Act Of Union

Heaney offers insights to DOD (p 169-70): The ‘speaker in the poem’, whoever he is, is deeply aware of his implication in being ‘imperially male’.. He lies like the island of Britain beside an expectant mother island who has her back turned to him. He’s experienced a certain guilt at having caused the pregnancy.

Far from creating a bond, the child born of union forced on the maid of Ireland carries within it the seeds of anger and rebellion.


A birth is imminent(To-night): its symptoms seem human enough: a first movement of contraction, maybe the pulse of a heartbeat. Then allegory steps in: the amniotic fluids/ ‘waters’ surrounding the foetus and preparing to burst wear the guise of Ulster: As if the rain in bogland gathered head/ to slip and flood. The landscape wears the guise of human anatomy preparing to give birth through its pelvic girdle: a bog-burst/ A gash breaking open the ferny bed.

An allegorical sequel to Ocean’s Love unfolds: Ralegh/ England/ British occupation impregnated the maid raped against a tree; the couple lie side-by-side physically and geographically; ‘he’ is England; ‘she’ is Ireland. A bird’s-eye-view of the British and Irish land masses lends itself to the image of two recumbent figures: the Irish ‘female’ with back turned coldly towards the English ‘male’: a firm line of eastern coast with limbs thrown/ beyond your gradual hills.

Hoping for an affectionate response born of a long relationship ‘he’ ‘whoever he is’ responds soothingly: I caress the pregnant ‘lump’, The heaving province where our past has grown; ‘He’ reminds her who ‘he’ is: the tall kingdom over your shoulder; ‘he’ concedes that her responses to him were neither those of a willing partner nor its opposite: neither cajole nor ignore.

Significantly ‘he ‘now accepts that his approach/ British tactics have not worked: Conquest is a lie.

Experience has brought recognition that in engendering a ‘child’ ‘he’ has actually set in train a force that will not regard Ireland’s current half-independent shore as sufficient. ‘He’ is responsible for an irreversible momentum: my legacy culminates inexorably.

  • ‘Union’ is synonymous with ‘congress’, sexual as well as political.

  • cajole:1640s, from Fr. cajoler “to cajole, wheedle, coax”; also O.Fr. gaioler “to cage, entice into a cage” (see jail); its use rejects any suggestion that the maid was seductive;

  • ignore: 1610s, “not to know, to be ignorant of,” from Fr. ignorer “be unaware of; alternatively and perhaps more appropriate” from L. ignorare “show disregard for”;

  • concede: from Old French (modern F: céder) is multi faceted: ‘give way’, ‘give up’, ‘yield’; also ‘agree’, ‘consent’;

  • sonnet; volta after line 10; rhyme scheme abab/ xcyd/ efef/ gg; line length variable;

  • constructed in 6 sentences; the distribution of punctuation and enjambment makes for a variety of rhythm in oral delivery;

  • the ‘coloured sound’ of both sonnets (below) demonstrates the tightness of the composition and illustrates how talent and hard work strive to leave key words with sonic support:

Act of Union

I To-night, a first movement, a pulse,
As if the rain in bogland gathered head
To slip and flood: a bog-burst,
A gash breaking open the ferny bed.
Your back is a firm line of eastern coast
And arms and legs are thrown
Beyond your gradual hills. I caress
The heaving province where our past has grown.
I am the tall kingdom over your shoulder
That you would neither cajole nor ignore.
Conquest is a lie. I grow older
Conceding your half-independent shore
Within whose borders now my legacy
Culminates inexorably.

  • [ɜː] [æ] [uː] [əʊ] [e] [ei] [ai] [i:] [ɔː] [ɪ] [ʌ] the weave of 11 sonic chains provides oral patterns that can enhance oral delivery of a poem to be heard;

  • Alliterative effects: initial alveolar [t] gives way to velar[g] and bilabial plosive [b]; cluster of sibilant [s] variations up to line 8; nasal [m] and [n] mix with velar [k] and beats of alveolar [d] and [g] of legacy/ inexorably;

  • The political rather than allegorical Act of Union was part of a historical sequence of events affecting Irish independence. Afterthoughts contains a fuller summary of key dates that may shed light on Heaney’s preoccupations and the themes in North;


Like a Ralegh recalled to London his mission accomplished, this speaker ‘whoever he is’ has retreated still imperially/ Male from the situation ‘he’ has created. His conscience recognises that the allegorical maid of Ireland is left with the trials of delivery and aftermath: the pain of delivery and its effect upon Ulster the rending process in the colony.

The nature of the child-to-be-born will add to the physical pain of delivery: battering ram/ boom burst from within.

‘Union’ has sprouted an obstinate fifth column a nascent entity already in possession of a powerful singularity of intent: growing unilateral.

The omens suggest the inevitability of classical tragedy: the infant’s heart beneath your heart is a wardrum/ Mustering force. The child’s parasitical/ And ignorant little fists, fighting to be released from the womb (that Beat at your borders) are already levelled in defiance and, like a firearm, cocked against the English.

Heaney’s speakerwhoever he is’ can conceive of no political solution to the current troubles that will release Ireland from the scars of violation: its tracked/ And stretchmarked body, the wound of child-birth That leaves you raw, like opened ground. Such has been the repeated fate of Ireland: again.

  • imperial encapsulates at once: servant ‘of an empress’ (Elizabeth I in this case); ‘having a commanding presence’ and ‘part of an empire building process’; colony: a possession of empire; rend: from O.E, tear, cut, break; boom: the onomatopoeia of ‘explosion’ builds into a sense of suddenness; mustering offers both the idea of ‘showing’ (via French verb ‘montrer’) and its later sense of ‘gathering troops’; cocked: at once the defiant, derisive gesture of ‘cock a snook’ and the action that releases the trigger for firing an archaic firearm; salve: from O.E. ‘a healing ointment’, so ‘heal; track: its earliest meaning referred to the marks left by some occurrence; stretchmarks are sometimes evident on the abdomen of women after giving birth; parasitical: foetuses are of course live off the mother-womb; fifth column: an apparently trustworthy group actually working for the enemy;

  • sonnet; volta in line 11: the long dark tunnel ahead;

  • lines of variable length; no rhyme scheme bar the final couplet; 12 chains of assonant vowel sounds are traced in colour:

And I am still imperially
Male, leaving you with pain,
The rending process in the colony,
The battering ram, the boom burst from within.
The act sprouted an obstinate fifth column
Whose stance is growing unilateral.
His heart beneath your heart is a wardrum
Mustering force. His parasitical
And ignorant little fists already
Beat at your borders and I know they’re cocked
At me across the water. No treaty
I foresee will salve completely your tracked
And stretchmarked body, the big pain
That leaves you raw, like opened ground, again.

  • [ei][i:][ɪ]  [ɒ][æ] [u][ʌ][əʊ][au] [ɔː] [ɑː] [e]

  • Alliterative effects in verse (1): initial nasal [m] bilabial [p] and alveolar [l], bilabial boom burst in combination; in (2) and (3) strong alveolar plosive [t] and later nasal [m] of wardrum/ Mustering; (4) and (5) (beyond sibilant foresee will salve) pair alveolar [t] and velar [k].

  • referred to somewhat flippantly by Heaney as the ‘pregnancy poem’;a pessimistic view of Irish outcomes (NC); an allegory of sexual congress (NC78); a 1975 poem insisting on the apparent endlessness of political suffering in Irish history (NC78); postscript: Heaney did not envidage changes leading to the Good Friday Agreement.