Background: Heaney talked about O’Neill with DOD (214) Louis O’Neill was a regular customer in my father-in-law’s public house in Ardboe: a small farmer and eel fisherman. The kind of level-headed, low-key, humorous countryman I always feel at home with. Sometimes I’d be on the outside of the counter with him and his friends, as a customer, and sometimes, as the public saw, I’d be on the inside, doing barman. My friendship with Louis was special because of that unforgettable summer morning when I went out on Lough Neagh with him and another companion to lift the eel lines. So when he was killed in that explosion, I knew I would have to write something, but wasn’t sure how it could be done. My father-in-law had closed his premises on the night of the curfew to mark the Bloody Sunday funerals, but Louis had gone to another place that was admitting people by the back door and continuing to do business.
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 having severed his ties with Northern Ireland.
Heaney’s tap-room ‘friend’ remains anonymous but the man’s presence in the pub at Ardboe is clearly set out: an aloof character (drink by himself) requiring only his eel-fisherman’s thumb (weathered) to select the ledge (raise … towards the high shelf) where a favoured tipple sat (another rum and blackcurrant), without need for words (raise his voice); or signalling a different drink (order a quick stout) via facial movement (lifting of the eyes) and a wordless (discreet dumb-show) bottle-opening gesture (pulling off the top).
When no more drinks were to be had (closing time) off he would go dressed in his fishing clobber (waders and peaked cap) through the watery Co Tyrone night (showery dark) O’Neill’s income, it seemed, was based on charitable hand outs (dole-kept breadwinner) but he was no shirker (a natural for work).
Heaney grew attached to the man (loved his whole manner) for his nimble minded (sure-footed) and self-assured wiliness (too sly), the impassive pauses (deadpan idling tact) that concealed his alertness (fisherman’s quick eye) to things heard but not seen (turned observant back).
O’Neill was curious about the young intellectual courting the publican’s daughter (incomprehensible to him, my other life). His communication would be across the bar (sometimes on his high stool) whilst he was otherwise engaged (busy with his knife) with preparing a smoke (tobacco plug) – avoiding direct contact (not meeting my eye), to fill a gap between mouthfuls (pause after a slug) but providing Heaney with a cue (mentioned poetry) … un-witnessed (on our own).
The considerate Heaney (always politic) avoided patronizing him (shy of condescension) by shrewdly (manage by some trick) changing the subject to fishing (switch the talk to eels) or pre-car transport (lore of the horse and cart) or ominously the threats made by Catholic paramilitaries (Provisionals). In fact O’Neills’ subsequent murder was attributed to protestant paramilitaries.
Heaney’s hesitant way of dealing with their contact (my tentative art) – his pen-name was Incertus in those early days of poetry – would not be lost on O’Neill (his turned back watches too).
Casual bar-chat about paramilitaries came to pass (he was blown to bits). O’Neill chose to defy (out drinking in a curfew) an IRA demand (to be obeyed) that people stay home on February 2nd 1972 – three nights after Bloody Sunday carnage (thirteen men in Derry), wryly daubed as a football score on the walls of the Catholic estate (PARAS THIRTEEN, BOGSlDE NIL) – when nearly everyone else sat tight and waited (held his breath and trembled.
Background: A solemn requiem mass was held on February 2nd 1972 at St Mary’s in the Creggan area of Londonderry for 11 of the 13 civil rights demonstrators killed by soldiers of the 1st Parachute Regiment on Bloody Sunday, 30th January 1972. The coffins of the victims were carried out of the church, accompanied by grief-stricken relatives,to where a huge crowd of mourners waited. People stood on the roof of a nearby building in order to see what was going on. Black flags were flown from houses. The exit from church was accompanied by Cardinal Conway walking beside Fr. Anthony Mulvey and behind them Bishop McFeely and Bishop Farren.
Heaney records the events: the pathetic fallacy of weather and inner feelings (day of cold raw silence); the attendant clergy depicted in synecdoche (wind-blown surplice and soutane); the centrepieces (coffin after coffin) reflecting despondency, decorated (rained-on, flower-laden), swaying above the heads of mourners (seemed to float from the door) and suggestive of Celtic river ceremonies (blossoms on slow water).
