A Postcard from North Antrim

IN MEMORY OF SEAN ARMSTRONG

Heaney revealed the background to his relationship with Armstrong (DOD 221-3): Sean was at Queen’s when I was there and edited the rag magazine… in October 1962 he was giving a party and had asked me. I’d actually met Marie a couple of nights before, on the Tuesday of that week, and had arranged for her to drop back the book she borrowed on the Thursday. So when she arrived to deliver it, I suggested we go down to Sean’s jamboree; she agreed, and the thing took off from there. Sean then disappeared from the scene and turned up again in the early seventies. He had spent time in communes of one sort or another in California, and turned into a wonderful, colourful, original man, half hippy, half artist, wholly committed to trying to do some good in Belfast. He became active as a social worker, and was moving between the factions, crossing the peace line from Shankill to Falls; for that reason, we have to presume, he began to be regarded by the hard men as some kind of spy and was shot.

As with all the poems of ‘Field Work’ is worth considering how each individual lyric, elegy and meditative piece contributes to Heaney’s barely veiled relief at severing his ties with Northern Ireland.

In its initial images the Postcard from North Antrim is just what it is – a holiday message welcoming folk to the Causeway Coast (lone figure … waving) – yet more than it seems – a metaphor for the way a longtime friend led his life on a precarious (thin line of a bridge of ropes and slats) route (slung dangerously out) between two landmasses (cliff-top … pillar rock) – yet still a holiday memento of its time (nineteenth-century wind) featuring a traditional sea industry (dulse-pickers) and local flora (sea campions). Think rope bridge think man on the tight rope of a dangerous job.

Heaney clarifies the addressee (postcard for you, Sean) personally (that’s you), ploughing your own furrow (swinging alone), openly a touch colourful (antic), never totally secure (half-afraid), partly the old Irish renegade (gallowglass’s beard) dressed as it pleased you (swallow-tail of serge) … your early Antrim phase and my postcard metaphor (Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge) aligned as I elegise you as if you were still living (ghost-written on sepia).

Where would we have found you, Sean, in your Californian Sausalito phase? Part of the the in-community  (houseboat), with its taste for non-western cultures (ethnically furnished) and openly smoking pot (redolent of grass), moored along the water-front (warm-planked, democratic wharves) enjoying long evenings of live music (twilights and guitars)?

Then repatriation to Ireland (drop-out on a come-back), still unfulfilled (prince of no-man’s land) perhaps beyond fulfilment because unrealistic (head in clouds) or myopic (head in sand) – the same jester in new Belfast raiment (clown social worker of the town) openly taking risks (your candid forehead) that led to your death on the landing outside your flat (pointblank teatime bullet).

Heaney urges Sean to rise from the dead (get up from your blood on the floor) and join an ‘alternative’ collective in a Northern Irish landscape (another boat in grass by the lough shore), with the smells of Ireland (turf smoke) with sensible restraint (wired hen-run) and like-minded folk who have eluded you thus far (local, hoped for, unfound commune).

Now perform for me as you used to … the ballad of a murderous husband (recite me William Bloat), or the ill-fated sailing vessel (Calabar), or the Antrim hero of Irish unification (Henry Joy McCracken) who met his end in poignant farewell (kissed his Mary Ann) at the end of a rope in Belfast (gallows at Cornmarket) … and entertained at Antrim Harvest celebrations (Ballycastle Fair). Sing out unaccompanied (the raw bar) and give it your all (by brute force) … if you have forgotten the tune (air) then busk it.

Heaney reflects for a moment: somehow, Sean, you never sang as you would have liked to (something in your voice stayed nearly shut) – your convictions were somehow inhibited (your voicea harassed pulpit) – you held the floor (leading the melody) and yet held back (kept at bay).

As for your delivery, yours was forthright vernacular (independent, rattling, non-transcendent Ulster) – imbued with traditional courtesy (old decency), aromas of special local alcohol (Old Bushmills) and local delicacies (Soda farls, strong tea) – products from further afield – Belfast (new rope) or Carrickfergus (rock salt) – quotidian staple produce (kale plants), local treats (potato-bread) and tobacco (Woodbine).

