Red, White and Blue

Revisiting moments from his and Marie’s past Red, White and Blue provides insights into the man Heaney has become.

In her review of Electric Light (Irish Times of Mon, Jun 3, 2019) under the heading ‘Heaney the Survivor’, Helen Vendler suggests that exploring the mystery of the self has been a steady concern in Heaney’s work, but while the young poems came fresh to that mystery, the new poems come to it with layers of memory that both obscure it further and reveal it newly; the best vehicle for a memory-cluster is a poetic sequence.

Each of the three poems bears a distinctive colour marking associated with wife Marie at specific moments in their history.

I  Red

The magnetic attraction of a red garment and a shy student’s realisation that ‘nothing ventured’ is ‘nothing gained’.

The poem is addressed retrospectively to a girl at a student hop from a time when the girls often danced together and the men tended to a stand and weigh them up. It’s non–poetic reduction might go something like this: ‘do you remember the night we met … you were wearing a trendy dark red jacket … it excited me … and here we are still an item’. He later claimed I was shy at hops in the university , was never what you’d call a good dancer and that Marie was a terrific jiver’ (DOD pp45-6).

Stung by the comments of a student standing next to him and knowing he would have to get in first Heaney shed his inhibitions and set his sights on the red-jacketed Marie. The garment would figure in later photographs (much-snapped scarlet coat): it had a hunting-jacket look (fitted waist and tailored shoulder) that lent itself to the horse-and-rider motif first instigated by his defeated rival. In that first instance he was wowed by the teasing combination of garment and girl inside (nifty, tricksy bounce) swaying together in time with the beat (your knee behind and your knee in front).

As if spurred by the unflattering comments of a potential rival (Marie a wee pony ‘on the make’ … butter wouldn’t melt in that smiler’s mouth) Heaney went for it.

His smile of seeming acquiescence (as who should say, ‘Good God … you’re absolutely right) masked the truth  –  he was drawn by the go and gladsomeness in her, the challenge of seeming inaccessibility (something unbroken), the ease with which she would see off (her gift for pure dismay) unwelcome advances from shits like you.

She was prepared to dance (good fortune) and, suddenly in the driving-seat, Heaney was happy to rub it in (smile again into his peeky face) as he and the girl engaged in high-octane activity (you jived with me hell for leather), surrounded by onlookers enjoying the exhibition, the cleared floor turned paddock in which the newly-mets tested their responses to each other (rope and scope and snaffle) and discovered they were on the same exhilarating wavelength (‘Redingote!’ … ‘Giddy up!‘).

  • snap: take a photo
  • hunting-jacket: once fashionable garment with double-vented back worn by riders on horseback;
  • fitted: cut and sewn to follow body shape;
  • waist: narrow body section above the hips;
  • tailored: adapted to fit someone;
  • nifty: stylish;
  • tricksy: teasing, mischievous;
  • bounce: bob up and down;
  • hemline: lower edge;
  • wee: small (Scottish/Irish usage)
  • pony: small horse;
  • butter wouldn’t melt: demonstration of a coyness that is not actual;
  • go: vitality;
  • gladsomeness: cheerful, vivacious disposition;
  • unbroken: (of a horse) not tamed;
  • gift: natural talent;
  • dismay someone: show disapproval;
  • shit: unworthy fellow (!) said with feeling;
  • peeky: pallid, nauseating;
  • jive: 1960s’ rock-and-roll dance style
  • hell for leather: at full tilt, hotfoot;
  • Union: building, part of a University, reserved for student activities;
  • cleared: emptied;
  • paddock: horse enclosure;
  • give someone rope: permit freedom of action;
  • scope: opportunity;
  • snaffle: a metal bit attached to a rein that teaches a horse to respond to instruction;
  • redingote: frock coat; long garment with a cutaway or contrasting front of different material when worn by a woman;
  • giddy up: said to a horse make it go faster, ‘let’s get cracking!’;