He describes a crescendo of emotion: the mundane launch (common funeral), the emblematic bond of condolence (swaddling band) increasing its grip (lapping, tightening) and enwrapping the mourners (braced and bound) into a close circle of like-mindedness (brothers in a ring).
Louis O’Neill chose to transgress: his nature (would not be held at home) distanced him from fellow Catholics (his own crowd) despite the menace of reprisal (threats … phoned … black flags waved).
Heaney imagines the pre-death mask (as he turned), of the man in a distant dissenting bar (bombed offending place), O’Neill’s panicked disbelief (remorse fused with terror) an instant before the blast (still knowable face) his trapped, defeated expression (cornered outfaced stare) caught in the split second prior to the shock-waves (blinding in the flash).
Louis had travelled to a public house still willing to serve (miles away) – was it the alcohol dependency of a man who ironically caught fish for a living (drank like a fish nightly), drawn to the bait (swimming towards the lure) of comfortable tap rooms (warm lit-up places) with their cocktail of sound (blurred mesh and murmur) filtering (drifting) between the symbols of pub conviviality (glasses … gregarious smoke).
Did O’Neill’s punishment (how culpable was he) fit the crime (when he broke our tribe’s complicity)?
The untaught O’Neill would have sent the question back (you’re supposed to be an educated man) in his Ardboe vernacular (‘Puzzle me the right answer to that one’).
Heaney missed his funeral, but can picture it well enough: a peaceful cortege (quiet walkers) sneaking a word with each other (sideways talkers) predominantly men from the fishing trade (shoaling out of his lane) behind the coffin conveyed almost in silence (respectable purring of the hearse).
The church-bound procession morphs slowly into a new scenario – O’Neill and Heaney fishing on Lough Neagh, proceeding at cortege tempo (in equal pace) pain dulled (habitual slow consolation) by the motor’s gentle turnover (dawdling engine).
A trawl is taking place (line lifted, hand over fist) in invigorating conditions (cold sunshine), the shore masked by a wash of low cloud (land banked under fog). The young poet is enjoying the sheer pleasure of a lough outing offered by O’Neill (taken in his boat), the propeller churning the lazy surface (screw purling, turning indolent fathoms white).
What the fisherman catches and what the poet captures are suddenly very close: the initial excitement (I tasted freedom with him), the prompt starts (get out early), the engagement in a lifelong habit (haul … off the bottom), the concern for quality (dispraise the catch) the knowing when things are going well (smile).
The Louis O’Neill tempo (rhythm working you) takes them little by little (slow mile by mile) to the point where the man and his domain (your proper haunt) merge into one fixed, transcendent image (somewhere, well out, beyond).
In Casualty’s final triplet Heaney pleads for O’Neill’s ghost to be released for daybreaks on Lough Neagh (dawn-sniffing revenant) or wending his way home from the Ardboe pub (plodder through midnight rain) – to be able to pick up the threads of friendship with a young poet (question me again) now setting him in the eternal present of his poem.
- weathered: worn by constant exposure to the elements;
- stout: strong dark beer e.g. Guinness;
- discreet: chary, wary, less than obvious;
- dumb-show: orchestrated use of gesture without words:
- top: metal cap sealing a bottle:
- closing time: public houses were obliged by law not to exceed licensing hours;
- waders: waterproofs for legs and body;
- peak: stiff brim of a cap;
- dole-kept: in receipt of charitable donations; later a state benefit;
- breadwinner: (sole) income earner supporting a family;
- sure-footed: not likely to stumble; finely balanced;
- deadpan: poker-faced; impassive;
- plug: chunk cut from a cake of tobacco for chewing:
- meet someone’s eye: look directly eye to eye; the negative suggests something puzzling;
- slug: swig, large mouthful swallowed;
- politic: shrewd, canny;
- condescension: patronizing, superior attitude;
- trick: clever ploy;
- lore: body of knowledge;
- Provisionals: active military wing of the I.R.A.;
- tentative: hesitant, uncertain;
- curfew: instruction to remain indoors from dusk to dawn;
- Bloody Sunday: reference to January 30 1972 when British paratroopers (Para 1) shot and killed 13 unarmed protesters in Derry; 11 of the victims were
- hold one’s breath: wait anxiously;
- raw: sore, painful;
