The Strand at Lough Beg

By any measure The Strand at Lough Beg makes a substantial contribution to the collection with its very personal subject-matter, its contrast between intensity and calm, its alternation between violence and peaceableness, between brutality and final restorative gestures.

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 and his eagerness to ratify the family move to the Irish Republic.

DOD221 SH When I read the passage at the start of Dante’s Purgatorio 1 (from line 100) describing that little lake and rushy shore where Virgil and Dante find themselves once they emerge from the murk of hell, I couldn’t not connect it with my own strand at Lough Beg, 10 miles from Castledawson.

Dante’s epigraph describes the area around the entrance to the classical Underworld – a shoreline (little islandstrand) beneath Dante’s and Virgil’s gaze (far down below) with strong running waves (breakers strive), wetland flora (tall rushes) and squelchy ground (oozy sand). The piece will ultimately introduce Heaney and the shade of his second cousin proceeding across the strand at Lough Beg as Heaney pens a moving elegiac passage to Colum McCartney, dead yet re-animated and following the Dante route into Purgatory.

The scene of a brutal sectarian killing is set in Co. Armagh’s hellish bandit country during the Troubles. Colum McCartney is engaged on what will be his final journey. The area he leaves is dark (white glow of filling stations) and sparsely populated (few lonely streetlamps among fields).

The poet follows Colum’s route in his mind (hills towards NewtownhamilltonFews Forest), under the heavens (out beneath the stars) and up onto the plateau criss-crossed by the religious St. Patrick’s Way (high, bare pilgrim’s track).

Heaney adds that the exiled Old Irish King Sweeney of Sweeney Astray had reached this very spot on his avian peregrinations and borrows from his translation to paint those who lay in ambush for Sweeney as evil spirits (bloodied heads, Goat-beardsdogs’ eyesdemon pack) erupting from below (blazing out of the ground), threatening to bite him (snapping) and baying stridently (squealing). The fate McCartney would suffer was worse than Sweeney who escaped.

Heaney, as his interrogatives suggest, can only imagine paramilitary ambush routines:  either a slow-motion charade ahead of Colum’s car (faked road blockred lamp swung), the driver’s late reaction (sudden brakes) thwarting any chance of escape (stalling engine) … paramilitary presences (voices, heads hooded) and the indifferent agent of death (cold-nosed gun); or a second scenario mounted from the rear (driving mirrortailing headlights) with the pace and drama of a film-noir (pulled out suddenlyflagged you down) .

At the end of the day an unwitting victim who found himself unrecognised (where you weren’t known) on unfamiliar ground (far from what you knew) – his home fifty miles to the north (lowland clays and waters of Lough Beg) with its signature feature (Church Island’s spire) and gentle perennial middle-ground (soft treeline of yew).

So to Lough Beg itslelf where Colum was accustomed (used) to hearing shots (guns fired behind the house) at the crack of dawn (long before rising time) fired by ghostlike (haunted) marksmen (duck shooters) moving through Lough Beg flora (marigolds and bulrushes). They were not to the diffident young man’s taste (scared to find spent cartridges) – their pungency (acrid) jaundiced colour (brassy) emblem of male bravado (genital) scattered by rapid re-load weapons (ejected). Colum came from the quietist fatalistic branch of the wider Heaney clan (DOD 222).

Colum’s simple daily chore (fetch the cows) was that of a farming boy of a sort known to young Heaney whose father Patrick grazed cattle on the Lough Beg strand and might take young Seamus along. Such were the similarities across the clan – a common reluctance to get involved (you and yours and yours and mine fought shy), a way of copying their forebears (spoke an old language), no strangers to off-the-record deals (conspirators), laid back (not crack the whip), unable to appreciate moments of pleasure (not … seize the day).

Both Colum’s and Heaney’s people were lusty manual workers (big-voiced scullions), cattlemen (herders), assessors of yield (feelers) be it crops or beasts (haycocks and hindquarters), chewing the fat as they worked (talkers in byres), recalling at their own pace who was buried where (slow arbitrators of the burial ground).

