Part II

In a 1973 conversation, Heaney said that the ideas behind Hercules and Antaeus led to Part II which was ‘an attempt at some kind of declarative voice’; In a 1975 article Heaney referred to ‘a need to be explicit about the pressures and prejudices watermarked into the psyche of anyone born and bred in Northern Ireland’; The language becomes more conversational, less poetically charged (MP p 144) The Unacknowledged Legislator’s Dream Whatever You Say Say Nothing Freedman Singing School 1 The Ministry of Fear 2 A Constable Calls 3 Orange Drums 4 Summer 1969 5 Fosterage 6 Exposure

The Unacknowledged Legislator’s Dream

In dialogue with DOD (p 181) Heaney had the following to say about his prose-poem: It’s a free-floating invention, that one. I remember writing it in a café in Bray as I waited for my Volkswagen Beetle to be serviced. It’s a corrective to the more tragic-elegiac scenario in ‘Exposure’… This particular unacknowledged legislator is fit as a fiddle, his spirit blithe, his audience in great fettle … but he happens to be a joke in the eyes of his captor and he’s aware that he has simply become a part of some new political spectator sport Concerned about the relationship between his perceptions of injustice that deserve public comment and his inability to respond adequately, Heaney’s speaker comes to […]

Whatever You Say Say Nothing

A poster put up during the ‘Troubles’, featuring a masked, uniformed paramilitary carrying a sten gun, bore the legend: ‘Loose-talk costs lives In taxis On the phone In clubs and bars At football matches At home with friends Anywhere Whatever you say – say nothing’. Composed of amateurish cut and pasted newspaper headings and snippets it was evidently the work of extremist factions. It was threatening. A society is warned to refrain from unguarded political or religious comments that could cause a violent reaction. Heaney levels his anger against propagandist threats to free speech at a time when the voices of the neutral majority should be raised in protest; equally he deplores the imposition of repressive ‘political’ measures that fly […]


Heaney unites title, epigraph and narrative to signal a transformation that liberated him from previous control: the gift of poetry awakened his dissatisfaction with his Catholic markings of tribe, caste and conditioning( and even, arguably, made him a more ‘useful member of society’). Initial focus illustrates the Catholic sway to which his nature, upbringing and training readily submitted him. He was prepared to live under what he now regards as a form of enslavement: attending Lent services in church(subjugated yearly under arches); ‘signed up’ to a kind of contract: Manumitted by parchments and degrees; indelibly marked by liturgical colouring: My murex was the purple dye of lents; conscious of the symbolism and significance of the festival: on calendars all fast […]

Singing School

A sequence of 6 poems grouped under a title borrowed from WB Yeats’ Sailing to Byzantium: ‘Nor is there singing school but studying/ Monuments of its own magnificence’. The 2 epigraphs compare contrasting roots: the first is from Wordsworth, reflecting on his gentle apolitical, ‘English’, Church-of England childhood; the second from WB Yeats reflecting much more aggressively his ‘politicised’ Irish Protestant childhood; The sequence of 6 poems explores some of the conditioning cultural circumstances of SH’s own biography (NC79); 1 The Ministry of Fear 2 A Constable Calls 3 Orange Drums 4 Summer 1969 5 Fosterage 6 Exposure

1 The Ministry of Fear

dedicated to Seamus Deane. The initial interjection Well announces that Heaney is poised to speak of events from his personal biography: his important places is borrowed from Patrick Kavanagh’s Epic of 1938:important places, times/ When great events were decided. His first ‘monument’ (in the Yeatsian sense) is St Columb’s College in Derry (where billeted as a boarder Heaney lived out his secondary education), situated on its lonely scarp (he transfers the epithet: he was the lonely one!) overlooking the Bogside where Seamus Deane was born. For a first-year secondary-schoolboy from the provinces it provided a vision of new worlds and the poet clearly recalls one landmark: the floodlit dogtrack and the raucous cries of its race-night punters: the inflamed throat […]

2 A Constable Calls

The poem is a tour de force, a simple and hugely atmospheric monument amongst poems that characterize the life of minority Catholics in a dominantly Protestant-ruled province called Northern Ireland and Paddy Heaney’s ultimate refusal to kow-tow with authority. Heaney provides the ingredients of a compelling psychological drama: an atmosphere of threat; an attentive youngster; an interrogation; a father’s lie; a moral dilemma that tests the innocence of the listening child; the threat receding. The ‘poet-film-director’ employs all the zooms, pans and slow-motions of cinematic technique. The boy’s eye is the camera, his ear records the sounds. The first two stanzas follow the child’s curiosity: he examines an anonymous visitor’s bicycle in some detail; (like its rider) it is a […]

3 Orange Drums

Heaney composes the brash cartoon/poster image of a figure prominent in a Protestant Unionist parade. He allows his dislike of the event and what it stands for to leak out. Its central figure is an overpowering caricature: a drummer whose size and posture are complemented by the bulk and weight of his drum. The vocabulary of volume and weight makes him larger-than-life: balloons…belly … weighs … buckles; the sound he produces is bullying to the ear: thunder/ Grossly. He cuts a paradoxical figure his height extended by his heavy instrument: raised up by what he buckles under. His drumstick is a seasoned rod (‘seasoned’ both in the sense of ‘matured’ and used during the marching season). It indicates the pretext […]

4 Summer 1969

Heaney was in Spain when the Ulster riots were happening. His personal discomfort paled into insignificance when compared with the events experienced by the Catholic community under fire in the Falls Road area of Belfast: I was suffering/ Only the bullying sun of Madrid. He was spending part of each day immersed in his research, perspiring in the casserole heat, unable to escape the resultant stinks from the fishmarket/ … like the reek off a flaxdam. Evening would bring gentler sense data: gules of wine/ A sense of children …/ Old women in black shawls near open windows; a feeling of respite above all; The air a canyon rivering in Spanish’ Discussions with visiting friends are conducted on the way […]

5 Fosterage

  For Michael McLaverty Heaney recounts a brief encounter thirteen years earlier with one of Ireland’s finest writers; he selects a quotation from Wallace Stevens in support of his acknowledgement that McLaverty had much to teach him, a modest ‘rookie’ still searching for his poetic voice. A quotation, a time and a place pinpointing a meeting with a benefactor etched on Heaney’s memory. He was 23 and newly cubbed in language. He particularly recalls McLaverty’s intensity when he gripped/ My elbow. McLaverty’s assertive advice is akin to that of the Viking counsellor in North: Go your own way./ Do your own work. Quoting from world literature, McLaverty urges Heaney to be emotive, to sound that note of exile in his […]

6 Exposure

In conversation with Henri Cole as published in The Paris review no 75, Heaney spoke about his move to Wicklow in 1972: ‘… leaving the north didn’t break my heart. The solitude was salubrious. Anxiety, after all, can coexist with determination. The anxiety in a poem like “Exposure” is about whether the work that comes out of this move is going to be in any way adequate. The poem is asking itself, Is there enough here to hold the line against the atrocious thing that is happening up there? And the poet is saying, What am I doing but striking a few little sparks when what the occasion demands is a comet?’ … I suppose the corollary of being battened […]