Senior Infants

A short sequence in poetry and prose recalling characters from Primary schooldays (before the age of reason) … a poet and his contemporaries, once infants now of senior age, and the different life-styles they were exposed to.

  1. The Sally Rod

 Heaney bumps into a Primary school class-mate in the street, larger than life, grown senior, jovial, affectionate.

A particular memory floods back, exaggerated by time – of physical punishment suffered once upon a winter’s day (a reworked standard fairy-tale opening ‘Once upon a time…’ from  the lost domain of childhood).

A primary school teacher Miss Walls, out of control  (lost her head) administering frenzied physical punishment (cut the legs off us) in retribution for no more than a laddish ‘crime’ (dirty talk we didn’t think she’d hear).

 The reunion of the two men grown elderly is warm: Duffy with his stick in the air and two wide open arms. What is etched on his memory and recounted with some pride is the willow stick with which the ‘wicked boys’ were beaten: ‘For Jesus’ sake! Do you mind the sally rod?

  • Granard: town in the north of Co. Longford in the Irish  Republic;
  • Senior Infants: the top classes just before transfer to Secondary, a time when innocence is being lost and unsavoury comments (dirty talk) develops (amongst boys in particular);
  • cut: whip with a stick;
  • mind: Ulster usage, ‘remember’;
  • sally rod: a long, thin wooden stick, generally of willow (Latin: salix), and used in Ireland as a means of discipline before corporal punishment became illegal;
  • lose one’s head: lose self-control;
  • cut: thrash to the point of injury;
  • 9 lines based on 10/11 syllables; first sentence totally enjambed; the second in the form of a question;
  • assonants: [i:] street/ reason/ Senior later she’d hear; echoing [ɪ] in/ in Infants/ winter’s/ Miss alongside sibilant [s] once/ winter’s/ Miss Walls, then [ʌ] cut/ us;
  • subtle use of preposition ‘coming at potentially threatening until identity is established; unsteadiness ; ultimately body language interpreted: stick/ two wide open arms;
  • [ai] wide/ mind;
  • In ‘Senior Infants’, when a schoolmate is encountered after many decades, now walking with a stick, it is the physical memory of another, chastising stick which unites the two men. The Northern Irish ‘mind’ (for remember) is perfectly judged, and anything but casual. Childhood, Heaney makes us feel, is something lodged in the body’s memory as well as that of the remembering mind. Peter McDonald in The Literary Review
  1. A Chow

In a different place Heaney recalls a different youngster with a different approach to life. He gives in to an ‘illicit’ temptation and suffers the consequences.

Memory is prompted by scratched initials still evident in the sandstone of Anahorish bridge. Heaney knew them freshly carved by Robert Donnelly. The story is told as if it were happening (beside me).

The boy, on an errand for his father, offers him an illicit chew (‘chow’) of tobacco. Heaney clearly remembers the tobacco’s textures (Warhorse Plug – bog-bank brown, embossed) and his ‘sinful’ involvement with forbidden man-fruit.

 He accepts the ‘dare’ and lives to regret the unbearable heat it generates (the roof of my mouth is thatch set fire to), impossible to alleviate: I want to lick/ Bran from a bucket, grit off the coping stone.

The street-wise boy offers the wisdom of experience: ‘a chow’s no good unless you spit like hell’, before demonstrating what he means, first opening the lips (his ginger calf’s lick) to reveal the tobacco-coloured contents of his mouth (a scorch of flame) then ejecting a vivid spit of liquid:  his quid-squirt fulgent.

  • chow: a piece to chew;
  • scratch: inscribe;
  • coping: the top course of masonry on a wall or parapet;
  • dulse: in fact an edible seaweed, corresponding to the reddish colour of the wrapping;
  • plug: a form of loose leaf tobacco made into a solid cake and consumed by placing a portion of the tobacco between the cheek and gum or teeth and chewing it to release nicotine Unwanted juices are then expectorated (spat out); it was sold in packets weighing an ounce (a pre-decimal unit of approximately 30 grams);
  • embossed: its design visible in relief;
  • ounce: pre-metric unit of weight (28 gr) routinely used in Great Britain before 1973;
  • bran: grain husks;
  • grit: particles of stone or dand
  • thatch: a roof made of straw or reeds;
  • quid: alternative name for a chow;
  • fulgent: vivid, intense;

 

  • sonnet form with one broken line; lines between 10 and 12 syllables; no rhyme scheme; varied use of punctuation and enjambment provides a variable rhythm for oral delivery
  • the title’s [au] of chow resounds through the piece: ounce/ brown/ mouth/  -out/ chow; the first 2 couplets are also flavoured by the variant sounds of the vowel [o];
  • the middle section combines assonant [ʌ] and [ɪ]: stuff, stripping/ dulse-thin/ unwrapped/ plug/ forbidden before adding alliterative bi-labial plosive [b] of Bog-bank brown, embossed/ forbidden/ buy and a cluster of [t] sounds;
  • Heaney throws in the Old Testament reference to ’Original Sin’ and ‘forbidden fruit’ (that Adam and Eve consumed against the will of God and led to their expulsion from the Garden of Eden); the youngster’s conscience gives him a guilt-feeling: chewing tobacco was for men, not boys;
  • The 3 lines following the volta revel in the after effects of experimentation, above all the unbearably hot after-taste echoed in the [ɪ] sounds of lick/ grit/ spit;
  • the final 3 detail the unsavoury spit itself: still hot in taste and colour: ginger/ scorch/ flame; a short-lasting, shiny, viscous almost heraldic expectoration: quid-spurt fulgent.;     
  • The Homepage of Anahorish Preserves claims as follows: “For over 6 generations the Gribbin Family have lived, farmed and produced food in a place called Anahorish. The name is derived from the Irish Anach Fhior Uisce which means Place/Hill of Clear Water or Place/Hill of Excellent Water. Nobel Prize Winning Poet Seamus Heaney () was born on a farm called Mossbawn in the next Townland of Tamniarn.  Seamus spent much of his early childhood in Anahorish and he attended Anahorish Primary School”.
  1. One Christmas Day in the Morning.