Epilogue and elegy. In the final dream-like Dantesque movement set in a healing landscape Heaney finds himself on Colum’s idyllic ground (that strand of yours) the ruminant cattle half submerged (graze up to their bellies) against the diffused light of dawn (early mist), unfazed by what was familiar to them (unbewildered gaze).

Heaney reveals he is not alone (we work our way) amidst the strand’s moist growth (squeaking sedge drowning in dew) and an ominous weaponized dazzle (dull blade … edge honed bright) cast by sunlight filtering down over lough water (half shines under the haze).

Loss of soundtrack warns Heaney that something is amiss (sweeping of your feet has stopped behind me) – Colum is down (on your knees) bearing scars identical to those left on his corpse abandoned in the Fews (blood and roadside muck in your hair and eyes).

Heaney’s response is reverential (kneel in front of you in brimming grass). He might be hearing Cato’s instruction to Virgil in the original Dante – see that you tie a smooth rush round this man, and bathe his face, so that all foulness is wiped away. As if to fit Colum for the next stage in his journey Heaney cleanses him with great compassion (cold handfuls of the dew to wash you, cousin) and care (I dab you clean with moss) as gently as he can (fine as the drizzle out of a low cloud), before lifting him bodily (under the arms) and laying him out (flat).

The poet’s final act of care: he uses restorative flora (rushes that shoot green again) to fashion (plait) an emblematic monk’s cape (green scapulars) possibly in the hope of post-Purgatory resurrection but certainly to mantle with the colour of the Emerald Isle Colum’s washed-out burial vestment (wear over your shroud).

  • Colum McCartney: murdered by Loyalist paramilitaries in 1975; member of Seamus Heaney’s ‘wider’ family; a second cousin, son of a cousin of his father’s; child of a Scullion married to a McCartney; Heaney suggests he never knew him personally;
  • strand: shore of sea or lake:
  • breaker: heavy sea wave breaking with white foam on a beach;
  • strive: make every effort;
  • rushes: tall-growing waterside plants
  • oozy: muddy and slimy;
  • filling station: petrol/ diesel station
  • Newtownhamilton: small town in Co Armagh fifty miles south of Lough Beg;
  • Fews: forest in Co Armagh;
  • pilgrim’s track: allusion to the route of St Patrick’s Way criss-crossing Co. Armagh;
  • Sweeney: legendary 7th Ulster king , protagonist of Buile Suibhne, an Irish medieval work probably composed in the ninth century; first translated into English in 1913. Seventy years later, Heaney himself wrote and published a second translation entitled Sweeney Astray which he was beginning to revise at the time of Field Work’s publication. Cursed by a cleric whose sacred book he has thrown into a lake and attempted to kill. Sweeney goes mad during the battle of Moira, and turns into a bird exiled from his own and overflying Ireland ‘grieving and astray’. The flight mentioned in these lines is drawn from section 64 of Heaney’s version (SA page 60)
  • bloodied heads: dismembered torsos pursuing Sweeney in the Irish poem;
  • goat beard: a second pursuer in the original text;
  • pack: wild animals hunting together
  • snap: sound of animal bite
  • faked: pretend;
  • stall: cease to run (of motor);
  • tailing: following very closely;
  • flag down: signal a vehicle to stop using arm/ torch movements
  • Church Island: small island on Lough Beg, with ruined church and a separate spire built alongside it;
  • yew: long living coniferous, red-berried tree associated with folklore and superstition, also with churchyards:
  • rise: get out of bed;
  • marigold: yellow/ gold flowered flower common to marshland;
  • bulrush: tall water plant with velvety brown head;
  • spent: used and discarded;
  • acrid: describing a bitter, pungent smell-taste
  • brassy: of a yellowish brass colour;
  • genital: relating to human/ animal reproductive organs; by extension fruitful, pertaining to birth, generation
  • fight shy: show unwillingness to get involved;
  • conspire: Latin literally ‘breathe together’, by extension ‘agree’, ‘act as one’; the word does not necessarily bear the notion of ‘plot’ ‘plan evil acts’;
  • crack the whip: put pressure on someone to go further, work harder;
  • seize the day: carpe diem; make the most of the present and let the future take care of itself;
  • scullion: both family name and by coincidence a menial servant:
  • haycock: conical heap of hay;
  • hindquarters: back legs and rump area of cattle;
  • byre: cowshed;
  • arbitrator: person impartially bringing in an opinion with the aim of settling a disagreement;
  • bewildered: perplexed, confused, puzzled;
  • sedge: grass-like plant growing in marshland;
  • blade: flat cutting edge of knife/ weapon;
  • hone: sharpen;
  • sweeping: sound a wide brush might make;
  • muck: dirty soil/ matter;
  • brimming: full to overflowing;
  • dab: press lightly and repeatedly;
  • moss: rootless plant growing in wet conditions
  • plait: form by interlacing separate strands;
  • scapular: short cloak covering the shoulders:
  • shroud: length of material in which a corpse is wrapped in preparation for burial;