  • 4 verse construct including half lines; full line 10-12 syllables;
  • 5 sentences with a balance between punctuated and enjambed; unrhymed but with occasional line-end echoes ‘paddock…snaffle’;;
  • V1 assonant effects: ‘fitted… nifty tricksy…hitting’; alliterations on [h] ‘hunting…hemline…hitting…behind’/[n] ‘nifty…bounce…knee…knee’; adjectival compound ’much-snapped’ and noun ‘hunting-jacket’; suffix ‘y’;
  • attempt to mimic the beat of the music;
  • V2: varied syllable count; direct speech containing Irish usage ‘wee’; alliterations [m] ‘melt…smiler’s mouth…smiled’; assonant echoes ‘pony…know…go’/ ‘smiler…smiled…right’/ ’who…lutely…pure…fortune’;
  • extended metaphor introduced; Heaney turns the fellow’s negative allusion into something very positive for him and Marie;
  • V3 more heavily enjambed, perhaps to reflect high activity; vocabulary of horse-breaking and horse -tack; assonant echoes ‘again…face…later…gave’/ ‘night…jived…cry’/ ‘hell for leather’/ ‘rope and scope;
  • final half lines: ‘you’d’ verb tense – conditional of what would become a habit; weave of bilabial [p] [b] and alveolar [d] [t]

2  White

Two shades of white: the holiness, purity, and joy reflected in the pristine cleanliness of the labour ward in which Marie Heaney lies; the colour of craven cowardice Heaney applies to himself!

Heaney the expectant father in dutiful attendance was concerned by the wall of sound emanating from the public baths next door (screaming from the pool) in continuous use (busloads of schoolkids coming in on rota), its screeching banshee acoustic only amplified by the building structure (the glass-and-iron dome upping the wildness). He fears Marie will misinterpret the screaming as the painful experiences of the women in heavy labour close by.

Deliberately excluded from the final stages (at last-kiss, time-to-go time), Heaney recalls the touch of her (dry on the lips, hot-cheeked) left alone to cope with her ordeal as if cast adrift on an ice floe (the high berg of the bed).

Her garb: unsophisticated labour-wear (cut-off top of sorts), unadorned (plain as a flour-bag … white calico), of mediocre standard (orphanage-issue stuff), unflattering (demure at the neckline) and designed strictly for gynaecological purpose (access elsewhere).

The poet’s attempts to transmit his familiarity by touch falter; Marie’s moment of enforced isolation (your quarantine was making you touch-proof) rendered further contact  inappropriate (my hand that thought it knew its way got lost) and he backed off (shied).

Their renewal of sexual intimacy (the thick of thickets, the hug and birl) and shared loss of control (pleasures wrought to anger and beyond) currently at the forefront of his mind will have to wait (ahead of us, my love, the small-hours tournaments).

The moment of departure is transformed into a medieval tale reminiscent of courtly love:

He is the knight who proved his unworthiness by riding away from combat (left the lists) and fleeing the fairy-tale scene (the sun-daunting keep of Castle Childbirth);

Marie is  the lady of the castle in childbirth (contracting), shut away (bastions) knowing that hospital policy excluded him (lilied moat … uncrossble  … drawbridge drawn up), with no way in (battlements secure) and incommunicado (audience with the chatelaine denied).

Poised to abandon Marie to her pain (eyes eye-tooth tightened shut against the pangs) Heaney labels himself ‘Sir Cowardice’ (the Knight of the White Feather turning tail).

