I heard Seamus Heaney give a public reading at the Third Eye Centre in Glasgow in 1984. He described how he had treated the subject of the Ulster Troubles during the first years of his writing. He tended to use symbolism and allegory, such as in “Punishment”, where a medieval woman crushed to death for adultery is compared to girls tarred and feathered by the IRA for similar “betrayal”. That changed, he said, when his relation Colum McCartney was killed. Then he chose to deal with the subject directly, in a poem called “The Strand at Lough Beg”.
“The Strand at Lough Beg” begins with a quote from Dante and mentions “a high bare pilgrim’s track” and the medieval Sweeney, but does quickly add modern images of “a faked road block”, “sudden brakes” and “the cold-nosed gun”.
Its initial focus is on the landscape and its history and then moves to a farming family and to this deceased individual. Its closing image appears to link the present-day death back to the Christianity of the past: “I plait green scapulars to wear over your shroud”.
Another Heaney poem about the contemporary violence in Northern Ireland is “Casualty”, from the same collection, Field Work, in 1979. According to US based writer Sean Lynch, the unnamed victim personified in this poem was another relation of Heaney, Louis O’ Neill.
I was first drawn to “Casualty” for its distinctive rhythm and shape, with its short lines and stanzas of 10 lines or so; the same trimeter structure as Yeats’ “Easter 1916” and Auden’s “September 1 1939” used to evoke a serious reflective tone. And to the way that the soft rhythm and the sympathetic observation of village life and of this one individual man shifts dramatically at the end of the first section to “a curfew…after they shot dead the thirteen men in Derry. PARAS THIRTEEN…BOGSIDE NIL.” I was fascinated by serious artists addressing present-day political issues and this was a striking example.
In its second and third sections, “Casualty” regains its gentle rhythm and sounds, feminine endings and assonance, and presents a series of vivid images: of a funeral, of a small local pub, of a boat out fishing. “Wind-blown surplice and soutane”, “like blossoms on slow water”, “swimming towards the lure of warm lit-up places”, “quiet walkers and sideways talkers shoaling out of the lane”, “the respectable purring of the hearse”, “the screw purling, turning”, “dawn-sniffing revenant”.
The title of “Casualty” gives prominence to the victim of an act of violence, but the narrator’s closing emotion is puzzlement rather than anger. The title of “The Strand at Lough Beg” suggests that the quiet landscape remains untarnished. While both poems describe modern violence intervening suddenly and brutally into the settled community, Heaney’s classic poetic eloquence seems to show that long-established cultural values have held fast.
Heaney was already being celebrated as a great poet in a great tradition when I first came across his name in the mid- 1970s. His Nobel Prize for Literature was forecast long before he actually received it in 1995. His readings and media appearances were enjoyed and admired up to his death in 2013. However, some, like his fellow Ulster poet and academic Kevin Kiely and the younger Irish writer Mary O’Regan feel that he has been praised too effusively for work which is artistically conservative.
Northern Ireland has enjoyed relative peace since the Good Friday agreement in 1998 but its future relationship within the UK is being discussed with a new scrutiny due to the latter’s departure from the European Union. Perhaps that will mean too that Seamus Heaney and his writing will not be seen in future in the same old-fashioned way.
Heaney, Seamus (1979) Field Work London: Faber
Heaney, Seamus (1980) Selected Poems 1965-1975 London: Faber