Background and aftermath

  • Colum’s death coincided with the Kilkenny Arts Festival organised by Heaney and attended by international poets including Robert Lowell who features in the Field Work Collection;
  • Heaney made the judgment to remain in Kilkenny rather than to return home for the funeral: he had never actually met Colum; he was confident his family would represent him at the funeral;
  • He did acknowledge that his presence might have been expected ‘in protest as much as in sympathy’;
  • It clearly bothered Heaney, so to set his mind at rest, perhaps, Colum McCartney reappears in Station Island VIII; he is critical of the way Heaney, to his mind, sugared the pill of his brutal murder;

Comments from the Source

  • MP Colum driving steadily uphill … is an ascent into darkness, … where Sweeney’s guiltless modern counterpart, a humble carpenter from Armagh, is confronted by the more prosaic, but deadlier menace of a ‘red lamp swung’
  • Lough Beg: and the whole area has a kind of melancholy … (Heaney’s father Patrick) rented the strand for grazing, so sometimes at ‘parting day’ we’d walk out in the long grass and sedge, and feel the loneliness of the place and the stillness of it. We were on a practical errand but at the same time it was like a bath for the soul. (DOD 220-22)
  • MP 160 The second section relocates the young victim in the landscape of his boyhood, but only to recognise chill portents to his future. Even though as a child he became accustomed to hearing the gunfire of the duck hunters, violating the tranquillity of his home … the evidence of their spent power, ‘Acrid, brassy, genital, ejected’, appalled him. ibid
  • the clan: The second section relocates the young victim in the landscape of his boyhood, but only to recognise chill portents to his future. Even though as a child he became accustomed to hearing the gunfire of the duck hunters, violating the tranquillity of his home, ‘long before rising’, the evidence of their spent power, ‘Acrid, brassy, genital, ejected’, appalled him. ibid
  • Heaney turns in individual cameo into a collective portrait. Significantly he makes no reference to McCartney as a carpenter, but rather stresses his earlier role as innocent, pastoral herdsman, as a typical representative of his community and class. Ibid
  • Unpoliticized country folk (MP 161) Despite their long and deep resentment against Unionist rule, few among the rural Nationalist population would ever have dreamt of shaping their grievances into political action. Their agenda was headed by ‘Haycocks and hindquarters’, rather than the vexed question of how to achieve a United Ireland. For McCartney’s killers, however, the belief that he shared that common Catholic aspiration was sufficient to justify his murder.

Style and construct

  • SH: I couldn’t not connect it with my own strand, so that last bit of the poem was the first bit to be written. The beginning and middle were done later (DOD 220);
  • 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. In ‘The Strand at Lough Beg’ death and life uneasily alternate. The death-vignette of Heaney’s murdered cousin is a lurid one … Structural oscillations of this sort between murder and peace organize the whole of the McCartney elegy … the cousin’s untroubled drive ‘out beneath the stars’, then … the first malign foretaste of what is to come as the cousin’s car passes the place ‘Where Sweeney fled… No sooner has the ambush happened than the poem follows it with a glimpse of the cousin’s idyllic home landscape … this paradisal scene is spoiled by duck shooters… the poem … ends pacifically and assuagingly with the rites of decency
  • NC 93The elegies for dead friends are another matter. The immediacy of Heaney’s sympathy forces him, for the first time in his work, to confront directly – as he did not in the mythologized obliquities of North – the actual circumstances of sectarian murder the imagined funeral rites. Unable to leave the ‘bleeding, pale-faced boy’ on his knees, Heaney elevates the victim, before setting him down once more. Poem becomes pieta. With rushes which miraculously, and ironically, ‘shoot green again’, he plaits :Green scapulars’, decking the body in these sacred vestments which symbolise humility and his hope for resurrection

