The Border Campaign

for Nadine Gordimer

Heaney alludes specifically to a guerrilla warfare campaign carried out between 1956 and 1962 by the Irish Republican Army against targets in Northern Ireland. Local knowledge confirms a direct link between the poem’s opening scene and an IRA attack on Magherafelt Court House on December 12th 1956, the day after the campaign was launched, at a time when Heaney was a teenage boarder at St Columb’s College in Derry.

The poem contributes to a time-line of Irish politics and, via an Anglo-Saxon epic, the emotional response of a teenage boarder to unfolding events in the area where he lives and the city where he is schooled.

The visual aftermath of explosion: the shell of a public building (soot-streaks down the courthouse wall) where ‘justice’ was petitioned … damage exposing it to the elements (hole smashed in the roof) … the enduring effect of arson (the rafters in the rain still smouldering).

The impact of the attack filtering through next day to the teenager in his Derry boarding school was like a blow to the stomach (left me winded) as he stared from his confines (my boarder’s dormer) into the heavens beyond (the sky that moved), the same firmament that witnessed something from his studies of the Anglo-Saxon poem ‘Beowulf’ and the hero’s response to a mythical monsters’ attack on Danish King Hrothgar: Beowulf has mortally wounded the monster, Grendel, in violent single combat in Hrothgar’s mead-hall stronghold (Heorot) – signs of morning after savagery have ebbed away – its reflection placid in the evidence (waterlogged huge pawmarks Grendel left) of the dying monster limping along the path (boreen) to its den in a marshy fen.

Heaney is recounting the pivotal moment when he, the watcher from an upper window at St Columb’s College (part of then), was inextricably drawn into the unfolding violence of what would become the Troubles (all that was written and to come).

His response was to share (at one with) the eagerness of Hrothgar’s kinsmen (clan chiefs) who followed the route (galloping down paths) and inspected the monster’s torn off talon nailed high on the gable, proof that evil had been destroyed. Around him now and them at that moment of triumph … the haughty indifference of the elements just going about their business: sky still moving grandly.

The picture is completed by a triplet variant of Heaney’s own ‘Beowulf’ translation (ll.983-6) that sums up the terrifying, flesh-tearing strength of an evil monster’s body-armour: Every nail and claw-spike, every spur / And hackle and hand-barb on that heathen brute / Was like a steel prong in the morning dew.

Heaney’s very appropriate dedicatee, Nadine Gordimer (South African writer, 1923 –2014, political activist and recipient of the 1991 Nobel Prize for Literature) was recognized as a woman ‘who through her magnificent epic writing has, in the words of Alfred Nobel, been of very great benefit to humanity’.

  • on the 40th anniversary of Bloody Sunday The Irish Republican News commented on the ‘Border Campaign’ as it affected Derry, where Heaney was confined as a weekly boarder in St Columb’s: The city of Derry was to be relatively unaffected by the IRA Border Campaign, which was launched on the 11th December 1956 … 5 IRA men blew up a BBC transmitter at Park Avenue in Rosemount … a goods train ( ) careered into Derry station, wrecking itself on the buffers. These incidents appear to be the height of military activity in the city but a number of local men were imprisoned or interned
  • soot: black powder evidence of burning
  • streak: long thin mark of a different substance from the old;
  • courthouse: place where competing issues are judged
  • smash: break violently;
  • rafter: weight-bearing internal beam
  • smoulder: burn slowly without flame;
  • St Columb’s College: selective single-sex Grammar School in Derry for which Heaney passed the entrance examination and where he was educated from the age of 11;
  • I am indebted to John O’Hagan for providing a useful clarification of the status of St Columb’s College (which John attended in the 1960s) as it came to affect Heaney’s teenage life. Thanks to his success in the college’s competitive entrance examination he spent his Secondary education (as opposed to his Primary experience at Anahorish School) in this prestigious  ‘Grammar School’ in Derry  (not to be confused with the parallel ‘Secondary School’ system attended by the vast majority of Northern Irish pupils who failed the State 11+ exam).
  • As a boarder, John reports, Heaney ‘followed the same routine – the only breaks in the school year (1st Monday in Sep to late June) were: a couple of days at Halloween; about 10 days around Christmas; ditto around Easter. That was the routine in my years there (1960 to 1967); almost certainly the same in Heaney’s day (1951 to 1957). I don’t think there was a short break in the Jan to Easter term, even when Easter was late. It was always a very challenging term. Poems across Heaney’s collections express the feeling of exile that life as a boarder often engendered in him.
  • winded: short of breath from a blow to the stomach;
  • boarder: pupil who lives in school;
  • dormer: vertical window built into sloping roof;
  • savagery: ferocious violence;
  • Heorot: ‘mead-hall’, fortified stronghold of Danish King Hrothgar, defended by Beowulf in the epic Anglo-Saxon poem Heaney has latterly translated;
  • placid: tranquil;
  • paw: clawed animal foot;
  • Grendel: first antagonist to be killed in single, unarmed combat by Beowulf – a creature of darkness, exiled kin of Cain, accursed of God, the destroyer and devourer of human flesh;
  • boreen: Irish word for an unpaved lane or track;
  • clan: Gaelic word for tribe with land and chieftain;
  • talon: claw, generally of a bird-of-prey
  • gable: triangular wall at the end of a pitched roof;
  • nail: straight metal pin used to secure or join; claw spike: curved metal pin spur: metal pin or goad with a metal protrusion; hackle: spike resembling the teeth of a metal comb; barb, prong etc: cluster of variant sharp points that cause terror and maim;
  • heathen brute: violent, uncultured and godless creature;


  • triplet/ octet/ quintet/ triplet in 3 sentences; line length based on 10 syllables with some exceptions; unrhymed;
  • narrative delivery governed by richness of enjambed lines;
  • first triplet verbless; octet calmer, more measured; quintet building towards the fearsome final triplet;
  • sibilant alliterative effects of initial visual description ‘soot streaks…courthouse…smashed…still smouldering
  • later assonant effects ’teen…me..between’/ boarder’s dormer… morning/’gaze…nailed..nail/ ’heathen/ steel’;
  • dialectal ‘boreen’;
  • italicised ‘Beowulf’ borrowing/literary references;
  • autobiographical: personal reactions/ personal engagement in his reading;
  • use of compounds in describing the monster’s fearsome body-armour;


  • 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;


One thought on “The Border Campaign

  1. 2 comments on the glossary above: (1) St Columb’s was a “Grammar School”, not a “Secondary School”. In an entry somehere else in this chapter, you correctly summarise the difference: Grammar schools were for children who passed the competitive 11-Plus state exam. Other children were relegated to a “Secondary School”. (2) Heaney was not a “weekly” boarder. In fact there were no such: all boarders followed the same routine – the only breaks in the school year (1st Monday in Sep to late June) were: a couple of days at Halloween; about 10 days around Christmas; ditto around Easter. That was the routine in my years there (1960 to 1967); almost certainly the same in Heaney’s day (1950/1 to 1957). I don’t think there was a short break in the Jan to Easter term, even when Easter was late. It was always a very challenging term.

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