At Toomebridge

Heaney recounts the exhilaration he experiences on his return to the point where the Lower Bann river exits Lough Neagh and continues its journey northwards to the sea.

Interviewed by Daljit Nagra in March 2001 under the heading ‘Fine Lines’, Heaney defined Toomebridge

as ‘a radiant place with the’ radiant shine’ of first recall – a ‘terrific entrancement for me’ seen from the bridge as I was on the bus – an appropriate poem with which to start the collection; a miniature version of the collection as a whole ‘the poem is doing what the book is about … it pays attention, gives full acknowledgement to the usual, the data, what happens … it allows the shine of your own imagining … or the glow of whatever consciousness is to come out’.

In conversation with DOD (p.135) Heaney stressed the electrifying light effects on his senses: the aura at Toome was phenomenological rather than political. On the bridge, I was more conscious of the strong bright lumen and numen of the Bann river, the big lift of light over Lough Neagh, the wind, the strangeness of crossing wide water – for to me, in those days, the Bann seemed a wide river.

Location is key – Toomebridge (as suggested by repetition of where) is a place that awakened riches in the poet’s mind, soul and spirit.

The scene generates two responses – at once the expanse of flat water across the river and the Lough beyond (it evokes an atavistic return to pre-scientific belief – an edge of the flat earth), and the power of the flow spilling (pouring ) over the eel-fishing weir of the river beneath the bridge.

Heaney interweaves the rules of time and grammar: Bann water flow that sprang in time past far to the south of Lough Neagh is tumbling into a self-repeating now-ness, a continuous present bringing with it a numinous aura (shining).

Historical political and sectarian divisions emerge in the poet’s memory: Toomebridge was the place where the check point used to be, an erstwhile boundary between predominantly Catholic lands to the west and south and the predominantly Protestant areas to the east; also, as the mood music changes, the spot where Roddy McCorley, captured during the 1797 rebellion against the British powers-that-were was hanged in ’98 (celebrated by Ethna Carbery as a martyr for the nationalist cause in a song) …  ‘annotations’ a cautious Heaney might have called his references but distinct reminders to locals of  the Roddy McCorley monument blown up almost certainly by Protestant Ulster Volunteer paramilitaries on Jan1, 1969 prior to a civil rights march through the village and later rebuilt by the Catholic McCorley Trust.

The electric charge-bearing negative ions that release the rich tang of unpolluted air bring benefit to the poet’s body and soul (poetry to me) as does the continued presence of the ‘Eel Works’ straddling the river  … the slime and silver of the fattened eel) recalls Heaney’s visits to Ardboe on Lough Neagh when he was courting Marie in the early 60s, trips with local eel fishermen and the virtues and tastes of a creature he celebrates in poems dotted about his collections.

  • flat: even, calm;
  • flat earth: the archaic conception of Earth’s shape as a plane or disk. Many ancient cultures subscribed to a flat Earth cosmography, including Greece until the classical period;
  • Lough Neagh: large freshwater lake in Northern Ireland, largest by area in the British Isles; main inflows are the Upper River Bann and River Blackwater, and its main outflow is the Lower River Bann which flows into the Atlantic near Portstewart;
  • pour: flow rapidly and steadily;
  • weir: man-made dam changing water levels and regulating water-flow;
  • continuous present: in grammar a tense that combines present tense of the verb of an auxiliary verb e.g. ‘to be’ and present participle; it stresses the continuity of passing time lived;
  • checkpoint: barrier typically at a frontier where security checks are carried out;
  • rebel: a person who rises against the established government of the time;
  • boy: reference to Roddy McCorley hanged on the bridge;
  • ’98: reference to the Irish Rebellion of 1798 against British rule in Ireland; from May to September 1798 instigated by the United Irishmen, a republican revolutionary group influenced by the ideas of the American and French revolutions;
  • negative ions: ions are invisible charged particles in the air – either molecules or atoms, which bear an electric charge. Negative ionsare deemed beneficial for the human body while positive ions are harmful. The highest concentrations of negative ions are to be found inclean’ air;
  • poetry to me: echo of the phrase ‘music to the ears’ something very pleasant/ gratifying to hear;
  • slime: gooey, slippery surface feel;


  • 10 lines in 5 complete sentences; unpunctuated beyond full stops that, alongside varied line length (5-11 syllables) govern rhythm and flow of delivery;
  • unrhymed;
  • specific named locations and characters; repetition of adverb ‘where’;
  • repetition of ‘flat’ to achieve contrast – water is scientifically flat, the earth not;
  • comparison ‘as if’;
  • vocabulary of return to a childhood scene and the poetic charge generated
  • descriptive vocabulary not just of light but texture too – ‘slime and silver’ alliteration
  • generation of curiosity and recall of early Troubleevents within the McCorley story
  • continuous present tense underlines continuous passage of time;
  • a single present tense, the rest recall; early present participles underline continuity
  • vocab contrasting restriction and un-restriction: ‘checkpoint’/ came pouring’;
  • alliteration using paired bilabial plosives [p] [b]- ‘present’/’ Bann’/’- point’/ ‘rebel boy’;
  • the ‘coloured hearing’ and review of alliterative effects below reveal how sounds refresh and invigorate the poem as a song to be heard;
  • 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, 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 4 lines are dominated by alveolar and bi-labial nasals [n] [m]; alveolar [t] and bilabial plosives [b] [p]
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;

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