The Real Names

Heaney’s substantial ten-part sequence traces the twin development of his journey into Shakespeare and his journey into poetry. It ranges back and to in time and location.

The ‘real names’ are the authentic individuals who were at school with Heaney and as members of St Columb’s Dramatic Society played the Shakespearean characters of annual school productions. The Shakespeare texts were set in stone, the lives of the young actors, including Heaney’s, anything but.

In her review of Electric Light (Irish Times of  Mar 24, 2001,) under the heading ‘Heaney the survivor’,  Helen Vendler offers her own insights into the poet’s use of sequences:  ‘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 … Heaney has found that an expansive sequence ranging over a wide terrain is the right vehicle for the memory-layers that accompany personal development. In such sequences (among them the riveting title poem), Heaney takes the poet’s right to compose following his own internal connections, inviting readers to drift with him from site to site. These poems do not aim at the crystal-lattice effect of brief lyric, nor at the expository-narrative effect of, say, `Station Island’. Instead, they show us the ruminative associations that surprise even the thinker as, in later life, one moment recalls another, and another.


The school play is being staged in nineteen-fifties’ St Columb’s College in Derry.

Memory of a ‘real’ schoolboy in role (Enter Owen Kelly); how he presented the character, mimicking the movements and visual expressions (loping and gowling) of Caliban… his head and upper torso -a stocky schoolboy Caliban tailor-made for the role (underlip and lower jaw ill-set shot-putter’s neck and shoulders) adding a slightly demented touch to his character (mad turn in his eye) –

Performance: his percussive entrance (hard sticks … dumped down) made visible by the stage lights (stour off the boards) that revealed the farmer’s boy he was (turnip fists) in home-made costume (ripped tarpaulin smock … bag-aproned).

Heaney’s warm-hearted memory linking a local boy (his Sperrins Caliban) and his farm’s staple crop (potato-gatherer) transports his audience to the pig-nuts of Shakespeare’s ‘enchanted isle’.

  • for Brian Friel : playwright and short-story writer, born Omagh (1929); dedicatee of this poem and also ‘Station Island’ ; dedicated his own ‘Volunteers’(I975) to Heaney;
  • Owen Kelly: contemporary of Heaney at school; a real name;
  • lope: lollop, move in an ungainly, clumsy way;
  • gowl (Scottish): possibly sound possible grimace; howl, weep angrily, distort the face, girn;
  • mad turn: expression suggesting the person is unbalanced;
  • shot-putter: athlete who throws a heavy metal ball; generally of well built compact physique;
  • sticks: twigs, small branches;
  • dump down: throw down heavily;
  • stour (Scottish): cloud of dust;
  • boards: planks that make up the stage;
  • turnip: round root vegetable
  • tarpaulin: heavy duty waterproof cloth;
  • smock: loose-fitting garment
  • Sperrins: an upland area outside Derry forming part of St Columb’s College catchment;
  • Caliban: half-human, half-monster native of the island upon which the characters of Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ have been shipwrecked;
  • bag-apron: front-worn garment with a pocket for storage;
  • potato-gatherer: casual worker collecting Irish spuds;
  • quotation from Shakespeare’s Tempest Act 2 scene ii: a comical scene in which Caliban mistakes other characters for the tormenting spirits Prospero has subjected him to and tries to gain their favour;
  • pig-nut: wild underground fruit eaten as a wild fruit;


  • 3-sentence construct; line length based on 10 syllables; unrhymed;
  • The emerging visual memory presented as happening in the present tense; the stage business in past tense; indelible memory reverting to future tense reflecting in the quotation;
  • assonances from the outset: ‘Owen…loping…shoulders… opening…won’t’/’still…sticks…his turnip…ripped…tarpaulin…Sperrin’s… fists…will dig…pig’/’raised…aproned…potato…Shakespeare…nails’/’down…stour’
  • alliterations: nasal [n] ‘Owen…under…turn…neck’; alveolar [t/d] shot putter’s…shoulders…hard sticks…dumped’; sibilant variants [s/z] his…shot putter’s shoulders…schoolboy…scene…stour’; bilabial [p/b] ‘ripped…paulin…Sperrin’s Caliban…bag-aproned potato;
  • neat use of compounds where rhythm requires linked ideas’ economy: ‘ill-set…bag-aproned…potato-gatherer…pig-nuts’;


And, the obvious question in an all-boys’ school, the female parts (Who played Miranda?): some sylph-like Lower School pupil (junior-final day-boy), fair haired (flaxen), believable provided you suspended your disbelief (credible, incredible), appropriately disguised (braided wig and costume), voice as yet unbroken (speaking high), –  inevitably a boy (he was a she) but giving off the right feminine vibes(angelic in the light) and spotlit (we couldn’t take our eyes off).

The performance ensues: general hush (house lights down), then curtain- up … a pair of long remembered real names – Liam McClelland in character (Ferdinand sleepwalking to the music) – Gerry O’Neill, lurking, seen by audience as he spiedcloaked up as Prospero, but unseen by fellow actor.