Your professional dealings took you across sectarian boundaries (wind through the concrete vents) and into explosive neighbourhoods (border check-point … cold zinc nailed) in the search for something better (peace line).

Finally Heaney acknowledges the debt (fifteen years ago, come this October) he has owed since the party Armstrong hosted (crowded on your floor) that launched a life-long relationship (my arm round Marie’s shoulder for the first time).  At the time his evident interest in Marie Devlin was given the raunchy rugby song treatment (‘Oh, Sir Jasper, do not touch me!‘) at full blast (roared across at me) as Armstrong got everyone singing (chorus-leading) and kept replenishing their glasses (splashing out the wine).

  • slat: thin, narrow piece
  • sling: hitch at each end
  • pillar rock: basalt rock can be deposited in hexagonal columns;
  • dulse: dark red edible seaweed;
  • sea campion: pretty coastal plant
  • antic: (archaic) mischievous, messing about;
  • gallowglass: Irish mercenary soldier;
  • swallow-tail: coat with a deeply forked tail;
  • serge: hard-wearing worsted fabric;
  • Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge: dizzying bridge between North Antrim mainland and the island of that name east of the Giant’s Causeway; regarded as a tourist feature and not for the faint-hearted;
  • ghost-writer: person who pens a text that bears another’s name as the author;
  • sepia: reddish-brown colour associated with early monochrome photographs;
  • houseboat: floating home;
  • ethnic: associated with foreign/ non-western cultures;
  • redolent: smelling strongly of
  • grass: marijuana;
  • wharf: quayside area/ frontage;
  • democratic: related in America to Post Independence factions opposed to extensive powers being invested in Federal government; suggestive of people wishing to make up their own rules;
  • Sausalito: Californian town opposite San Francisco known for its artists, hippies and houseboat community;
  • drop-out: person pursuing an alternative life-style;
  • no-man’s land: undefined area between different factions;
  • head in the clouds: ignoring/ indifferent to problems they face;
  • head in the sand: resistant to unpleasant realities that impact on you;
  • social worker: employed provider of help and support to people who need it;
  • candid: frank, forthright, naïve;
  • pointblank: at very close range;
  • hen-run: spacious chicken enclosure;
  • commune: group of people living together with shared attitudes, possessions and responsibilities;
  • William Bloat: 1926 ballad by Protestant William Calvert on the loyalist/unionist side of NI politics; written as a piece of comedic irony performed when a theatre production closed; the first verse reads In a mean abode on the Skankill Road/Lived a man named William Bloat;/He had a wife, the curse of his life,/Who continually got his goat./So one day at dawn, with her nightdress on/ He cut her bloody throat.
  • Calabar: Irish song with forty verses following the fate of the crew of a ship sung, amongst many, by Heaney’s close friend David Hammond;
  • Henry Joy McCracken: leading member of the Society of the United Irishmen who sought to raise an army in Antrim to fight the British Crown in the late 1700s; captured, court-martialled and publically hanged on Belfast Cornmarket in 1798; his sister was called Mary Ann; the incident became a popular ballad;
  • gallows: wooden structure on which criminals were hanged;
  • Ballycastle Fair: Lammas Fair held at the end of August in Co. Antrim’s Ballycastle; celebrated in a ballad written by local shopkeeper and fiddler John Henry MacAuley to enhance its fame.
  • raw bar (Ulsterism) unaccompanied performance of a song;
  • brute force: suggestive of volume rather than skill;
  • air: melody;
  • harassed: careworn, hard-pressed
  • pulpit: raised enclosed platform in church from which the sermon is delivered
  • keep at bay: keep at arm’s length;
  • rattling: pacey;
  • non-transcendental: within the normal; within the limitations of the material universe;
  • Old Bushmills: North Antrim distillery producing Irish whisky;
  • soda farl: Northern Irish quadrant shaped flat bread;
  • potato-bread: less common name for soda bread;
  • Woodbines: iconic cigarette brand dating from the 1920s;
  • vent: air opening in a confined space;
  • border check-point: fortified building during the Troubles in Belfast separating warring estates (e.g. Shankill and The Falls;
  • zinc: galvanised iron;
  • ‘Oh Sir Jasper’: chauvinist song of the period in which women were sex-objects;
  • splash out: dispense freely;

