The Nod

A slight inclination of the head, ostensibly one of unspoken recognition, is not always what it seems.
Routine shopping for Sunday lunch with his father: people spent Saturday evening with similar priorities: We would stand in line in the butcher’s shop. Heaney recalls the vivid colours: red for the meat, white string and standard brown-paper straight-ripped for packaging.

The transaction is described: Sunday joint and braised shin for the week beyond are unceremoniously plonked down then dressed up in wrappings as smart as evening-wear: bow-tied neat and clean.

The vocabulary turns ominous: words associated with firearms and casualties are introduced: seeping blood. Like dead weight in a sling; rifles have slings; dead bodies are transported in slings.

The boy carried the parcel, the father paid in cash or rather shelled out: a colloquial usage that extends the military metaphor.

Out in the street are uniformed non-civilians, local B-men. They are numerous: thronged; lax in discipline: unbuttoned but on duty; armed; Neighbours with guns; they flaunt their ‘power’, parading up and down.

Doubts surface when the boy notices the ‘nod’, levelled by some of them at my father almost past him (as if deliberately avoiding eye to eye contact). This perceived paranoia could be explained: as a Catholic one never quite knew what the B-men were thinking or how one stood; some avoided shows of warmth between neighbours when in public in case they were being watched; others who volunteered harboured within themselves real prejudice. Their nod is like a weapon: As if deliberately they’d aimed and missed him or they simply forgot on purpose to know him, neighbours, yes, but couldn’t seem to place him, not just then.

  • This disturbing sonnet set in the 1950s of Heaney’s adolescence pursues the themes of suspicion and hidden threat implicit in One Christmas Day, asking just what is it that is being ‘recognised’ when a community is unstable and requires a para-military presence in troubled times and who exactly is one’s ‘neighbour’;
  • The Ulster Special Constabulary (USC; commonly called the “B-Specials” or “B Men”) was a reserve police force in Northern Ireland. It was set up in October 1920, shortly before the founding of Northern Ireland. It was an armed corps, organised partially on military lines and called out in times of emergency, such as war or insurgency. It performed this in the 1950s, during the IRA Border Campaign. The force was almost exclusively Protestant and Unionist and as a result was viewed with great mistrust by Catholics and nationalists who suspected it of carrying out revenge killings and reprisals against Catholics. It was disbanded in May 1970,


  • Sonnet form; lines based on 10 syllables; volta after line 8; no formal rhyme scheme beyond two pairs in the later lines;
  • Three sentences: a location; a process; social ambivalence;
  • assonant effects: the early couplets combine [i:] evenings/ we/ beef  with [ai] line/ white/ bow-tied and [au]  Loudans/ brown/counter/ down; alliterative effects based on variants of [s] particularly [st] stand/ string/ straight/ roast/ shin and so on;
  • [i:]  is added: neat/ clean/ seeping/ been with [e] dead/ Heavier/ expecting/ shelled: alliterative effects: sibilant [s] seeping/ shelled; labio-dental fricative [f] plus vowel [ɑː] far/ father;
  • after line 8 there are pairs or chains of assonant [uː] too/ duty; [ei] parading/ aimed/ place  and [ʌ unbuttoned but/ guns/ up/ couldn’t/ just; echoes of consonant [t] and [b];