Next day’s soliloquized review was delivered by teacher and real name director Gallagher (in those days pupils reduced their teachers to a surname in private): O’Neill was vocally powerfully (voice like an organ, so he has).

O’Neill the seasoned performer – the previous year’s Macbeth played in school sports’ kit (green football socks) converted into Elizabethan legwear (cross-gartered to his Thane of Cawdor knees).

A chuckle of mirth escapes Heaney in memory of the very minor character who momentarily reduced serious drama to comedy (Anthony Murray, with the hiccups and ignorant Scotch accent).

  • Miranda: sole female character appearing on stage; daughter of Prospero and involved in Caliban’s misfortunes;
  • junior: lower years in a secondary school;
  • day-boy: pupil who returns home at the end of the school day;
  • flaxen: pale yellow in colour;
  • braided: woven into plaits;
  • high: reference to a male voice that is still soprano;
  • house-lights: illuminating the theatre’s auditorium as opposed to its stage;
  • Ferdinand: son of king Alonso who falls in love with Miranda;
  • Liam McClelland, Gerry O’Neill, Anthony Murray: contemporaries of Heaney’s at the school; real names;
  • Gallagher member of staff at St Columb’s who ran the Dramatic Society and directed school plays; a real name;
  • direct: run the show;
  • soliloquize: speak one’s thoughts aloud;
  • organ: wind instrument mainly in church, with a wide range of tone pitch and volume effects:
  • football socks: standard sports’ kit in school colours;
  • cross-garter; medieval garters crossed along the leg
  • Macbeth/ Thane of Cawdor; central character of Shakespeare’s tragedy of the same name
  • hiccups; repeated uncontrolled gulps of breath;
  • porter: a very minor part in the play;


  • 7 sentence construct; variable line/half-line length between 3 and 11 syllables; unrhymed
  • tense moves from the presentness of memory and performance to the past of next day’s comments or previous productions;
  • oxymoron focuses on contradiction: ‘credible…incredible/ he a she’;
  • alliterations: early alveolar [d] ‘day…credible, incredible… braided; later velar [k/g] ‘Macbeth…green…socks…Cawdor…hiccups…ignorant’;
  • assonances: ‘junior…costume’/ ‘day…braided’/ ‘high…light…eyes…spied…quized’/ ‘voice…boy’/’O’Neill…cloaked…Prospero…so’/ ‘previous year…been…green…knees’/ ‘Cawdor…porter’/ ‘Thane…played’;
  • direct speech of a remembered judgment with its Irish twang (‘so he has’);


Heaney’s childhood produced moments and catalysts that set him on the path to poetry.

 ‘Henry IV part 1’, a new Shakespeare play in prospect (smell of the new book) taken eagerly on board by an enthused intelligence (peep ahead) beginning to cope with Shakespearian language (words not quite beyond you).

A stage direction (CARRIER, with a lantern in his hand), as young Heaney read into the night (the small hours), introduced an Irish schoolboy who spoke with his Mid-Ulster twang to the menial characters in the inn yard in Rochester speaking in vernacular (low-life prose).

It was the appearance of a constellation in literature (Charles’s Wain over the new chimney) that first ignited the creativity (a light that sparked) that would be Heaney’s forever afterwards (has never stopped arriving). The star cluster spelt out pinhead words against the blackness of space (thick sable of the universe), forming the first poetic words of a ‘forever after’poet (single line…along the lifeline).

It projected light (chink) onto an early event at Mossbawn (a scene foreseen and enterable) when infant-Heaney first became aware of the daily repeated (perpetual) winter’s glow  (sparks going up) generated by their close neighbours’ domestic fire (MacNicholl’s chimney).

Heaney measures that first scenario (I saw them that one time) in terms of the very young stage he was at: in his

farmsteadcomfort zone (crossing the yard) … barely formed (babe in the world)… learning for all he was worth

(up to my eyes in it) … included in the pre-dawn activities of a farming day (up and about in the winter milker’s

 darkness) … still too young to be left to hus own devices (hand held by one with a lantern in her hand).

  • peep: take a quick look;
  • carrier: minor role in Shakespeare’s ‘Henry IV Pt 1’, Act 2,I;
  • low-life prose: the speech of disreputable lower class people; Henry IV Pt 1 was written in prose;
  • spark: flash, begin to shine;
  • Charles’s Wain: (astronomy) bright circumpolar asterism in the northern sky, said to resemble a wagon or cart.
  • pinhead words: tiny stellar dots that, joined together, resembled a written unit;
  • sable: heraldic black;
  • lifeline: timeline of existence;
  • chink: narrow opening typically admitting light
  • enterable: in Heaney’s ‘Seeing Things’ collection of 1991 entry and its cognates become key to the poet’s search for moments of revelation. He offered his reader a clue as to how to ‘enter’ the poems: You could think of every poem in ‘Squarings’ as the peg at the end of a tent-rope reaching up into the airy structure, but still with purchase on something earth­ier and more obscure’; the titbit has relevance in this section;
  • perpetual: spiritual allusion to the lux perpetua of standard Requiem text;
  • MacNicholls: neighbours of Heaney when he was very young; particular memories centre on Philomena MacNicholl who had been put in charge of Seamus during his first days at Primary school;
  • up to one’s eyes in: unable to get enough of;
  • lantern: old-fashioned; portable lamp;