 

  • HV (60) The problem of elegy is always to revisit death while not forgetting life, and the structure of any given elegy suggests the relation the poet postulates between those two central terms.
  • MP (159) The elegies to his three murdered friends, Colum McCartney (‘The Strand at Lough Beg’), Sean Armstrong (‘A Postcard from North Antrim’) and Louis O’Neill (‘Casualty ‘), similarly demonstrate Heaney’s refusal to allow bullet and the bomb to have the final word. The appalling, unnatural circumstances in which these deaths occurred are powerfully recorded – ‘the blood and roadside muck’, the ‘pointblank teatime bullet’, the fact of being ‘blown to bits’ – yet, through the intercession of memory, Art and Nature, Heaney manages to assuage his sense of loss, and to strike sharp, clear notes in celebration … A key confirmatory presence behind these elegies is that of Dante …Heaney tries to converse with and question the dead;
  • Sean Armstrong was a friend from Queen’s, and for a while ‘part of the commune-pot smoking generation’ in Sausalito. Returning to Belfast in the early seventies ‘to get involved in social work’, he was shot ‘by some unknown youth’ …Armstrong seems loud, brash, and ebullient… What the modest fisherman of ‘Casualty’ and the generous, genial clown share, however, apart from their status as victims, is uniqueness, individuality, irreplaceability Each elegy is a delicate act of restoration, in which the poet replaces a lost friend in his proper element. (ibid)

 

  • Nine septets (S) in twenty sentences;
  • the relative balance between sentence length, punctuation marks (including interrogatives but no exclamations) and enjambed lines determines flow and rhythm within the oral delivery possibilities;
  • varied line length generally between 4- 10 syllables ; several septets contain a longer line length
  • some rhyme at different intervals without a formal formal scheme ; assonant echoes of final syllables often replace closer rhyme;
  • S1 contains an objective description of a coastal feature as witnessed from an actual postcard also depicting old customs; one continuous present in a heavily enjambed sentence followed by 3 sentences without a main verb;
  • S2 enter elegy via use on name and personal pronoun and reference to death ‘(ghost’); personality introduced via the outer expression of inner feelings and style of garb; present tense sustained;
  • S3 accommodation and activities of a different phase and a different geography; interrogatives indicate the poet is only guessing; solid enjambment; present tense sustained;
  • S4 rhyming + change to past tense to indicate he is no longer; compound noun and adjective (noun ‘kid’ omitted; antithesis ‘drop-out > come-back; misfit in wartime sense ‘prince of no-man’s land’ with personality that corroborates this: ellipsis ‘head in clouds or sand’; the end of a human life presented in graphic emphasis;
  • S5 hope for resurrection from Sean’s Purgatory to an Irish alternative landscape expressed as an imperative;
  • into S6 Armstrong’s all-Irish political attitude corroborated by a directory of ballads; contrasts in S7 between his posturing and his true nature: ‘nearly shut’ … ‘harassed pulpit’… ‘leading > at bay’; back to a present tense
  • ‘old decency’ – S8 contrasts old Antrim as implied or portrayed by the original postcard with the bleakness of the contemporary military scene in which Armstrong might have been involved and that led to his death;
  • S9 anniversary and moment of sheer pleasure– everything full throttle – the host, the poet, life and promise: contemporary life with huge ‘presentness’ though recounted in the past;

 

  • 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;
  • alliterative effects: the first stanza is rich in nasals [m] [n] and alveolar plosives [t] [d], front-of-mouth sounds labio-dental fricatives [f] [v] bilabial plosives [p] [b] and breathy [w] alongside velar [k] [g];

 

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