The sectarian backgrounds of classmates at primary school were of little interest to Heaney, from a tolerant, catholic household. The resulting ‘innocence’ on that score leads to an unguarded moment that makes him think again.

A prose-poem describing how the speaker is suddenly aware that his conversation is too loose, that he should have taken account of the company and known better. It makes for a compelling piece of psychological drama even a screenplay using ‘flashback’ akin to A Constable Calls in North.

The sight of Tommy Evans, another schoolboy from the past, recalls an incident that occurred whilst Heaney was having a Christmas Day drink years later in a pub at Castledawson at the height of the Troubles.

The build-up: Heaney is feeling elated (free as a bird), a catholic at large in Protestant airspace. Christmas bonhomie prevails and routine banter between people in groups.

The first hints of sectarian tensions arise, however, when  Heaney reveals in unguarded conversation (blabbing) that he is a Catholic, is wary of guns and did not have  parents who gave them to children as Christmas presents.

His personal opinions bring about a change of atmosphere and a pivotal moment when Tommy’s eye upon me narrowed.

Heaney takes refuge in flash-back memories of playing at Tommy’s house  with Tommy toting an airgun with which he drilled the pair of us left-right (‘drill’ can mean both ‘shoot’ and ‘practise marching’)!

Other paramilitary hints surface, perhaps unrecognised by Heaney until this moment: a chicken coop in shape of a sentry-box and Tommy’s target, the chrome lid of a bicycle bell.

Heaney gulps …  boys in Ireland such as Tommy might easily have grown up to engage in paramilitary action – the sound memory of ricocheting pellets in a back-garden acts as a wake-up-call:  little zings fairly brought me to my senses.

  • Troubles: period of sectarian and political violence in Ulster pitting Protestant unionist against Catholic republican that started in the 1960s, came to head in the 70’s and was only brought to an end by the Good Friday Agreement of 1998;
  • at large; free (connotations of escaped animals uncaptured)
  • balk: hesitate, draw the line at;
  • fence: both surround with a barrier as one of their (Protestant) own; also engage in banter, fence with one another in speech
  • blab: talk foolishly, indiscreetly
  • prove a point: find an example that justifies what one is saying;
  • narrow: almost close to focus on some hidden issue;
  • broken: its barrel hinged open as a safety precaution where it meets the stock;
  • stock: the shoulder end of a rifle;
  • pellet: small shot used in an airgun;
  • aperture: opening, space;
  • snick: sharp click;
  • sights: device on a firearm via which the shooter can direct his aim;
  • drill: subject to military training (also informally to shoot )
  • left-right: military commands so that everyone marches in step
  • sentry: watchman
  • gable: upper wall at the end of a pitched roof;
  • tongue-and-groove: planking with interlocking notches and hollows;
  • ply: stretch;
  • tack: fix with small nails;
  • hinge: a moveable metal mechanism for opening and shutting
  • tip of the apex: uppermost part;
  • chrome: shiny metal finish on fittings; e.g. bicycle bell
  • zing: ringing sound made by a ricochet;
  • come to one’s senses: start thinking in a more mature fashion;

 

  • the nature of the incident and the tension it caused emanated from sectarian sensitivities within Irish communities during the period when those with extremist views formed or joined militias and took up arms. During the so-called ‘Troubles’ there were countless incidents of violence and murder between Catholic ‘republicans’ and Protestant ‘loyalists’. The wisest thing, as Heaney’s own father had intimated, was to keep your Catholic mouth shut in public for fear of causing offence with its subsequent potential for reprisal; the so-called Troubles began in the late 1960s and, beyond constant sectarian tension, erupted particularly viciously from time to time;
  • Heaney was only too aware of being part of the Catholic minority in Protestant dominated Ulster; he later commented to the effect that after the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 he was able as a Catholic to walk the streets of Ulster carrying a green passport (that of the Irish Republic) and publish his poetry without looking constantly over his shoulder;
  • irony: the situation described is totally at odds with a title that echoes a Christmas carol of goodwill;
  • despite his choice of prose, Heaney loses nothing of the poet in himself: deliberate groups of assonant sounds, for example, the [ai] of the first and fourth paragraphs, the [ɪ] sounds of para 4 and clusters of alliterative consonants, for example  alveolar plosive [t] in the final para;.
  • 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: fifteen 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, soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies; this is sonic engineering of the first order;
  • for example, the final lines of A Chow bring together  nasals [m] [n] alveolar plosives [t] [d] and front-of-mouth sounds: bi-labial plosives [p] [b], labio-dental fricatives [f] [v], continuant [w] and aspirant [h] alongside velar plosives [k] [g] and sibilant variants [s] [sh] [z];
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;