  • unrhymed 7-sentence construct lines between 9 and 12 syllables; 3 sections separated by half lines; balance of punctuated and enjambed lines;
  • assonances: ‘smell…ahead’/ ‘quite…time…life…light…arrive…line… lifeline… sometimes…eye…time…eyes’;/ ‘low…prose…over’/ ‘pin…thick…single…sing…chink…chimney…winter milker’s’/ ‘Wain…sable’
  • allits: nasal [n] ‘lantern…hand…entered’; [l] ‘lantern…low-life…light’; sibilant variants [s/z] ‘words…sable…universe…single…sing…sometimes…scene foreseen; [n/m] ‘MacNicholl’s chimney…them…one time; [h] hand held…hand’; bilabial [p/b] ’babe…up…up…about’;
  • sense data (‘smell…peep’) lead into mental stimulation and special, personal perceptions (‘light sparked’)
  • the personal journey into literature, intelligence and age hinted at: ‘words not quite beyond you’;
  • the insatiable hunger for reading expressed figuratively: ‘small hours’;
  • stark contrasts of colour, natural and man-made, lights in the darkness;
  • moment the poet was born: ‘light sparked’; epiphany closely links literary moment and real life: ’as if a chink’
  • children’s stories alluded to (‘Babe in the world’);
  • characters both named and anonymous: ‘MacNicholl…one with a lantern’


Heaney ‘stages’ the contrasting behaviour of two boys, both destined to become bards, on their journey into poetry.

A tale of two sons who were ‘different’: the future Bard of Avon was said (John Aubrey claims) to have come from relatively humble stock (father … a butcher). Shakespeare might have tried initially to follow in his father’s footsteps but he was not a chip off the same block turning butchery into personal performance: ‘when He kill’d a Calfe, he would doe it in high style & make a speech.’

Similarly, Heaney was not inclined towards farming. His head was in other clouds from early on (airiness from the start) where he play acted higher things (me on top of the byre … that much nearer heaven) – cerebral rather than muscular (seeing things in a headier light), precociously onto his own two feet (managing to stand up unsupported), balanced if a touch rash (deck-tilt of hot zinc), looking down, not on the farmyard, but into infinite possibility (a roof that overlooks forever). He carried his own ‘theatre’ props (pretend gully knife of my own in one raised hand), acted a solo part (sawing air) effectively preparing the ground for the St Columb’s Dramatic Society more than a decade later and the poet’s life thereafter(a stage … ahead of time).

From beneath him the sounds of farm reality (cows snuffle at feed bucket … stall-chains clink).

Heaney concludes: two boys each with a similar mind-set (home from home).

  • John Aubrey (1626-97) author of Brief Lives a collection of short biographies including Shakespeare;
  • ‘Calfe’ etc: direct quotation from Aubrey’s biography;
  • high: fine, lavish;
  • airiness: exposure to the outdoors/ things outside;
  • byre: cowshed;
  • heady: exhilarating;
  • deck: flat surface;
  • tilt: slope:
  • zinc: galvanized corrugated iron used for outbuilding roofs;
  • forever: eternity;
  • gully knife: large rough, unpolished knife not used for fighting; originated from sea-faring;
  • stage: (pun); phase in life; a place on which one plays a part;
  • ahead of time; earlier than expected;
  • snuffle: breathe/ sniff noisily;
  • clink: sound made when metal surfaces collide;
  • home from home: a comfortable, relaxing spot resembling home;


  • 5-sentence construct broken into a number of internal sections; lines based on 10 syllables; unrhymed;
  • early enjambed lines then balance of these and punctuated lines;
  • assonances: ‘or…Aub’/ ‘claim…Shakesp…trade…make… raised…stage’/ ‘exercise…high style…byre…light…I’m…knife’/ ‘air…head…heaven…forever…pretend’/ ‘saw…call’/ ‘own…goes…home’;
  • alliterations: bilabial [p/b] ‘Shakespeare…Aubrey…butcher…boy’; alveolar [d/t] ’trade…but…kill’d…doe…style…stand … deck-tilt’; sibilant [s/z] ‘speech…airiness…start…seeing things
  • onomatopoeias: ‘snuffle…clink’;
  • dual use: ‘stage’
  • Aubrey language quoted in 17th century format (doe…&);


Ophelia’s suicide in Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ (willow aslant the brook) invites Heaney to imagine his own mid-Ulster version.  In it the timeless willow trees of Mossbawn (referred to by their Northern Irish name – in the beginning it was sally tree) abundant in hedges … on the bank of the Moyola make their sprawling way to Mossbawn farmhouse burdened with ugly news (daunted stragglers) across the boggy, waterlogged field (sedge and glarry wetness of our meadow).