  • rota: timetabled list;
  • baths: public swimming-pool:
  • banshee: (from Irish legend) wailing spirit forewarning death;
  • acoustic: sound qualities transmitted;
  • dome: rounded vault rising from a circular base;
  • up: increase, amplify;
  • state: condition;
  • labour ward: room set aside for childbirth;
  • dry: without moisture;
  • drift away: lapse into sleep/ semi-consciousness;
  • berg: iceberg;
  • cut-off: shortened;
  • of sorts: not a good example, apology for …;
  • flour-bag; sack made of cheap cotton material
  • orphanage: institution that cared for children without family connections;
  • issue: standard items, uniform;
  • calico: plain cotton cloth;
  • demure: modest, sober;
  • access: means of entry;
  • launder: wash and iron;
  • weave: interlace;
  • quarantine: place of isolation;
  • get lost: lose the way;
  • shy: pull back, shrink;
  • touch-proof: able to withstand touch;
  • thicket: dense bushes or trees;
  • birl: spin, whirl, pivot;
  • wrought: fashioned to a set design;
  • small-hours: early hours following midnight;
  • tournament: contest, match;
  • lists: scene of combat;
  • daunting: formidable, intimidating;
  • contraction: muscular tightening associated with delivery;
  • bastion: fortification;
  • moat: wide ditch surrounding castle
  • drawbridge: hinged bridge raised as a defence;
  • battlement: parapet of castle wall with spaces to fire from;
  • chatelaine: senior female in a chateau (castle);
  • eye-tooth: upper canine tooth;
  • pang: sudden sharp pain;
  • white feather: widely recognised symbol of cowardice;
  • turn tail: flee, beat a retreat;


  • 7 sentence construct in 3 verses of variable length; line count 10-12 syllables;
  • beyond the clumsy account of inappropriate groping enjambed lines dominate overall; unrhymed beyond occasional line-end echoes;
  • V1 concerned with uncontrollable acoustics: ‘screaming…banshee…upping…screaming…labour’;
  • alliterative effects: [b] ‘bad…busloads…baths…banshee’/ [k] calico…neckline…unmistakably…access;
  • assonances: ’screaming…kids coming in’/ ‘state…came…labour’;
  • V2 prepares for the ordeal to come; description of financially stretched health servicein the shape of the much-used dress issue;
  • assonances: ‘time…time…dry…high’/ ‘unmistakeably made’;
  • alliterations: ‘berg of the bed’/’calico…neckline…access/ ‘demure…unmistakably…made’;
  • V3 deals with the uncomfortable parting of the ways; the sexually frustrated male;
  • vocabulary reflecting the extended metaphor of cowardly knight and the lady of the castle; hospital becomes a siege-proof fortress;
  • closely woven assonances ‘laundered…call’/ ‘weave’…quarantine’/ ‘tried…shied’/ ‘making…way’;
  • alliterative strand [t] ‘thought it..its…got lost’;
  • loss of control in passionate moments portrayed as red-hot beaten metal: ‘pleasures wrought’;
  • compounds ‘touch-proof’/ ‘small-hours’/ ‘sun daunting’;
  • further assonant clusters: ‘drawn…secure…audience’/ ‘denied, behind you eyes…eye-tooth tightened…Knight…White’/’making…tail’;

3 Blue

An encounter between two young Northern Irish hitchhikers and an upper-crust British couple prepared to ferry them free of charge awakens the medieval troubadour in Heaney as he paints the cameos of two female figures – the first a real and permanent presence in his life, the second a product of his lyrical courtly love imagination!

Beware female intuition! Marie deliberately tested Heaney’s apparent attraction to the woman by ridiculing (mimicked) her upper-crust pronunciation (pretty, veh pretty). Heaney countered: ‘veh’ was totally consistent (entirely unaffected) with the image she presented (genuine touch of class) as confirmed by her positive take on a local stately home (praise of the gate-lodge and the avenue at Castlebellingham).

He portrays her as a lady ‘to the manor born’, naturally suited to upper-class life (deigning … bestow … attention) subject to sudden impulses (whim) that included picking up a young couple by the roadside (hitchhikers who must have taken her fancy).

