The Early Purges

The title is borrowed from totalitarian politics where ‘purges’ removed elements deemed ‘undesirable’ by those in power. Heaney applies it to the cruel realities of farm-yard life as he experienced them as a six-year-old. A youngster’s innate feelings are challenged.

The boy has a conscience and sympathies but (as Heaney, perhaps, later in the Troubles) is never an active contributor to violence;

Dan Taggart, in life a modest farmhand who did as he was told, is portrayed as the ruthless agent of totalitarian policy, despatching ‘pests, in this case drowning kittens. Insulting his victims beforehand as ‘scraggy wee shits’ somehow helps Taggart to justify his acts.

The young watcher’s compassion is aroused by the sounds of their clawing attempts to survive (frail metal sound), the last throes of panic (Soft paws scraping like mad) and the ease with which life could be snuffed out: a tiny din … soon soused.  

The ideologue claims the kittens are better off dead; the boy, however, has clear misgivings, preoccupied with the waterlogged corpses (Like wet sponges, they bobbed and shone) and the humiliating disposal: he sluiced/ Them out on the dunghill, glossy and dead.

Scared yet mesmerised, the youngster could not readily forget what he had witnessed, returning to follow the process of decay: sogged remains/ Turn mealy and crisp as old summer dung. He might have forgotten this single episode of inhumanity were it not for the routine acts of the farmyard executioner (trapped … snared … shot … pulled necks).

However, whatever his initial misgivings the farmer’s son comes to accept the farmyard attitude (still), acknowledging that reality creates necessity (living displaces false sentiments), that unregimented reproduction leaves too many mouths to feed: shrill pups are prodded to drown.

The boy opts to go with the flow: (I just shrug) adding insult to injury and mimicking his early ‘mentor’ (‘Bloody pups’) to salve any conscience: It makes sense.

Those ‘early’ farmyard attitudes have been replaced at this stage in Heaney’s life by post-graduate contacts and middle-class Belfast dinner tables where libertarian opinions are expressed: ‘Prevention of cruelty’ talk cuts ice in town. The poet, however, is ready to argue the rural Ulster corner: on well-run farms pests have to be kept down.

  • purge: abrupt, violent removal;
  • pitch: throw casually;
  • scraggy: skinny, all skin and bone;
  • wee: (chiefly Irish and Scottish) small; shits: term of abuse;
  • frail: weak;
  • like mad: with panicking intensity;
  • din: loud, unpleasant noise;
  • souse: drench with a liquid; drown out;
  • snout: resembling the nose and mouth of an animal;
  • pump: mechanical device for raising water; activate the lever arm of the pump;
  • bobbing: moving up and down in quick succession;
  • sluice: throw out the contents;
  • dunghill: farmyard heap of animal dung;
  • glossy: shiny and smooth;
  • hung round: waited seemingly without purpose;
  • sogged: waterlogged;
  • remains: lifeless bodies;
  • mealy: pale and covered with granules;
  • crisp: brittle (state of rigor mortis);
  • trap: catch in a trap;
  • snare: catch in a noose of wire;
  • sickening: causing a feeling of nausea;
  • tug: pull suddenly and hard;
  • living: experience of life;
  • displaces: replaces with an alternative way of thinking;
  • shrill: high-pitched, piercing;
  • prod: poke (with hand/ foot/ stick);
  • shrug: express doubt with your shoulders;
  • cuts ice: is persuasive, has credence;
  • pests: things that get in the way;
  • kept down: got rid of, be removed;
  • the poem makes it clear that the realities of farming involve ‘heartless’ acts;
  • a 6-year-old learns the lessons of successful countryman-ship by condoning cruelty; a youngster steels himself to the real world;
  • MP describes events as a ‘fall from innocence into experience’(p.65); ‘a child’s initiation into fear’ (ibid p.66);
  • MP confirms ‘ironic allusions to post- WWII Stalinist purges’ (p.67);
  • 7 triplets with decasyllabic lines; the general rhyme pattern is based on 1st and 3rd lines of each stanza;
  • Dan’s power to kill and discard is brought out in strong participles: pitched … slung … sluiced; the animals differ in their death throes: cats frail … soft; dogs shrill
  • an example of dynamics: the syntax of v3 throws the key word to the end, offering a momentary pause in delivery;
  • alliteration: velar plosive[t] and sibilants [s/sh] in tandem: pitched/scraggy/ shits; sibilant [s] in number: soft paws/ scraping/ soused/ slung/ snout; voiced velar plosive [g] repeats the knell-like sound of a bell: dunghill/ glossy/ hung/ sogged/ dung;
  • assonant effects: [ʌ] pump/ pumped; bobbed and shone; [ɒ] bobbed/ sogged; [ʌ] tugged/ pulled;
  • neologism: sog (Heaney creates a verb and its past participle from a dialect word meaning ‘swamp’);
  • oxymoron (the juxtaposition of contradictory or incongruous terms, understood as a paradox): tiny din;
  • simile: like wet gloves with its evocation of the colour and viscous texture of moisture in leather;
  • the kittens are frail: soused (a portmanteau of ‘swamped’ of ‘dowsed); the puppies stronger have to be prodded to drown;
  • Irish speaker give-away: Sure isn’t it better Irishism that inverts the word order;
  • use of direct speech gives mouth to the propaganda ultimately adopted as the norm by the youngster involved;
  • Pests: no difference drawn between wild and domestic; all non-productive creatures qualify for extermination at the hands of the uncompromising farm-yard executioner;


  • 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: twelve 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, weaves together a cluster of plosives (bilabial [p] [b], alveolar [t][d], velar [k] [g]) alongside sibilant [s] 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


One thought on “The Early Purges

  1. Dan Taggart was a simple person living a simple life making a simple living as a farm labourer. They did what they needed to survive at that time.

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