Awaiting them in the farmyard stands Mossbawn’s ancient ‘alpha’ willow (tetter-barked and hollow) playing the elements off against each other (two-timing earth and air), aureoled (corona top), making the best of itself (flick-and-shimmer, sprout-and-tremble growth) and under the spotlight of land and sky.

Were there an animistic pecking order amongst trees (protocol of soul) the early arrivals are loath to speak (soul … moved backwards … as from a monarch) and look to the younger royals (princess-saplings by the river) to disclose what they have diuscovered.

Nothing is said! Sympathy for some local victim as of a Shakespearean tragedy has left the young tees speechless (stepped a word away), their weeping branches dipping into the current (willowed) like the floating body of an Ophelia in Moyola.

  • initial quotation from Hamlet Act 4, vii: Hamlet’s adulterous mother Gertrude announces the death of Ophelia to her brother Laertes;
  • Ophelia: ill-fated female character, initially loved then repulsed by Hamlet; suffering further when her father Polonius is run through by Hamlet, she loses her sanity and drowns herself; one image of her drowned body was painted by English Pre-Raphaelite John Everett Millais around 1850;
  • sally tree: irish version of ‘willow’’
  • aslant: not perpendicular or at right angles
  • brook: small stream;
  • Moyola: the river closest to Heaney’s childhood home (alternative selling ‘Moyulla’); describing the river in his ‘Moyulla’ of District and Circle (DOD406) Heaney remarked. ‘Moyulla is about a polluted river, but there’s a river nymph on the scene too aswim in the words and the water’.
  • daunted: intimidated, cowed
  • sedge: grass-like wetland plant;
  • glar: Diarmaid O’Muirithe in an Irish Times article of Feb 1, 2019 – ‘… Ulster mud. The Donegal Irish is glar’;
  • tetter: a Germanic word literally a skin disease in humans or animals causing itchy or pustular patches, such as eczema or ringworm; its diseased exterior appearance is transferred to the bark of the willow growing in hostile conditions;
  • two-time: deceive, play a double game;
  • corona: crown-like semi-circle of light
  • flick: twitch, flip
  • shimmer: gleam, glint
  • sprout: put out shoots
  • tremble: shake, quiver;
  • protocol: convention, standard practice;
  • soul: self, inner being, essential nature;
  • princess-sapling: notion of young trees of royal appearance;
  • step a word away: take a step back in silence;
  • willow (v.): form a shape or move in a way similar to the long, slender branches of a willow in water.


  • extended sonnet form; 5-sentence construct; lines 10-12 syllables; unrhymed;
  • sentence one enjambed as a single lyrical utterance;
  • direct quote in italics;
  • biblical allusion ‘in the beginning’;
  • extended personification; trees with souls, trees as reluctant messengers, trees with a courtly pecking-order;
  • close observation of ground and tree textures;
  • elements repeated: ‘earth and air…land and sky;
  • use of compounds: double ‘princess saplings… tetter-barked… two-timing’ and triple ‘flick-and-shimmer…sprout-and-tremble’;
  • assonant strands: ‘’a…aslant… sally…sallies bank…Moyola’/ ‘in the beginning it…flick-and-shimmer’/ ‘like…line…timing’/ ‘down…our…out’/ ‘sprout…round’/ ‘’yard…barked’/ ‘growth…soul…those…Ophelia…Moyola’;
  • alliterative echoes; alveolar [d/t] ‘daunted stragglers…tetter-barked…two-timing; sibilants [s] ‘stragglers…sedge…wetness/ ‘shimmer…sprout’/ ‘sky assembled’ nasal [m] ‘might…moved…monarch’; [w]word away…willowed; [l] ‘sapling…willowed…Ophelia…Moyola’;


And now in St Columb’s College the Dramatic Society begins rehearsal of Shakespeare’s ‘Merchant of Venice: the real names (McMahon, Irwin, Bredin) are handed their fictional roles (Bassanio, Launcelot Gobbo, Portia). The action takes place in a school classroom (teacher Gallagher’s low desk) far removed from the Shakespearean stage (a nowhere) with minimal if meaningful non-speaking props (three caskets … in dumb-show).

A comic irony was evident to Heaney: Irwin had fled St Columb’s College or so the story went (fabulous) within hours of arriving as a new boy. This, of course, suited him perfectly (typecast) for the role of Gobbo (the runaway apprentice); equally Cassoni the Italian is nationality-perfect for Lorenzo.

Not recalling who played Jessica Heaney does remember the beautiful mystical description (out of this world) of Queen Dido yearning for her absent Aeneas with a willow in her hand upon the wild sea banks.