Her husband, on the other hand, of the same ruling ilk (officer … in civvies on weekend leave), sounded for all the world like a remnant of British male imperialism with pre-conceived ideas about Irish history and using a label frowned on by the Irish (southern Ireland, as he called it). His feigned interest (‘Tell me, I mean, you know’) was a deliberate put-down (your crowd burnt the lot down, did they not?) highlighting Catholic Irish arsonists rebelling against planted Protestant Scots and English landowners.

Heaney and Marie do not rise to the bait (we simply dived for cover. ‘We’re from the north’) when they might have reminded him of the cycle of 1920s’outrage and revenge that followed the burnings (surprise attack … quick torrent of the names of towns burnt in reprisal).

Heaney’s poetic charge comes from the chatelaine figure – not just for her affectation (vey) or her hauteur (half-interest) but for her imagined sexuality (letting her warm silks fall) to be consummated in some romantic retreat (lamplight of some coaching inn in Wicklow) – in Heaney’s version of courtly love the aloof goddess  will deign to bestow her favours and bring her idolizing male to heel in the process (recall a hero to his ardent purpose).

Heaney puts a brake on his imaginings (doves or no doves) acknowledging the godsend of a Venus car after a long wait for a lift. He credits it to Marie, emerging Venus-like by the roadside (a Botticelli dressed down for the sixties), a study-in-blue presenting itself to the oncoming vehicle (you rose before them) in trendy contemporary gear (fair Isle tank-top …blue denim skirt… denim jacket) and heavy cosmetics to match (much blue eye make-up).

So it was – an all but noiseless top-of-the-range carriage (their big waxed Rolls flows softly to a halt), tailor-made for stepping aboard (running board … level with the footpath) … above all, a magic brand name that carried them (borne – sweet diction) ever deeper into the Irish Republic (south and south) and onto the next stage of their adventure.

  • veh: affected upper-crust pronunciation of ‘very’;
  • unaffected: unpretentious;
  • genuine: sincere, straightforward;
  • touch of class: understated sophistication;
  • Castlebellingham: village and townland in County Louth, Ireland, north of Dublin and close to Dundalk; one of the ancestral homes for the Bellingham family from the 17th Century until the 1950s. The original castle was built around 1660 by Sir Henry Bellingham; occupied by troops and burned down later in the decade.
  • Heaney presents the lady as a figure from courtly love. The genre often depicts a rich and powerful woman of high status and an aspiring male who idolizes her, seeking to make himself worthy of her by doing whatever she might desire; his aims were not necessarily lustful though not necessarily platonic either.
  • deign: consider it worthy to, condescend (from a superior position);
  • bestow: confer (as if from superior position);
  • whim: caprice, sudden fancy (of someone in authority);
  • hitchhiker: one who seeks free lifts from passing drivers;
  • take someone’s fancy; be attractive, of interest to someone;
  • officer class: (connotation of upper class privilege) applied to men whose education and upbringing somehow fitted them to be in control;
  • civvies: non-uniform, civilian dress;
  • leave: time off duty;
  • southern Ireland: to the Irish themselves a potentially insulting reference to the Irish Republic;
  • your crowd: slightly demeaning reference to the Irish hoi-polloi;
  • nineteen-twenties: the destruction of country houses was a phenomenon of the Irish revolutionary period (1919–1923), which witnessed at least 275  ‘Big Houses’deliberately burned down, blown up, or otherwise destroyed by the Irish Republican Army (IRA); the Big House had become symbolic of the 18th and 19th-century dominance of the Protestant Anglo-Irish class in Ireland at the expense of the native Roman Catholic population, particularly in southern and western Ireland. The Anglo-Irish, as a class, were generally opposed to the notions of Irish independence and held key positions in the British Administration of Ireland. The Irish-Irish maintained that the land had been illegally stolen from them by the landowning aristocracy, who had mostly been ‘planted’ in Ireland as Protestant settlers.  The Big House was the citadel of the ‘landlord’, of the ‘Anglo-Irish’ of the ‘Protestant Ascendancy’ that had formed the backbone of British colonial rule. Thus the spectacle of 275 of the ‘Big Houses’ going up in flames remains one of the most potent images of the Irish Revolution of 1916-23.
  • dive for cover: suddenly take shelter from enemy artillery;
  • surprise attack: action that stops the enemy in its tracks;
  • reprisal: counter-attack, retaliation;
  • half-interest: suggestion of shallowness, insincerity;
  • let fall: lower revealingly;
  • silks: garments regarded as classy and expensive;
  • coaching inn: hostelry on routes once followed by coach and horses, where horses could be changed;
  • Wicklow: county town on the coast south of Dublin;
  • vouchsafe: to act in a gracious, condescending manner;
  • Venus doves: birds fluttering round or resting on the hand of the goddess of love in Roman mythology;
  • thumb down: hitch a lift from a passing vehicle using one’s thumb;
  • Fair isle: woollen garment of a multicolour design emanating from the Shetland Islands;
  • tank top: close-fitting sleeveless garment worn over a blouse:
  • eye make-up: cosmetics applied to or round the eye;
  • Botticelli: 15rh century Florentine painter; his Birth of Venus (1485/6) is on display at the Uffizi gallery;
  • dress down: dress informally, casually
  • waxed: treated with polish;
  • Rolls: luxury car at the very top of the range;
  • flow: move with barely a sound;
  • running board: footboard along the side of early models;
  • borne: carried, transported;
  • diction: to do with turns of phrase and speech patterns;

