Turpin Song

The poem is built around an emblematic eighteenth century horse-pistol that sat on a wall in the Heaney family home, long an object of both mystery and interest to Heaney and his siblings.

Heaney recalls the weapon in great detail: the intricate decoration of its grip (brass inlay smooth in the stock); its primed state (hammers cocked like lugs); the patterning (mottled) of its twin barrels; the evidence of discharge (sooty nostrilled) and its angled readiness for a duel (levelled).

Deliberately placed beyond reach of young curiosity (bracketed over the door) in an upstairs room, it was viewed as an imitation weapon with weight and mass (ghost  heft) that children’s itchy fingers longed to feeI and could imagine themselves handling (two fingers on two triggers) for all its adult size (the full of your hand of haft).

It conjured up questions about the Dick Turpin legend in young Heaney’s mind (Great North Road? …  tricorn hat?) that he could not reconcile with the humdrum local neighbourhood (Bob Cushley with his jennet? Ned Kane in his pony and trap?). In brief it was incongruous in an Ulster farmhouse: the thing was out of place.

Able to watch occasional films in the 1940s on the big screen of a local hall  (I lift up my eyes) he recalls first sight of a horse pistol in (unnamed by him) ’Barry Lyndon’, a Stanley Kubrick period-piece set in Ireland.

Memory of the big-screen pistol bouncing to earth (tumbling from over the door of the world) transports Heaney back to the age of seven or so (nineteen forty-eight or nine) … he and his siblings have disobeyed the rules (we have transgressed) and taken the pistol apart (it lies there, broken in bits).

The chill wind of conscience, crime and punishment blows through the open hayshed  and child-Heaney prays for salvation from above (I lift up my eyes)  be it divine or from the big screen population of a second Kubrick blockbuster (with the apes).

  • Dick Turpin: (1706–39), English highwayman; in fact a cattle and deer thief in Essex, England, entering into partnership with a second notorious highwayman; hanged at York for horse-stealing; example of a rogue turned popular hero and dramatized as a daring and dashing highwayman who famously rode from London to York on his faithful mare, Black Bess, in less than 24 hours (legend without a grain of truth);
  • horse-pistol: a large, period pistol carried at the pommel of the saddle by a rider
  • inlay: embedded decoration flush with a surface;
  • stock: section of a weapon to which barrel and firing mechanism are attached;
  • hammer: sprung section that strikes the explosive charge and detonates it
  • cock: click back in preparation for firing;
  • lug: animal ear;
  • mottled: with a pattern of coloured blotches;
  • barrel: tube section of as gun through which the bullet is fired;
  • nostrils: twin nasal cavities;
  • bracket: right-angled wall support;
  • heft (v): handle to test something’s weight;
  • trigger: spring release that fires a gun;
  • haft: grip;
  • Great North Road: main artery from London to Scotland, used as a mail and coach conduit attractive to highwaymen;
  • tricorn: hat with brim turned up on three sides;
  • Bob Cushley: speaking to DOD (p8) – One sound that struck me as special, even at the time, was the rat­a-tat of a pony and cart driven by a man called Bob Cushley: Bob always kept the jennet going at a really fast lick and brought a kind of storybook glamour to the place. Every other horse and cart lumbered and lock-stepped along but Bob seemed to have some kind of Phaethon complex and to be always trying for lift-off.
  • jennet: for Bob Cushley a jennet was a cross between a male pony (stallion) and a female donkey (filly or mare)’;
  • Ned Kane: second local character;
  • out of place: misplaced, incongruous, of the wrong age;
  • lift up one’s eyes: look upwards; further connotation: look heavenwards, raise one’s eyes in prayer;
  • Stanley Kubrick (1928 -1999): American film director, screenwriter, and producer; regarded by many as one of the greatest and most influential directors in cinematic history. His films, which are mostly adaptations of novels or short stories, cover a wide range of genres, and are noted for their realism dark humour, unique cinematography, extensive set designs and evocative use of music; his 1968 film ‘2001- A Space Odyssey’ wove an ape population into its narrative;
  • tumble: fall, come spinning;
  • transgress: break the rules;
  • ape: large primate, simian;


  • 5 quartets of 7-9 syllables in 10 sentences including a quartet of questions; balance of punctuation and enjambed lines governs flow and rhythm of spoken poem; unrhymed;
  • assonant and alliterative cocktail in first verse: ‘horse…called’/’stock…cocked…mottled…nostrilled/’ pistol…inlay…in’ ‘ sibilant ’brass…stock’ through to ‘sooty nostrilled’;
  • and elsewhere assonant ’over…lower…ghost/Road…rode/’Kane…place’; alliterative bilabial pairing [p] [b]; broken…bits…blows/’open…apes’;
  • simile gun hammers and ears;
  • personification – gun with nostrils
  • vocabulary of gun parts;
  • successful of time line from early 1700s, period piece films and childhood through to millennium films; identifiable characters of legend and reality, neighbours around Mossbawn;


  • 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: eleven 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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