As for when and where this all happened Heaney can place it exactly – before the long holidays (summer’s language) … when he was 15 (1954) …  in the school’s new ultra-modern teaching block (glass and steel… showpiece classrooms), ironically ill-designed – starved of light (sun-thwarted).

  • McMahon, Irwin, Bredin, Cassoni: contemporaries of Heaney at St Columb’s College;
  • Bassanio, Gobbo, Portia, Jessica: characters from ‘The Merchant of Venice’;
  • final quotation from ‘The Merchant of Venice’, Act V,i;
  • three caskets: in the play those who wanted Portia’s hand in marriage were asked to select a casket (gold, silver or lead); to her delight Bassanio chooses correctly but their future is threatened by debts owed to money-lender Shylock;
  • dumb-show: without words to speak;
  • Act Five, Scene One: dialogue between Lorenzo and Jessica who compare themselves to famous lovers from classical literature – Troilus and Cressida, Pyramus and Thisbe, Dido and Aeneas;
  • sun-thwarted: starved of sunlight;
  • showpiece: new for all to see, outstanding;


  • 13-sentence construct in 3 sections of shortening length; lines including half lines 9-12 syllables; unrhymed;
  • Section 1 a flurry of separate sentences, stop-starts as class and memory are organised;
  • direct quotation;
  • real names and stage parts in abundance; active and mute participants (named roles/props/memory loss;
  • dual use adjectives: ‘fabulous’ denoting both top story and stuff of legend; ‘out of this world’ both impressive and otherworldly;’unforgotten’ both indelible memory and perhaps ‘I remember now’;
  • assonant strands: ‘Bassanio…Gobbo…low…nowhere…show’ /’placed…again…day…runaway’/ ‘five,,,night…wild’/ ‘scene…Cassoni…sea…sun…steel…showpiece classrooms’;
  • alliterative strands: velar [k/g] ‘Gobbo…cast…Gallagher…desk…caskets’; sibilants ‘scene…side…desk…caskets…placed’ etc; alveolar [t]’typecast…apprentice…Italian… unforgotten


Three visions of apocalypse then, beyond the reach of mayhem, the staid, dispassionate voice of the radio newsreader.

A snippet from Shakespeare’s Macbeth where Duncan’s horses ignited by the king’s murder surge up amidst elemental turbulence (plastered in wet) acts as a catalyst for three cataclysmic 1950s’happenings.

Firstly a dreadful incident from Heaney’s Mossbawn days when a huge storm threatened life and property (wild as the chestnut tree one terrible night in Mossbawn), its potential evident in the contortions of the radio aerial outside (like a mast whiplashed in tempest) and its fearsomeness clear from his mother’s anxiety (rocking), whimpers of fear (oching) and prayers for salvation (blessing herself).

The second stages an equally tumultuous event (the breach in nature open) from the 1950s’ Border Campaign (see below) as IRA paramilitaries fled (raiders’ lorry hammering on) towards the Irish Republic (Monaghan border) after a failed attack in Northern Ireland.

The lorry’s flatbed (railboard) runs with the blood (loosed in a scrim) of two of the group; the one still alive is in agony (the volunteer screaming) and, in fear of his life, praying to his Catholic maker (O Jesus! O merciful Jesus). 

Thirdly, remembrance of lives lost in a tragic 1953 storm at sea (the night The Princess Victoria was lost) recalls ‘Duncan’s horses’ (sink and gale-force and drowning broke from their stalls) and winds that reverberated as far as the Heaneys’ Mossbawn farm (whinnied round window and chimney).

From beyond the range of local elemental forces, the global reach of the newsreader (striding the airwaves), his trained, dispassionate presentation (voice abreast of the nightmare) overriding the worst that Nature could muster.

  • Duncan’s horses: reference to Macbeth Act 2iii/iv – Duncan, King of Scotland has been murdered; his death is followed by ominous elemental turbulence – a partial eclipse and animals behaving out of character;
  • aerial rod: a metal bar fixed up outside the home plucked radio signals from the air and transmitted them along a wire to the back of the radio set;
  • mast: tall upright post;
  • whiplash: jerk severely as if hit by a whip;
  • rock: move gently to and fro, from side to side;
  • och (Irish Scottish): exclamation of disbelief, surprise, shock;
  • bless oneself: make the sign of the cross
  • raider: marauder, attacker
  • hammer on: relentlessly pursue its course;
  • Monaghan border: land-locked, smallest county in the province of Ulster; one of three counties in Ulster, together with Donegal and Cavan, which does not form part of Northern Ireland; more than 200 crossing points;
  • loosed: shed;
  • Colin Armstrong researched and posted an item in a Belfast ‘News Letter’: the IRA Border Campaign (see also the poem of that name which deals with the attack on the Courthouse in Magherafelt) included an IRA attack of Jan 1st 1957 on an RUC station at Brookeborough in Co Fermanagh, close to the Monaghan border; the attack was repulsed and the raiders fled to Co Monaghan abandoning two of their group close to the border, one dead, one dying; the defeat was advertised as a propaganda coup
  • scrim: fracas, brawl suggesting an act of violence;
  • railboard: low metal rail fixed to a flatbed vehicle used to contain the load;
  • volunteer: here an IRA asset;
  • Princess Victoria: this medium sized Motor Vessel, sank off the County Down coast in treacherous weather, with the loss of 133 lives during the windstorm of 31 January 1953;
  • gale-force: describing strong, sustained winds
  • stall: indoor cubicle in which a horse is kept;
  • whinny: high pitched neigh of a horse;
  • abreast of: with up-to-date information;
  • stride: tread; take long steps;
  • airwaves: radio frequencies used for broadcasting;