- surplice: loose white clerical vestment;
- soutane: Catholic priest’s cassock;
- laden: loaded, weighed down;
- packed: crowded;
- swaddling band: linen wrapped round a newly born;
- lapped: enfolded;
- braced: pressed firmly together to keep balance;
- threat: warning;
- offending: causing a problem or displeasure;
- remorse: regret, guilt feelings;
- fused: joined using great heat;
- cornered: trapped in a corner; in a position from which escape is impossible;
- outface: defeat an enemy by facing up to them;
- blinding: unable to see;
- lure: bait;
- blurred: indistinct:
- mesh: tangled cocktail of sound;
- murmur: low-level chatter;
- drift: filter;
- gregarious: convivial, sociable;
- culpable: blameworthy, reproachable;
- complicity: mutual collaboration
- puzzle me: (colloquialism) work out for me;
- sideways: from the corner of the mouth;
- shoal: large number of fish gathering together;
- purr: low rich throaty sound;
- hearse: vehicle transporting a coffin;
- consolation: alleviation of anxiety
- dawdle: proceed with no hurry;
- line: reference hook trailed in water to catch fish;
- hand over fist: very rapidly;
- fog bank: thick cloud of fog often over water;
- screw: propeller;
- purl: flow with murmuring sound;
- fathom: 6 foot (depth of water)
- dispraise: censure, criticize;
- work: lead with effort towards;
- haunt: stamping ground, domain;
- sniff: pick up the smell of, test what something has in store;
- revenant: returner from the dead
- plod: trudge;
Heaney revealed a bitter irony to DOD (215) In the beginning, incidentally, we thought that the bomb might have been placed by the Provisional IRA as a reprisal for the publican’s defiance of the curfew, but that is not the opinion of the journalists who compiled Lost Lives, a book that a book that reports the facts surrounding every death resulting from the Troubles. They believe it could have been a (Unionist paramilitary) UVF operation. But whoever did it, they left Louis O’Neill ‘blown to bits’.
Commenting on the time it took to settle on his final draft Heaney told (DOD 215 I did have one big uncertainty to explore, a dilemma that many people in the north were then experiencing very acutely, stretched as they often were between the impulse to maintain political solidarity and their experience of a spiritual condition of complete solitude. I saw in Louis O’Neill’s transgression of the curfew – which was basically a call for solidarity – an image of the Joycean non serviam (I will not serve)
- 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;
- NC (96)‘Casualty’ is also a meditation on the ethics of betraying ‘our tribe’s complicity’, the complex loyalties of a Northern Catholic. The poem is formally ironic: written in the rhyming, triple-stress metre of Yeats’s ‘The Fisherman’ which conjures from the Celtic Twilight an idealized West of Ireland peasant as the perfect, if unlikely, dedicatee of his work , Heaney’s poem contains its fisherman too, but a rather less idealized one, ‘dole-kept’. Knowing the poet only in the pub and on the boat, be finds that ‘other life’ of poetry ‘Incomprehensible’, although he is curious. ‘Casualty’ joins the two lives and two worlds together when it brings O’Neill, uncondescendingly, into this poem;
- NC (98) When O’Neill’s fishing and Heaney’s poetry are joined in these concluding lines, their mutual lonely ‘beyondness’ takes them ‘well out’ from that image of community, the ‘common funeral’ of the thirteen dead of Bloody Sunday, which occupies the central section of ‘Casualty’ … the one poem of Heaney’s which explicitly includes Bloody Sunday is an elegy not for its thirteen dead, but for one ‘Casualty’ – that neutrally exculpating, statistical term of the military strategist – killed in reprisal;
- NC (97) Turning, and turning away, are the ethical gestures found deeply compelling in ‘Casualty’, but not firmly assented to; and in this sense also Yeats’s ‘The Fisherman’ is a ghostly intertext for Heaney’s poem. There, the fisherman is imagined into being ‘In scorn of this audience’: of, that is, the audience which Yeats, perhaps arrogantly, always found disappointing.
- The fisherman of ‘Casualty’ similarly offers a figure for the ‘proper haunt’ of a poet who would not be curbed or constrained by even the most compelling expectations of an audience or a ‘tribe’. (ibid)
- MP (163) The sad irony is that now, as a result of his friend’s tragic, horrific death, a poem exists, bridging what had seemed to be distinctly separate worlds, distinctly separate personalities.
