The poem explore a youngster’s hero-worship of a cow-man from a mysterious Irish Republic background, highly skilled in working with cattle around the farm spending his day off wagering his income. The ‘big country’ landscapes of the title and the country music the cowman croons recall the silver-screen relationship that grew between boy Joey Starrett and cowboy Shane in the 1953 western film .‘Shane’ was set in Wyoming, USA; Dologhan has ‘worked in Montana’, a neighbouring State. The poem is set in the early 1940s.
Heaney deploys a series of cinematic effects … ‘Lights…Camera … action …’
Take 1: set in an Ulster farmyard with its characteristic double-panel stable doors – a youngster’s attention (I was five years old) is captured by an enigmatic farmhand – as the boy looks back, the lens moves from his facial expression to zoom in on the cowman, equally interested, watching him depart.
To the young boy’s mind the cowman has what it takes for superman status: John Dologhan, the best milker ever to come about the place.
Take 2: the cowhand’s unique ‘cow-whisperer’ approach, as he croons a romantic Co Kilkenny ballad (‘The Rose of Mooncoin’) to soothe the beast he is milking: his head to the cow’s side.
Take 3: a farm kitchen – the cowman entertains the boy with a rudimentary wheel of fortune (spin his table knife) waiting for it to mark the boy out (blade stopped with its point towards me) and spark off (bright path), for no particular reason the child can think of, a kind of kindred-spiritness (recognition that made no sense),
Take 4: a previous occasion – Dologhan pretended to be a horse, holding its eye-shades (winkers) up to his own face to cause the boy amusement.
Dologhan has much in common with the cowpokes the boy will see on the silver-screen – a guy who turned up out of the blue (apparition), itinerant from a strange land (rambler from the Free State) and chancer (gambler).
Take 5: Dologhan at rest, amidst a group of men hidden from the public eye in the space under Butler’s Bridge on train-free days in Castledawson (Sunday mornings).
Camerawork focuses initially on the slow-motion parabolic rise and fall of pitched coins (all eyes as the pennies rose and slowed and downed then, when they hit the ground, on the scramble of interest amongst the gamblers (tight-bunched crowd).
Take 6: the camera lens pans from light to shadow, initially following the bright reflection of the receding track (sunlight on far lines) across creosoted sleepers and hot stones and coming to rest on the indolent Dologhan and his claim to fame (who’d worked in Montana once), happy to laze away his time-off out of the sun (the cool shade of the arch).
- ‘Rose of Mooncoin’: 19th century ballad set in Mooncoin in Ireland written by schoolteacher and poet Watt Murphy, who at the age of 56 fell in love with a local girl called Elizabeth aged 26 (known within the song as Molly) with whom he shared a taste for poetry. The relationship was ill-fated: her father, the local vicar disapproved and sent her away to England;
- pitch-and-toss: gambling game in which the player who manages to throw a coin closest to a mark gets to toss all the coins, winning those that land with the head up.
- Butler’s Bridge: an anonymous Facebook entry of April 2016 identifies the bridge above the railway line on the Magherafelt Road just outside Castledawson; ‘time is slowly shrouding it into obscurity, hidden from view with trees, ivy, weeds and shrubs. This is a real shame because it is a bridge of brilliant Victorian architecture at its very best. It has stood the test of time for the best part of 180 years and far from ornamental purposes, was built for a reason … a real piece of Castledawson history’;
- all eyes: watching eagerly and attentively;
- 5 quartets in 7 sentences; line-length between 9 and 11 syllables; unrhymed;
- balance of punctuation and enjambment; sentence 3 in particular (describing the Dologhan method) is heavily enjambed;
- in line with Dologhan’s basic indolence the flow of the poem is unhurried save for the scramble amongst the gamblers to learn who has won the money;
- assonant effects are woven into the narrative (‘rambler… gambler’/Dologhan…Montana…once’/ ‘Sunday…under…Butler’s… bunched’/creosoted…stone’); alliteration permits the pairing of consonants e.g. bilabial [p] [b] of the opening lines, and sibilants (’creosoted…sleepers…stones);
- repetition of preposition ‘like’: as a comparator of things with similar characteristics or manner;
- past tenses predominate; conditional ‘would’ of repeated act;
- ‘all eyes’- the apparently laid-back approach belies an eagle-eye;
- 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;
- syllables without highlight are largely the unstressed sound as in common, little [ə]
- 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;
- a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section