Part Two: Station Island – the Sequence

Part 2 traces a ‘pilgrim’s progress’; Heaney composes a sequence of 12 poems under a chosen topological heading. At least twenty five years separate his original experiences on Station Island and the moment at which he chooses the location to draw together the different strands. Much water has passed beneath Heaney’s emotional, ethical, aesthetic and spiritual bridges in the interim. The older poet and his younger self face a selection of ‘ghosts’ who express their opinions or respond to Heaney’s inner conflicts some of which have remained obstinately present despite the passage of time; the ghosts are friendly, sad, self-defining, exemplary, admonitory, rebuking (NC p115). the ghosts are predominantly shades the poet own dream-life who have actually existed in Ireland; […]

Station Island – the Sequence I

The first piece follows the aftermath of a young man’s decision to ‘go with the spiritual flow’ and undertake the pilgrimage. A dissenting voice pressures him in vain to abandon the pilgrimage and urges him to overcome the orthodoxy of his upbringing. The early-morning Sunday sounds that summon folk to worship are sudden and urgent: A hurry of bell notes, taking wing over morning hush. Landscape, climate and time of year are evident in the water-blistered cornfields. The fleeting sounds from the bell tower (an escaped ringing) hint at freedom but are quickly silenced. Nature is in a suspense of anticipation: silence breathed unsettled by the appearance of a countryman, pre-Christian in appearance , carrying a bow-saw, held/ stiffly up like […]

Station Island – the Sequence II

Heaney’s self-scrutiny is pursued in his encounter with the ghost of William Carleton (see below) on the road to Lough Derg. Carleton’s emphasis concerns politics and social turbulence. Pausing on the journey (parked on a high road)and savouring the sights and sounds of nature around him Heaney’s preoccupations are interrupted: something came to life in the driving mirror. The ghost visitor is quickly recognised: by the urgency of his gait; his rural garb (overcoat and boots), his physical characteristics (bareheaded, big), his purposefulness (determined) and his bustling confidence (sure haste along the crown of the road). The ‘man’ generates a knee-jerk response from the challenged poet: I was suddenly out of the car. He comes face-to-face with this aggravated figure […]

Station Island – the Sequence III

The pilgrim has gone to one of Station Island’s ‘beds’. His initial humble posture (I knelt)is followed by a pause: Hiatus.. This is not prayer but rather obedience of the protocols of the pilgrimage, a ‘pervasive element’ from Heaney’s Catholic upbringing. The mindset (Habit’s afterlife) has transported him back to bead clicks and the murmurs/ from inside confessionals. Textures and odours have invaded his sense-memory: the invasiveness of waning candles insinuating slight/ intimate smells of wax at body heat. Expectancy (an active wind-stilled hush) and a marine association (the sea-shell held to the ear in which the jugular hiss of blood-flow resembles that of the sea) seem to herald a magic happening: the ocean stopped … a tide rested and […]

Station Island – the Sequence IV

Heaney encounters the ghost of Terry Keenan whom he knew from childhood and who became a missionary father in the tropical rain forests. The certainty of Keenan’s religious convictions conflicts with Heaney’s lapsing/ lapsed status (the pilgrim stands with his backto the religious icons at the outset of the poem). The piece reflects upon religious certainty and the status of the priesthood in Irish society. The irony is that Keenan’s vocation led indirectly to his death. The pilgrim stands hesitantly in the centre one of Station Island’s penitential ‘beds’ my back to the stone pillar and the iron cross. He ispoised to go through the motions of penitential routine: ready to say the dream words (imagined rather than real)I renounce […]

Station Island – the Sequence V

  The poet encounters three figures who have influenced his personal development. The first is with an old man finding forward momentum difficult: his hands, like soft paws rowing, who groped for and warded off the air ahead. He is identified first by name and then by schoolmaster status: Barney … Master. Murphy’s debilitated shuffle and weakened voice are shadows of his former self: bulling in sudden rage all over again. Respectfully Heaney fell in behind, knowing his place, a lesser mortal, like a man lifting swathes at a mower’s heels. Murphy’s sockless feet are reminiscent of Nature exhibits in the Primary classroom where he worked: the dried broad bean that split its stitches in the display jar. The pilgrim’s polite opening […]

