In a dark setting unrelieved by any chink of light Heaney pursues the issue of Irish suffering at the hands of the British (the 1845-8 famine conditions were introduced in Potato Digging iii). He describes an incident that upholds the poem’s epigraph and accounts for the burning sense of injustice still felt within the Irish psyche over 150 years later.
The epigraph (drawn from The Great Hunger; Ireland 1845 – 49 by Cecil Woodham-Smith) sets out the visual manifestation of suffering on Irish ground and the absence of compassion further up the chain of command; the most dismissive are the loftiest who hold the whip hand in London. CWS cites Routh Russell, a contemporary provider of reports on the Irish situation. The period is judged to be an indictment of British ‘foreign’ policy, an indictment of a form of ‘imperialism’ in which the better feelings, altruism and compassion of those exposed to Irish hardship are rejected by distant governors.
The initial voice and responses are those of the commander of a British Coast-Guard vessel in the late 1840’s and the poem itself is couched as his written report to his seniors.
His ship’s presence in the bay is routine but the incongruous presence of an Irish rowing-boat unusually far beyond the creek is sufficient to arouse suspicion. The captain’s challenge delivered in Gaelic is enough to halt the craft’s enfeebled progress (weakened) as he seeks the motive for their presence: guilt or bashfulness.
A shocking scene confronts him (O my sweet Christ): six grown men piled in the row-boat displaying all the symptoms of sickness and starvation: gaping mouths … eyes bursting the sockets … six wrecks of bone and pallid tautened skin.
Desperate need of food (bia, bia, bia) is their reason for being there; their appeals for succour are half beseeching, half animal (whines and snarls).The commander has heard of food shortage amongst the population but he and his crew are above it, amply provided for (flour and beef).
He wants the world to know (So understand) that his better feelings and desire to help these poor brutes are superseded by policies dictated by his naval and political masters (no mandate to relieve distress … had to refuse), despite condemning them to certain death (never make it).
The men respond despairingly: they cursed and howled like dogs/ That had been kicked hard in the privates. The commander has made his decision; to rid himself of moral scruples (and to keep in with his masters, of course) he uses their ferocious response (drove at me) as proof of their undeserving natures (violent and without hope), providing grounds for turning his back. Less incidents the better.
Later, however, an unstated whiff of conscience, perhaps, he absolves himself by scrubbing away the memory of the six bad smells, those living skulls, using the Church’s most powerful spiritual cleanser of evil: I exorcised my ship.
The poet’s voice takes over, all the more effective for its measured tone and head-shaking disbelief: crediting Sir James Dombrain for seeking free relief/ For famine victims in the Westport Sector Heaney rejects the British government’s response as dismissive (tart) and unworthy (good Whitehall).
The situation is heavy with irony: new Prime Minister Trevelyan’s view was that heaven helped those who helped themselves: Let natives prosper by their own exertions (impossible for them as Heaney has shown); Who could not swim might go ahead and sink (inevitable from what we have just witnessed).
For distant, absentee masters any relief of Irish hardship dictated by the commander’s zeal, humanity or compassionate nature amounted to extravagance (too lavish).
- emaciated: abnormally thin, weak;
- inconveniently: inappropriately, vexingly (not what they wanted to hear)
- interfered: both ‘intervene without permission’ and ‘poked his nose in’;
- routine: part of regular procedure;
- creek: narrow inlet along the shoreline;
- tack: change course against the wind;
- hail: signal to stop (nautical);
- stroke: movement of the oars;
- pull to: come to a halt (nautical);
- bashful: nervous, timid;
- gaping: wide open;
- sockets: skull cavity containing eyeball;
- drill: row;
- pallid; unhealthily pale;
- taut: stretched, not slack;
- whine: high-pitched animal-like sound;
- snarl: aggressive growl;
- flock: group of birds flying together;
- on board ship;
- keep right: (informal) make sure we are looked after;
- mandate: official order;
- Westport: on the West coast amongst the capes and bays of County Mayo;
- relieve distress: ease suffering;
- make it: survive that long;
- curse: use bad language;
- howl: doleful animal noise;
- privates: testicles;
- starboard: right side (facing forward);
- capsize: overturn in the water;
- hoisted: raised (sail, anchor);
- drift: slow movement in an air current;
- bunks: bed on a boat;
- hatches: small openings in floor or wall;
- exorcise: drive out a supposed evil spirit
- Inspector General Sir James:
- relief: provision
- sector: subdivision;
- tart: sarcastic, dismissive;
- reprimand: expression of disapproval;
- good: worthy (deliberately derogatory);
- exertion: effort;
- lavish: liberal, generous, extravagant;
- 36 mostly decasyllabic lines in a single stanza; several long sentences with enjambed lines; all but the last 7 lines resemble the rather pedantic report of an incident written by a man trained to be short on imagination and long on policy; ungrammatical at one point (Less incidents the better rather than fewer. The final 7 lines have a different voice acerbically relaying known historical facts, some of them quoted;
- two first person narrators: ship’s commander and poet
- some vocabulary in-period: bashfulness (the dignified mixture of embarrassment and shame)/ conjecturing/ mandate;
- the account is bleak; Heaney peppers his narrative with assonant echoes and effects: [ei] hailed/ Gaelic; [ɪ] spring/ drills ;[ɔː] shortage/ board; port/ exorcised/ reporting/ all; [ʌ] skulls/ bunks; [i:] relieve/ relief;
- alliteration: [k] creek/ tacked/ crew/ stroke; voiced and voiceless sibilants in tandem: rising/ capsize/ themselves/ sent; labio-dentals [f] and [v] free relief for famine victims;
- as if to illustrate the convenient prejudice of the Irish as a backward people the rowers are described by the commander as little more than animals: whines/ snarls; the order reversed in their later outburst: cursed/ howled;
- use of simile using like;
- good Whitehall: a scornful put-down;
- an oxymoron doubles as synecdoche, heavy with irony: living skulls recognises the inevitable death of the rowers themselves;
- Heaney is a meticulous craftsman using combinations of vowel and consonant to form a poem that is something to be listened to;
- the music of the poem: fourteen assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text.
- alliterative effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies:
- the first lines, for example, weave together sibilant variants [s] [z] [dʒ] , a cluster of plosives (bilabial [p] [b],alveolar [t][d], velar [k] [g]) alongside continuant [h] and nasals [n] and [m];
- it is well worth teasing out the sound clusters for yourself to admire the poet’s sonic engineering:
- Consonants (with their phonetic symbols) can be classed according to where in the mouth they occur
- Front-of-mouth sounds voiceless bi-labial plosive [p] voiced bi-labial plosive [b]; voiceless labio-dental fricative [f] voiced labio-dental fricative [v]; bi-labial nasal [m]; interlabial continuant [w]
- Behind-the-teeth sounds voiceless alveolar plosive [t] voiced alveolar plosive [d]; voiceless alveolar fricative as in church match [tʃ]; voiced alveolar fricative as in judge age [dʒ]; voiceless dental fricative [θ] as in thin path; voiced dental fricative as in this other [ð]; voiceless alveolar fricative [s] voiced alveolar fricative [z]; continuant [h] alveolar nasal [n] alveolar approximant [l]; alveolar trill [r]; dental ‘y’ [j] as in yet
- Rear-of-mouth sounds voiceless velar plosive [k] voiced velar plosive [g]; voiceless post-alveolar fricative [ʃ] as in ship sure, voiced post- alveolar fricative [ʒ] as in pleasure; palatal nasal [ŋ] as in ring/ ang