The Gaeltacht


Background: In September 2013 the Derry Journal published a photo taken at Ros Guill  in 1960 ( 5534865). It featured ‘Seamus Heaneypictured with friends on a trip to the Donegal Gaeltacht at Easter 1960’.

Some of them were still traceable 40 years on, at least one of them has died, others were off radar. According to the Journal ‘Those featured include Vera Rafferty, Paddy Simon Gallagher, Peter Gallagher, Margaret Conway, Patricia Bradley, Aoibheann Marren, and Noel Hamilton. Alongside Seamus Heaney in the foreground are Gerry Downey and Patsy Quigg’. The otherwise elusive reference to ‘Chips’ in the poem was clarified by the following contact: ‘Chips Rafferty refers to Michael Rafferty of Armagh City . I was a friend and fellow student of Seamus Heaney in his English group at Queens University’.

Peter Gallagher, identified in the original photograph, revealed in an article in the Derry Journal that he first met Seamus Heaney 60 years earlier when they sat the entrance exam to St Columb’s College, developing a friendship that carried them through school, Queen’s University and Teacher Training together; he sheds light on the context for the poem: In 1960, I organised a trip to Ros Guill  … We went for a week during the Easter holidays. Seamus came on the trip with his girlfriend at that time, Aoibheann Marren, while I was accompanied by a girl called Margaret Conway. She has been my wife now for 47 years … while there were many others who joined us on the trip, our girlfriends are the only two named in the poem …  a lasting reminder of those memorable few days in Donegal …  on one of the days, the group embarked on a picnic to Dooey, several miles along Cúrsa na Farraige.  … our babble on that rugged road above the sea was multi-lingual – Irish, English, Latin and French. There were stories, sonnets, songs and Seamus playing with words.

The Derry Journal photograph and a sonnet from Dante’s Inferno, canto XX, spark a moving piece with common theme and emotions. Both awaken images of perfect friendship undimmed by the 40 years of inevitable hiatus as those involved went their separate ways in life.

The memories of pleasure and comradeship fill Heaney with nostalgia for a lost domain he would dearly love to re-create … to be back in Rosguill, on the Atlantic Drive nineteen-sixty.

His poem is addressed to someone male and close (mon vieux) perhaps one of a trio including Peter Gallagher. Mortality has rendered the poet’s dearest wish (mates re-united – you and Barlo and I) unattainable – Barlo has passed away.

Others present at the time (Paddy Joe and Chips Rafferty and Dicky) shared the pretext for being there (talking Irish) plus four others who spring to memory (M. and  M. and Deirdre Morton and Niamh  would be there as well).

The two girls identified by Peter Gallagher – Aoibheann Marren and Margaret Conway were Heaney’s girlfriend at the time and his own future wife – the foursome completes the link to Dante’s sonnet.

If only, Heaney yearns (it would be great too), a still photo could provide a moving picture of what went on then (we could see ourselves) and bring together those separated (the people we are now) by life’s clockwork.

Dante wrote a sonnet in praise of enduring comradeship so why not Heaney in imitation? Heaney, Peter Gallagher (Lapo and Guido), alongside Aoibheann Marren and Margaret Conway, two girlfriends.

There was no boat, of course – these Gaeltacht youngsters were walking the Atlantic Coastal Way, their comradely conversations along that rugged path providing the wildtrack of our gabble above the sea.

  • Gaeltacht: Irish-language word for any primarily Irish-speaking region. In Ireland; the term Gaeltacht refers to any, all of the districts where the government recognises that the Irish language is the predominant vernacular, or language of the home;
  • mon vieux (Fr. figurative endearment applying to a male) old friend, old chap;
  • Rosguill : Irish-speaking peninsula situated in north-west County Donegal, Ireland; panorama of heathland and ocean;
  • Atlantic Drive: Cursá na Farraige – reference to the Donegal/ Rosguill section of the Wild Atlantic Way with its majestic sights and a ruggedly beautiful coastline;
  • Paddy Joe Doherty: contemporary of Seamus Heaney’s at St Columb’s College;
  • Aoibheann Marren: according to Peter Gallagher Heaney’s girlfriend at the time;
  • Margaret Conway: Peter Gallagher’s girlfriend, later his wife;
  • Chips Rafferty: Australian film star with a career stretching from the 1940s until his death in 1971;
  • Wildtrack: reference to an audio recording intended to be synchronized with film or video but recorded separately;
  • The sonnet from Dante’s Inferno Canto XX written in the 14th century:

Guido, I wish that Lapo, you and I,/ in one enchantment bound, right now could be / inside a vessel faring on the sea, braving the wind, to your content and mine. // Not only would no gale or stormy sky  / impediment or menace ever be, / but living there in constant harmony, / we would forever for more closeness sigh. // And Mona Vanna and Mona Lagia, then, / with the one numbered in the thirty best, / I wish the good enchanter there would place, / where we would ever about love converse, / and each of them would be of bliss possessed, / just as I reckon we would also be.

The intensity of Dante’s friendship with Guido Cavalcanti has a long history. In his great youthful poem of perfect friendship, Guido, i’ vorrei che tu e Lapo ed io, Dante marshals his friends’ names, first among them Guido’s, as talismans of intimacy. Guido, i’ vorrei is a dream of an historical and dechronologized friendship. The sonnet sings of a friendship that stands outside of time and that remains untarnished by history—by that which necessarily catalyzes our divergent egos and divergent interests and is therefore destined to separate us Commento Baroliniano, Columbia University, 2018;

  • sonnet; volta, such as it, in line 9; variable line length 6-15 syllables;
  • evidence of rhyme or end-of-line echo ‘I…Drive’/ ‘sixty…Dicky’/ ‘alive…believe…Hiamh’/ ‘free…sea’;
  • key word ‘and’ repeated a dozen times or so follows the moving finger on a photo within a series of paused emotions;
  • linked ass and allit ‘girlfriends…track…gabble above’;
  • assonant strings ‘and…back…Atlantic…that…again…track…gabble’/ ‘Rosguill…teen…Aoibhean..Niamh…people we…he’s set free…Guido…sea’/ ‘alive…Irish… Aoibheann’/ ‘if…this…in imitation’;
  • alliterative strings ‘’Marren…Margaret… M and M…Morton’;
  • verb tenses initially past historic change to speculative conditional;
  • 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 Gaeltacht

  1. Chips Rafferty refers to Michael Rafferty of Armagh City . I was a friend and fellow student of Seamus Heaney in his English group at Queens University

Join the Conversation - Leave a comment