Station Island – the Sequence VI

The pilgrim achieves sexual freedom. The happening is presented as a real event and not just the fantasy of a young Catholic adolescent male indulging in a brazen carnal act on a hallowed site. The poem’s third sonnet sets out the sexually frustrated adolescence that preceded it. Twenty-five years before Heaney encountered a girl without a name, a child of earth, her features and nature still etched in his sense- memory: the sunlit pigmentation on her skin (Freckle-face); her instinct-driven head of auburn colouring (fox-head); the texture and feel of her akin to pod of the broom; a fairy-like tree-spirit (catkin pixie); the gentle sound of her thighs as she walked: little fern swish. She turned up as if in […]

Station Island – the Sequence VII

The pilgrim has walked down to the water-line and felt soothed by just looking at it. The clear barometer of the water has brought relief from the issues that trouble him. There he sensed a presence un-reflected in the water (because a ghost has no mass to reflect). Hearing the sound of his name was unexpected: entering into my concentration/ on not being concentrated when he spoke; his reluctance to face the caller stems from his recognition of the man’s voice and recollection of his fate. The shock … at what I saw is etched on his memory: the victim’s face is as it was after his murder: his brow … blown open above the eye and blood. Strathearn seeks […]

Station Island – the Sequence VIII

If the aim of his Lough Derg pilgrimage was for Heaney to chastise his soul then he is not about to spare himself. The mood has changed: the soothing clear water of VII is replaced by the growing turbulence of some Wagnerian overture. The whole scene is chiaroscuro – gathering storm – black water … granite airy space above, white waves … furrows snowcapped at lake level in a strengthening wind. A black and white omen of both good and evil (magpie) struggles (staggers) to cope with the conditions, preparing the way for two black-and-white revenant figures, both dead, who will present themselves to the pilgrim. Lost in thought (staring) in the centre of the kneeling ‘station’ (hard mouth of […]

Station Island – the Sequence IX

The five sonnet sequence recalls a very troubled, wakeful night during Heaney’s pilgrimage to Lough Derg around 1960. Poetic licence entitles Heaney to introduce the shade of an IRA hunger striker (said to be a composite of Francis Hughes and Thomas McElwee who operated out of the Bellaghy area during the Troubles and eventually starved themselves to death  in 1981 for the cause) held prisoner in the Maze prison and fasting very publicly to achieve prisoner-of-war status. The hunger-striker’s ghostly presence sets off a train of reactions that amount to a confession that Heaney’s reluctance to use his public voice has placed him in a less than honourable position and calls for a change of direction. A hunger striker’s voice […]

Station Island – the Sequence X

  During Morning stir in the hostel on Station Island the ‘ghost’ of a drinking-mug drifts into the pilgrim’s sight. The communal cooking-area is primitive: pot/ hooked on forged links. Soot flakes. Plumping water … open door … hearthsmoke rambling. The heavy thuds of clay utensils take him back in time: a familiar object materialises (the mug). It is beyond his physical reach but clearly recognisable via the motif repeated around it: patterned in cornflower. It has survived across many years as a silent witness, quiet as a milestone It might beaged perhaps (old and glazed and haircracked) but it is still intact in its patient sheen and turbulent atoms. It isa passive, long-neglected household god: unchallenging, unremembered lars that […]

Station Island – the Sequence XI

A poem celebrating the retrieval and the re-energising of the self showcases Heaney’s huge talent for translation in his version of a mystical 16th century poem by San Juan de la Cruz. It suggests that everything can be explained without the necessity of God being present. The piece begins with the As if repeated three times in the final sonnet of canto IX. The poet dares imagine that his latent aspirations and talents, his prisms of the kaleidoscope once clouded by obstacles imposed on his formative years have emerged with astonishing potential: like a marvellous lightship. The ghostly face appears of a monk who once confessed Heaney frombehind a grille. The confessor’s lecture to a doubting, nay, lapsed soul is […]

Station Island – the Sequence XII

The returning pilgrim is setting foot on the mainland still filled with the memories and echoes of his three-day pilgrimage and still beset by the host of personal questions and doubts that have remained unanswered. The ghost he meets will tell Heaney in no uncertain terms that his anxieties serve no purpose. Clues from the text reveal this final ghost to be that of James Joyce, confirmed by Heaney in his notes. Drained by his experience and stepping ashore Like a convalescent from the Station Island ferry the returning pilgrim accepted a helping hand and sensed again/ an alien comfort. The stranger’s fish-cold and bony grip does not release his hand but whether to guide/ or to be guided is […]