  • 5-sentence construct of near-sonnet length; lines subsuming half lines in the range 10-12 syllables;
  • enjambment governs flow and rhythm;
  • 3 examples of extreme turbulence beyond man’s control, 2 elemental, the middle one political; finally, unaffected by tempest, the still, dispassionate voice that transmits the news;
  • Section 1: witnessed from close to – initial Shakespearean allusion/ metaphor reappears in section 3 embodied in the vocabulary of maritime disaster;
  • vocabulary reflecting the awesome power of nature and the frailty of man;
  • ‘plastered’ aligns building material and mud coating;
  • Catholic mother’s appeal to her God in a moment of desperation
  • Section 2: actual event learnt second-hand – a different, political extreme equally turbulent, equally unrestrained;
  • assonances:’wet…chestnut…terrible…tempest…blessing…self’/ ‘wild…night…like…my’/ ‘one…Moss…rocking and oching’/ ‘plastered…as…mast…lashed;
  • long sibilant alliterative chain: [s/z]’ horses, plastered…surge…as…chestnut…Moss’ etc; nasal[m] ‘Moss…mast…tempest…my mother
  • alliterative chains: bilabial [b]’breach…back…border…blood…board’; [h] + nasal [m]hammer…Monagh..scrim
  • Section 3: real event unfolding at a distance – vocabulary of life-threatening events linked to horse metaphor of line 1;
  • assonances: ‘or…Victoria…force…stalls’/ ‘was…was lost’;
  • alliterative chains: [w]’when…words…drowning…whinnied…window’/ ‘it …Princess Vic…sink……whinnied…window…chimney’;
  • ?mark invites comparisons
  • Post Script: the unflappable newsreader;
  • paired sounds: ’night…striding’/ ‘mare…air’;


In 1962 Heaney secured a holiday job at the Passport Office in London and was, for the first time (thus linking the Elizabethan age with the 20th century), able to watch outdoor Shakespeare in Regent’s Park (Romantic England live and well). He still recalls how Feste was played: the actor’s high-pitched voice, his intensity about music (sad counter-tenor and hugged lute), his sexuality (erotic as it got).

He fondly recalls the new independence of flatmates in an Earls Court flat – the alcohol (me, half tight); the cigarettes after midnight (small-hours fug) … the exhilaration of freedom to enjoy pastures new (in love with love) – the rough cider (scrumpy) – the heady thrill (bright glamour) of late-night clubbing – the see-in-the-dark ‘passport’ (phosphorescent mark … stamped on your hand) that guaranteed re-entry into his local haunt (Café des Artistes).

  • live and well: still active despite rumours to the contrary;
  • Twelth Night: Shakespearean comedy of 1601;
  • Regent’s Park: a Royal Park in Central London offering open-air theatre amongst its many attractions
  • Feste: servant in the play to Olivia; ‘ a witty fool’, ostensibly a clown, his main role is to speak the truth;
  • counter-tenor: the highest male voice range;
  • hug: hold close to express affection;
  • lute: hand plucked string instrument with long neck;
  • erotic: arousing, exciting, stimulate, sexual connotation;
  • half-tight: slightly drunk;
  • small hours: early hours of the morning after midnight;
  • fug: stuffy, smoky atmosphere in a room;
  • Earls Court: lively area of west central London known for its hotels and hostels, international travellers and student accommodation, well served with eating houses, bars and places of entertainment;
  • scrumpy: rough, strong cider originating in England’s West Country;
  • glamour: thrill, glitz;
  • phosphorescent: emitting radiant light
  • café des artistes: popular haunt of ‘clubbers’;
  • stamp: mark left that confirms you paid to go in;


  • 9 lines in 6 short sentences; lines based around 10 syllables; in of a rhyme pattern in the first 5 lines, otherwise unrhymed;
  • lines with more than a main clause are heavily enjambed;
  • assonant strands: ‘live…night…tight…bright.’/ ‘lute…student’/ ‘Park…dark…half…mark’/ ‘lute…student’/ ‘love with love…scrumpy’/ ‘phosphorescent…of…on’/ ‘stamped…hand’;
  • alliterative clusters: alveolar [t/d}’ Feste’s sad counter-tenor…hugged lute…erotic as it got’; nasals [m/n in ll5-6; fricative [f] ‘phosphorescent… Café


Heaney’s teaching diploma course was followed in 1962 by a short-term contract in a Belfast Secondary School. He spotted shades of Shakespearean Feste amongst his pupils.

