine worse than it needed to be.

To the Irish people now the Famine is a powerful memory as so many died and so many emigrated to escape.

The past and suffering and death are very present in the poem.

Your task

How does Curtis present the landscape of Connemara
in his poem ‘Penance’?

Use the questions below and your answers to help you.



What factual details about the landscape of Connemara do you find out about?


How does Curtis create a sense of the past in the first stanza?


How does Curtis create a mood of suffering in the first stanza?


How is the mood of suffering added to in the second stanza?


Why does Curtis decide to start a new stanza after line 9?


What is important about the man, where he lives, what he does and what he says?


How does Curtis make a poem about lasting suffering a little bit funny?


Think about the title, you may have to use a dictionary, and suggest who Curtis feels is responsible for the suffering, for the Famine. Try to find other clues in the poem.