‘Ocean’s Love to Ireland’ from North reveals Heaney’s deep-seated sympathies for the Irish condition and the long-term effects of Elizabethan invasion and subsequent Irish dispossession at the hands of anglo-scottish invaders and their descendants. Earlier poems ‘Servant Boy’  and ‘The Last Mummer’ from Wintering Out make powerful statements about Irish sentiments, the first portraying a male servant working for ‘planted’ landowners, averse to his subservient status but left with little choice but to turn the other cheek  and bide his time in the hope of improved circumstances, the second a last survivor of Irish tradition driven to direct action.


  • 4 verse construct in 12 sentences; includes half lines; variable line length, mainly 11 syllables;
  • unrhymed but a number of line-end echoes ‘be…leave…me’/ ‘display…safe;
  • use of direct speech by the driver and lady that contributes to upper-crust characterization; she sophisticated if posh, his ‘I mean, you know’ that of a less well educated soldier;
  • V1 in 3 sentences, heavily enjambed;
  • alliteration [m]’many times …mimicked/ [h] ‘hitchhikers…her…husband; [w] bestow…whim…bestowals…we’;
  • assonances ‘’praise…gate…deigning’/ ‘me…weekend leave…me…mean…teen’/;
  • V2 husband using questions ;
  • assonances ‘houses…crowd…down’; ‘mean…nineteen twenties
  • alliterations on nasals [m] [n];
  • V3 dense weave of assonances ‘being…sixty three, we’/’dived…might…surprise…might…like…reminder…might’/ ‘coaching…hero’/ ‘warm silks fall’/ inn in Wicklow; distant echo ‘half…ardent’;
  • and alliterations [n] torrent…names…towns…burnt’/ [t] torrent…towns…burnt;
  • Botticelli beauty in art subsequent to ‘goddess’ ;
  • linking with Venus and her doves; rock-n’-roll Venus in V 4;;
  • assonances I triples and pairs ‘down…hour…outside’/ ‘more…Dundalk’; ‘side…Isle…eye’; ‘so…Rolls flows’/ board…borne’/ ‘softly…halt’/ comes…foot’/ ‘we sweet’;
  • alliteration ‘dressed down…sixties…so…flows…softly
  • ‘dressed down’ provides a lower class reversal of ‘ dressed up’ underlining the ladies silks and Marie’s denim


  • 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;
  • 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;



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