The first in the low-ability classroom … Feste present in a Special Needs child (an ‘ESN’ from Class 1G) one of a bunch of spirited, crew-cut lookalikes (little gutsy suede-heads) Heaney took for physical education at the stub end of the week (for PT, Friday, two to three) and found a way that enabled them all to nip off early: the off-site teaching area (by the cemetery) with quick access to the city centre (short-cut to Falls Park) was unseen by authority … let go early. And then went myself).

Feste, too, with hearing aid and vacant expression (ear to his instrument and eye on nothing) in a much brighter but handicapped pupil (deaf boy in 5A), cared for (bud-pale hearing aid), compliant (clean school tie) and … easily scared (panic when I swooped. Sir, no! Please, sir!‘).

Feste, finally, in the most disadvantaged child (catatonic Bobby X ) with his twisted body (curled-in shoulders) and tear-duct problem (cabbage-water eyes),  unable or unwilling to communicate (speechlessly rocking), a paltry soul locked inside himself (little tiny boy shut up) to the intense frustration of the medical professionals who felt he was not trying hard enough : ‘Bobbv for Christ’s sake, Bobby, catch yourself on.’

Heaney with Bobby X in the school clinic (me in attendance), filled with compassion for a poor soul (sorrow’s elf)

weighed down by mental and physical disadvantage (bow his head and hunch) and living in his own little world (beyond us).

And there lay the difference between fact and fiction: left alone, Feste could transmit his thoughts to the audience (Exeunt all but FESTE: sings) unlike poor silent Bobby.

  • Secondary School: at that time more than 80% of children failed their national 11+ examination and were consigned to Secondary Schools; fewer than 20% passed and were sent to Grammar Schools;
  • ESN: Educationally Sub Normal (replaced by reference to children with Special Needs;
  • 1G: implied class of lowest ability children; 5A class of the brightest 16 year old pupils;
  • gutsy: spirited, showing courage, determination
  • suede-head: suede leather retains a nap of fine, short fibres; one contemporary hair style, the ‘crew cut’ left men’s and boys’ hair very short
  • PT: Physical Training – old name for Physical Education sometimes ‘gym’:
  • short-cut: alternative shorter journey;
  • Falls Park: recreational area off the Falls Road, a main thoroughfare through Belfast and scene of violence and confrontation during the Troubles
  • bud-pale: colour of a flower at its earliest stage;
  • swoop: descend like a bird of prey;
  • catatonic: affected by a disturbed mental state inducing immobility or unresponsiveness;
  • Bobby X: a disturbed youngster but a real name despite the coded reference that retained his real identity;
  • curled-in: drawing shoulders forward and inward;
  • cabbage-water: pale green liquid;
  • rock: move gently to and fro, from side to side;
  • catch yourself on: get a hold of yourself;
  • in attendance: present;
  • elf: small, delicate creature of folk-lore;
  • hunch: raise shoulders while bending forward;
  • exeunt: stage direction ‘all actors leave the stage’;


  • 4 section( 5+5+4+4) piece in 8 sentences; lines 10-12 syllables; unrhymed;
  • flow and rhythm governed by 40/60 balance of punctuated and enjambed lines
  • real life Festes ‘ for all the world’;
  • educational references and acronyms alongside Shakespearean stage directions;
  • use of compounds: ‘suede-heads…short-cut’ draws a neat echo of very short hair; ‘bud-pale’ shape and non-obtrusive colour of hearing-aid; ‘curled-in… cabbage-water’, visible shape and texture;
  • vocabulary of shut-in child: ‘catatonic…rocking…inside…; misshapenness: ‘curled-in; hunch’; outward signs: ‘bow and hunch’;
  • section 1 assonant strands: ‘Feste…Friday…suede’/ ‘ E…G…PT… three… gutsy…cemetery’/ ‘short…Falls’/ ‘cemetery…let…then…went…self’;
  • alliterative chains: sibilants [s/z];
  • section 2 ass: ‘eye…like… tie’/ ‘school…swoop’/ ‘with…his…his…instrument’/ ‘pale…aid’; all: sibs{s]/ bilabial [p]’panic…swooped…please’;
  • section 3 ass: ‘eyes…tiny…side…Christ’s’; allits – velar [k] ‘catatonic…curled…cabbage…rocking’; final triplet rich in sibs [s/z/sh];
  • section 4: ass – ‘Festé…stay…exeunt’/ ‘not…Bobby’/ ‘in…-ing…his…sings’;
  • child living in misery in his own world, ‘sorrow’s elf…beyond us’ with less quality-of -life than the fictional Feste;


Heaney returns to his response, in Gaeltacht, to the newspaper photograph of himself and friends on a weekend away: ‘if we could see ourselves, if the people we are now could hear what we are saying’.