Epilogue MP 159 one of its most delicate, memorable images, which sees Heaney kneeling in the ‘brimming grass’ to ‘gather up cold handfuls of the dew’ to wash his cousin’s face, a purification ritual prescribed by Cato in order to prepare the Florentine for Purgatory:

  • NC 93-4 Colum McCartney is blessed, at the end of ‘The Strand at Lough Beg’, with a Dantean asperging, but he is also imagined ‘with blood and roadside muck in [his] hair and eyes’; and before the poet can plait those ‘green scapulars’ for his cousin’s shroud – which have connotations at once patriotic, Christian­resurrectionary and pastoral-elegiac – he must lift the actual weight of the Irish countryman ‘under the arms’;
  • The poem’s close … attempts to restore to the violated place an element of quasi-sacred ritual deriving from its allusion to the moment in The Divine Comedy when his guide Virgil washes the grime of Hell from Dante’s fate with the dew of Purgatory. As the grieving poet raises his cousin from the ground, the poem’s solemnly mournful iambics and direct visionary address to the dead man place these lines as the most moving Heaney has written ; (ibid);


  • 44 lines of poetry in 2 verses (16+28); four sections: S1 murder; S2 home ground; S3 clans; S4 Dantean dream sequence;
  • fifteen sentence construct; relative balance between sentence length, punctuation marks (including interrogatives but no exclamations) and enjambed lines determines flow and rhythm within the oral delivery possibilities;
  • line length gathered closely around 10-11 syllables with implications for the iambic pattern
  • variable rhyme though no formal scheme ; close rhymes and assonant echoes  can be picked out in the coloured hearing section that follows;
  • S1 (to the colon in 14) follows a well-defined route from population to solitude, from sense of security to anxiety;
  • reference to St Patrick amplifies the Godlessness of what follows
  • literary reference to Sweeney Astray with borrowed vocabulary; vocabulary of creatures out of control contrasts with the deliberateness of waiting assassins who take control of the victim;
  • Interrogatives add to the sense of insecurity that builds;
  • contrasts of pace (slow>manic) between the two ambush methods;
  • the act of murder itself does not take place where you might expect; Heaney saves it for the final movement
  • S2 ‘home ground’ (to the full stop after ‘cows’) introduces geology and flora alongside the ever present basic element that will play a role in its various forms in the dénouement;
  • description of the surroundings provides idyllic qualities for those who have settled there;
  • sound presence of male (?)destructiveness helps identify the pacific nature of the victim
  • four emphatic adjectives in succession build towards the victim’s antipathy for gunnery as he goes about his humble herdsman’s job;
  • S3 ‘clans’ up to line 28 introduces an Old Ireland of minority Catholic Irishness that persists in rural areas beyond sectarian priorities;
  • weave of pronouns aligns common factors across family branches;
  • phrases chosen to demonstrate the slow single pace of life and deliberationof a tribe largely contented with its farming lot; people described by what they do;
  • final S4 (MP 161) The immediacy achieved in the poem’s third and final movements owes much to Heaney’s effective use of the present tense and of visually concrete detail;
  • the human presences introduced by a common farming interest (cattle)
  • personal pronouns we/you/I exclude limit the actors involved, one alive, the second already dead but alive in ghost form;
  • whilst light provides the ominous introit, it is sound that reveals the victim’s collapse and triggers subsequent Heaney responses based on the Dantean model;
  • vocabulary of compassionate gentility;
  • the passage sustained by its use of water in a variety of forms;
  • nuances of colour present;
  • final couplet leaves us with the hope that its spiritual intention will be reflected in the Purgatory to which Colum McCartney will now proceed;



  • 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 last six lines are rich in alveolar plosives [t] [d], nasals [m] [n] and sibilant variants [s] [z] [sh] supported by front-of-mouth [w] [h] , labio-dental fricatives [f] [v] and velar plosives [k] [g];

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