Ocean’s Love to Ireland

Heaney summarises the sequence of 3 short poems and the two that follow in a response to DOD (p 169): an allegory involving the Elizabethan armies entering Gaelic Ulster (Smerwick below is in fact in Munster) and the ground being possessed by the planters – the whole ‘Aisling’ scenario – England being the male conqueror, Ireland the ruined maid and wee ‘no surrender’ Ulster being the product of the union … The ‘speaker in the poem’, whoever he is, is deeply aware of his implication in being ‘imperially’ male. The poems plot a crucial moment in political history pointing to the desolation that will be the outcome for Ireland;

The title requires a preposition. Heaney’s unexpected choice of to suggests an insincere, distant, impersonal expression of affection; certainly Ralegh demonstrated ‘love’ neither for nor of Ireland; his acts were those of an ‘imperialist’.


Heaney’s description of the invasion and occupation of Ireland by the Elizabethans is presented as an act of rape.

Betraying his unmistakeable Plymouth origins (Speaking broad Devonshire) the unscrupulous Ralegh imposes his sexual will upon a maid symbolic of Ireland, backing her to a tree and violating her As Ireland is backed to England.

The imagery is a deliberate mixture of military strategy and carnality: Ralegh drives inland/ Till all her strands are breathless.

The maid’s audible responses (drawn directly from the incident described in Aubrey’s Brief Lives) mimic both the rhythm of the sexual act itself and its effect upon the maid as her protestations turn to gasps: ‘Sweesir, Swatter! Sweesir, Swatter!

Ralegh’s principle reputation as a sailor provides the metaphor: he is water/ ocean, his readjustment of the maid’s clothing is as unstoppable as the rising tide: Her farthingale like a scarf of weed lifting/ In the front of a wave.

  • Sir Walter Ralegh (1552-1618): English ‘hero’ and supposed ‘lover’ of Elizabeth I; an anti-Catholic who advised on Irish matters and managed Irish estates. He became infamous when implicated in the slaughter of six hundred Catholic Italian soldiers after their honourable surrender at the siege of Smerwick (1580). The failure of this and subsequent rebellions were hugely damaging to Irish history, leading to plantations, colonisation, poverty and disease;

  • strand: OE word for ‘beach’,’shore’, ‘edge’; the verb has connotations of ‘leave helpless’; also ‘fibre’ of human tissue used as a metaphor for courage;

  • farthingale: hooped skirt worn in Elizabethan times;

  • 3 triplets without rhyme scheme; variable line length; 2 sentence structure; 4 lines enjambed;

  • Sweesir: shortened version of subservient pleading ‘Sweet sir’

  • Swatter: Gunnar Fritzsche solves the riddle: this is the maid’s panting version of ‘Sir Walter’;

  • recurring assonant sounds:[ai] Ireland/ -shire; [i:] speaking/ tree later weed; [æ] Ralegh/ backed/ As/ backed/ strands; [e] Devon-/ breathless;[ɑː] farthingale/ scarf [ɪ] is/ inland/ lifting/ lifting/ in; initial string of sibilants after Ocean’s alongside alveolar plosive [d]; major cluster of onomatopoeic sibilants and bilabial [w]; final group of labio-dental fricatives [f];

  • Vocabulary of the sea: strands/ water/ ocean/ weed/ wave;

  • Vocabulary of sexual innuendo;


Yet wags its ‘nota bene’ finger: Ralegh has invaded in the name of his English queen: the superb crest (he is both military giant with metaphorical crested helmet and represented as water, the ‘ crest of the wave’) inclines to Cynthia. His ruthless pursuit of his political mission, his bent/ In the rivers of Lee and Blackwater confirms that he seeks no personal relationship with Ireland.

Heaney parodies Ralegh’s gallant gesture to Elizabeth I (said to have placed his cape on the ground before her to save her from wetting her feet): Ralegh’s military dominance has placed rainy Ireland within Elizabeth I’s dominion: the plashy spots where he would lay/ His cape before her.

If Ralegh’s name will rise on water (that is, if he ‘walks on water’/ can do nothing wrong) in a doting London, his reputation on Irish soil is besmirched by dark seepings: the Smerwick site of the massacre of Irish, Spanish and Italian Catholics by English troops in 1580 has, buried beneath its surface (Smerwick sowed), the decapitated heads of its victims: mouthing corpses of six hundred papists.

Heaney throws in the anti-catholic insult of ‘papist’ quoting a comment attributed to Lord Grey of Wilton whose callously indifferent mockery of the defeated exacerbates the notoriety of the event.