Would the ‘real names’ of yesteryear be the same or different, be wearing a different ‘costume’ or possess the same nature as before (then say chameleon)? What if those young school sactors came together forty years on (the boy-men reappear) to reveal the people they had become (who’s-whoing themselves like changelings).                                                        

Ariel or the real name – the adolescent who once played Ariel, became a professional songster of national acclaim with an equally sprightly and affable nature (featly sweetly tuneful Philip Coulter).

Philip’s elder brother and Head Prefect fondly remembered by Heaney (wise Joe, good Banquo, costumed in the colour of honest impartiality – white … fairest of the prefects, charismatic and just, aura and justice) interpreted the double-sided character (soul in bliss or torment) of the character who tested Macbeth’s conscience (ghost on cue at the banquet) whilst around school helping Heaney through the misery of his early days of boarding school exile (entering memory like mitigation).

Appropriately the final scene brings the sequence full circle: St Columb’s Dramatic Society’s stage prop (table … long, formica-topped recognizably on loan from the refectory) was the one at which, daily, in strict fourteens, the callow youngsters they all were (moon-calves, know-nothings) waited patiently (stood by our chairs) for both the formal prayer of thanks before each school meal and for any talents God might one day bestow on them (grace).

  • chameleon: lizard with the ability to change colour; by extension person who changes opinion or behaviour to suit the circumstances;
  • who’s-who: recorded list of facts pertaining to a known person;
  • changeling: child substituted by the fairies for parents’ real child;
  • Ariel: character in ‘The Tempest’; spirit freed by Prospero from a spell that imprisoned him in a tree; bound to serve Prospero in return; acts as his eyes and ears; source of the magic present in the play;
  • the real name: actual people who have appeared in Heaney’s past, many acting out fictional roles;
  • featly: borrowing from The Tempest (‘Foot it featly here and there’); light-footed, nimble agile;
  • Philip Coulter (b. 19 February 1942) : musician, songwriter and record producer from Derry, alumnus of St Columb’s college, three years below SH; graduate of Queen’s University Belfast;
  • Joe Coulter: Philip Coulter’s eldest brother Joe … ‘a brain box and a final year head prefect’ at St Columb’s;
  • Banquo: murdered by Macbeth who sees him as a rival;
  • fair: both handsome and just;
  • aura: character; subtle emanation a person gives out
  • bliss: joy, pleasure;
  • ghost on cue: in Act 3, iv Macbethand Lady Macbeth host a banquet for the Scottish thanes. One of the hired assassins tells Macbeth that he has been successful in killing Banquo, but that Fleance escaped. During the banquet, Macbeth sees the ghost of Banquo sitting at his place at the table;
  • mitigation: extenuation
  • formica: durable plastic laminate common in 1950s’ kitchens
  • on loan: borrowed:
  • refectory: where communal meals were eaten;
  • moon-calf: foolish youngsters
  • grace: (dual intention) prayer of thanks spoken before a meal; god-given talents or blessings;


  • short sonnet length viz 13.5 lines; volta at line 10 shifts from some to all;;
  • unrhymed 6 sentence construct; balance between punctuated and enjambed lines; 2 questions;
  • line length 10-12 syllables;
  • assonant pairs and chains: ‘/say…change… name’/ ‘chameleon…reappear…be…real…featly sweetly’/ ‘who’s-whoing…tune…Coulter…cue’/ ‘men…themselves…already…’/ ‘Joe…Banquo…ghost…soul…loan’/ ‘white…wise’/ aura…torment…four’/ ‘table…stage…chairs…waited…grace’/ ‘already…featly…sweetly’;
  • alliterative echoes: [w] ‘who’s whoing…will…sweetly…white; [r] Ariel…real…already; bilabial {p/b} ‘Philip…Banquo…prefects’; ‘sibilants [s/z]seetly…as…dressed…fairest…prefects…justice…soul…bliss’; alveolar [t] torment…banquet…entering…table…topped…fourteen…refectory;
  • compounds: ‘boy-men’/ ‘aho’s-whooing/ ‘moon-calves/ ‘know-nothings’;
  • extremes of emotion ‘bliss or torment’;
  • repeat ‘enter’ on stage or into the soul;
  • the chasm between ‘know-nothings’ and national figures and a Nobel Laureate;


  • 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;


4 thoughts on “The Real Names

    1. Sorry, I appreciated your kind words then got a touch confused!
      The Vendler link started at Harvard where she is a distinguished professor of English Lit/ Lit written in English and a giant of the Senior Common Room (she has been ill recently so I’m not sure of her current position); Heaney referred to her as ‘the best close reader of poetry on the literary pages’ so his respect was total and they became friends; she published a book and made countless Heaney contributions to the cultural sections of leading US newspapers. Where are you mailing from Mary? I enjoy knowing where comments come from

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