- MP (164) The analogies he draws between the fisherman’s way of working and the poet’s way of making bind them together, enabling him to view his creative enterprise as an extension of O’Neill’s life. The final couplet contains an almost filial plea that this ‘old father’32 this ‘Dawn-sniffing revenant’, will return as a spirit to question him, to quicken his sense of poetic purpose, to guide him on ‘the land’ … banked under fog’ andthrough misty waters.
- ‘Casualty’ was a new kind of poem for me , a plotted shape, and the narrative and metrical built-upness of it meant that bits of it could be shifted from one position to another, in a way that wouldn’t be possible with free verse. The sixth sense is what you’re depending on at times like that, the hunch that the job’s not finished, the need to put feelers out around it and into it to see where the problem lies. (DOD 215);
- I eight sentences in three verses (20+13+11); line length gathered tightly around 6 syllables (2 lines of 7 syllables;
- overall the relative balance between sentence length, punctuation marks (including upper-case graffito, no interrogatives but no exclamations) and enjambed lines determines flow and rhythm within close iambic delivery possibilities;
- much use of rhyme largely but not totally ababcdcd format ; assonant echoes of final syllables often replace closer rhyme;
- Initial celebration of visual convivial, recurrent quotidian portrait with no sound; second verse to do with meeting of minds and attitudes; final verse reports on violent circumstances and responses of the affected (graffito)
- compound nouns and adjectives combine single elements into one idea;
- colloquial vocabulary: ‘plug’, ‘slug’;
- ‘too’ adverb hints the alternative, determined nature of O’Neill;
- cognitives of ‘turn’ ;
- II eight sentences in three verses (13+10+15); line length gathered tightly around 6 syllables (peppered with 5- of 7 syllable lines;
- overall the relative balance between sentence length, punctuation marks (question of guilt/ personal responsibility introduce an interrogative) and enjambed lines determines flow and rhythm within close iambic delivery possibilities;
- overall the piece is heavily enjambed – the view of and response to requiem mass, O’Neill’s death and how much he contributed to it emerge as individual flows of consciousness;
- use of pathetic fallacy, synecdoche; simile introduces eastern watery requiem practices;
- image of swaddling band as a means to public solidarity;
- effective cinematographic reworking of explosion and death;
- ‘fish’ neat juxtaposition of alcohol dependency that determines personal behaviour ‘lure’;
- question of culpability beyond poet and victim – colloquiality;
- III five sentences in two verses (25 +3); slightly more variable line length gathered tightly around 6 syllables (peppered with 5- of 7 syllable lines;
- overall the relative balance between sentence length, punctuation marks and enjambment determines flow and rhythm within close iambic delivery possibilities;
- the final piece retains the same balance and rhyme format largely but not uniquely ababcdcd format ; assonant echoes of final syllables often replace closer rhyme;
- image of fisher-folk ‘shoaling’ like fish;
- vocabulary chosen to illustrate the low-key, unflurried approach to life around Lough Neagh even at solemn moments or routine activity; celebration of quotidian in the demeanours of the mourners and routines of the fisherman;
- lough scene is a fabulous representation of the real thing; it is worth trying to recreate it in one’s head;
- the poem’s use of sound and pace is used to trigger a cinematic dissolve and resolve technique in words: standard mid-Ulster funeral procession emerges as a Lough Neagh fishing treat;
- extremely moving final triplet loosely connected to Dante translating as ‘wish-we-could-still-enjoy-each-other’s- company’
- Swaddling band Heaney employs the allusion to stress that the thirteen victims of Bloody Sunday were innocent of any crime, and to remind us how collective horror at their murder had the effect of strengthening bonds within the Catholic community (MP 163)
- MP 164 There is an affinity in form and content between ‘Casualty’ and Yeats’s dawn-set celebration of ‘isolation, self-containment, natural life’,33 ‘The Fisherman’. Both are written in trimeters, employ iambic rhythms, and rhyme on alternate lines (ababcdcdejej). For each poet, the fisherman is ‘The most unlike’, a kind of ‘anti- seIf’, who embodies independence, wisdom, integrity, and refusal to submit to the will of the crowd.
- 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;
- alliterative effects: the final six lines of III are dominated by nasals [m] [n], alveolar plosives [t] [d] and front-of-mouth sounds – breathy [w] [y] and [l], bi-labial plosives [p] [b] and fricatives [f] [v];