  • Cynthia: loved-one in a Ralegh poem, generally assumed to be Elizabeth I, to whom his loyalties were devoted;

  • inclines serves a triple purpose: a sea-wave rises to its maximum height before tipping over and in that sense ‘inclining’, bowing its; then queen’s courtiers bow (incline) their heads in deference to her; Ralegh was said to be ‘keen’ on the queen (an emotional inclination);

  • Lee, Blackwater: rivers in the Irish Republic (Munster);

  • Smerwick: Munster site of the massacre that took place during the Second Desmond Rebellion (1579-1583);
  • bent: the verbal meaning “directed in a course”; a secondary meaning “determined to pursue a particular course of action” is from 1690s;

  • plashy: word with a pleasant ring about it; associated with ‘splash’ and used to describe an attractive feature of landscape;

  • seepings: contrasting feel; maintaining the water imagery Heaney selects a word that has an ‘oozing unpleasantness’ about it;

  • papists: Heaney uses the term adopted by 20th c. Northern Irish protestant zealots to describe Catholics and intended as an insult;

  • as gallant and good / Personages as ever were beheld’: supposedly Lord Grey of Wilton’s remarks when is he saw the bodies of the 600 slain prisoners “stripped and laid out upon the sands.” (Pope-Hennessy, John. Sir Walter Raleigh in Ireland). Grey commanded the English troops;

  • 3 triplets; no rhyme scheme; lines generally of 9/10 syllables;

  • 3 sentence structure; 6 lines of the 9 are enjambed;

  • Assonant effects achieved via [e] Yet/ crest/ bent later ever/ beheld; [ɪ] inclines/ it/ Cynthia/ in rivers later six/ papists; [ei] while/ rise [i:] Even/ Lee/ these/ seepings; [ei] lay/ cape/ name/papists: the final stanza employs 5 variants of vowel (o) sounds: sowed/ mouthing corpses/ of/ good;

  • consonant sounds are added: clusters of sibilant [s] prevail; alveolar [r] trill in (1); velar [k] in (2); (3) interlaces [s] with bilabial [p] and alveolar plosive [g];


Heaney regrets that in the sixteenth century (and by allegorical extension the twentieth) the muteness of poetic voices condoned the impoverishing effect of occupation by English speakers on Ireland and its language. He rues a passage of history when Catholic Spain’s ambitions might if successful have improved Ireland’s fate.

Ralegh’s ignoble act of rape made a ruined maid of Ireland, her voice effectively unheard because she complains in Irish. His acts deprived Ireland of ‘marriage’ and betterment at the hands of others, putting an end to dreams of fleets, sending a potential if ineffective suitor packing: The Spanish prince has spilled his gold/ and failed her.

The dominant poetic voices in Ireland were the Iambic drums of English that beat the woods, the Irish language gradually disappearing from a landscape in which her poets/ Sink like Onan.

The non-existant voice of protestation was replaced by bland expressions limited to Irish textures, Rush-light, mushroom flesh; the wronged maid unavenged fades from their somnolent clasp reduced to an image of ringlet breath and dew. Heaney deplores capitulation: Irish ground possessed and repossessed.

  • ringlet: a small ( diminutive -let) curled lock of hair;

  • iambic: iamb – a metric foot of one unaccented followed by one accented syllable; used here as a metonym for English poetry;

  • dreams of fleets: reference to the period of the Spanish Armada is evident enough; in fact anti-Catholic Ralegh himself played no part in the naval battles led by Howard of Effingham that thwarted Catholic Spanish king Philip II’s plans to invade Britain. Catholic Ireland would certainly have benefitted from the latter’s victory over the English;

  • Onan: Old Testament figure given the task by Yahweh (the Hebrew ‘Lord’) of inseminating his dead brother’s wife to provide an heir and maintain the family line. He failed in the task because he withdrew before ejaculation. He is associated here with ineffectiveness.

  • 3 quatrains in 2 sentences; lines based on 9 syllables; no rhyme scheme;

  • assonant sound effects [ei] maid complains/ failed/ fades;ʊOcean/ gold/ poets/ Onan [i:] dream of fleets/ beat [ɪ] ruined/ spilled his/ Iambic/ sink/ ringlet; [ai] Irish/Iambic [ɒ] from/ somnolent/ possessed/ repossessed; distant echo ruined/ dew;

  • alliterative ingredients: sibilant variants [z] complains/his; [s] scattered/ fleets/ prince/ Spanish/ spilled through to repossessed; [ʃ]Irish/ Ocean/ Spanish / English/ mushroom; pulses of bilabial plosives [p] [b] and alveolar [t] [d];

  • The poems fall under the heading of politico-sexual allegories filled with civilised or barbarous irony (NC77);

  • The debilitations brought about by invasion are clearly demonstrated and expressed in language terms. The irony is, of course, that English is Heaney’s medium;