The Toome Road

If part of the intention of Field Work is rooted in Heaney’s subliminal desire to validate the decision to move lock, stock and barrel from Belfast to the Irish Republic in 1972 and thereby to draw a line under his relationship with the ‘dirty old glove’ that Northern Ireland had become, then The Toome Road provides an illustration of the frustrations suffered by an essentially fair-minded young man who spent his teenage years on The Wood Farm in Castledawson

Heaney responded to DOD’s questions on the matter (p.212): whilst he might have understood the need to deal with IRA outrages, the British Army were no better – ultimately at a personal level he felt it ‘ an affront to the dúchas (native locals) in being questioned about my name and address by these uninformed cubs in uniform at the end of my own loaning … the truth of the matter was that they were deployed to keep you in your place, their comrades had shot down people in Derry and they could basically do what they liked’.

Sight of a military patrol outside the family farm in Mid Ulster is followed by a dream of community confirming Heaney’s essentialist belief that the Irish possess a set of characteristics that makes them what they are.

The whistled notes of a folk ballad (one morning early … all) freeze in Heaney’s throat (I met armoured cars In convoy) at the power-disguising birdsong of rubber on asphalt (warbling along on powerful tyres), the collateral damage (broken alder branches) and radio-linked squaddies (headphoned soldiers) ruling the world around them (standing up in turrets).

His personal resentment is fanned by repetition (how long) and questions as to who owns what (my roads

as if they owned them). Heaney confirms his legitimate presence, up and about if he so chooses (whole country sleeping), there by entitlement (rights-of-way) from a landowning family (fields), responsible for husbandry (cattle in my keeping) and equipment (tractors hitched to buck rakessilos), member of an unguarded community (open sheds), at home in his local climate (chill gates, wet slates) and familiar colourings (the greens and reds of outhouse roofs).

Heaney revisits a dream he had in a pre-Troubles time, running across the fields to announce invasion by outsiders – a youngster unsure where to start (whom should I run to tell) when the whole community based itself on trust (their back doors on the latch) and depended on word of mouth (bringer of bad news), was unfazed by this phantom messenger (small-hours visitant), feasible perhaps but put to the back of the mind (expected kept distant) by folk who were all about regeneration, their race and their land (sowers of seed), and respected their dead (erectors of headstones).

Heaney addresses the patrol with a classical declamation (O charioteers), you might, he suggests, bristle with threat (dormant guns) but your passage cannot crush the life out of our persistent spirit (stands here still, stands vibrant) our transcendent (invisible), indestructible (untoppled) world force (omphalos) that confirms my belief that Irish communities possess a set of indelible characteristics that makes them what they are.

  • Heaney to DOD (212) But the main thing about the poem, as far as I’m concerned, is the way it was sanctioned by a dream I’d had long before the Troubles. I dreamt I was running across fields to tell about an invasion. In the dream, I’d seen these Asian soldiers in tanks, coming in convoy down along the Antrim Coast Road, and I was the only one there to raise the alarm. It was eerie and it stayed with me for years, partly because I connected it with a famous old prophecy of Nostradamus’s that the Russians would water their horses by the shores of Lough Neagh
  • For MP (pp. 158-9) the poem acquires a political dimension, embodying defiance. The poem depicts a depressingly recurrent scene from Irish history, a foreign army moving at will, violating the integrity of the territory … the poem’s focus returns to the narrator, one of the displaced. His first question invites us to place this particular incursion within the context of at least three centuries of dispossession. (“How long were they approaching down my roads/ As if they owned them? “) … All those back doors left ‘on the latch’ in expectation of ‘bad news’ suggest a people conditioned to defeat, for whom military occupation, like natural disaster, must seem an entirely predictable feature of the cycle between ‘seed’ and ‘headstones’, just another fact of life. Rather than end the sonnet on this note of resignation, Heaney adds a further three lines, as if determined to snatch victory from the colonial power … their champion is the omphalos, a transcendant, ever-present, unseen being which ‘stands’ and will remain standing long after all these warriors, with their anachronistic chariots and ‘dormant guns’ will have passed away.


  • convoy: group in line;
  • warble: sing trill as of birdsong;
  • alder: deciduous tree of the birch family common in damp, waterside climates
  • headphones: pairs of listening devices joined with a band over the head
  • turret: rotating tower of an armoured vehicle;
  • right-of-way: legal permission to cross land owned by others;
  • hitch: attach;
  • buck rake: long toothed rake for gathering and moving hay;
  • chill: cold to the touch;
  • on the latch: closed but not locked;
  • visitant: apparition; connotation of supernatural;
  • keep at a distance: avoid interaction or involvement;
  • headstone: slab at the head of a grave;
  • charioteer: driver of a chariot of classical provenance;
  • vibrant: pulsating, quivering;
  • toppled: brought down, dislodged, overturned, dethroned;
  • omphalos: ‘navel’ of the earth by extension centre, hub of creation; in Greek mythology a stone housed at Delphi said to mark the centre of the universe; people prostrating themselves across the stone were thought to be in communication with the gods;


  • effectively a sonnet + an added triplet in a single stanza of 10 sentences; the balance between sentence length, dominant punctuation marks and relatively few enjambed lines determines a more staccato rhythm within the oral delivery shape;
  • line length between 10 and 11 syllables largely based on 10 with 2 exceptional enjambed lines in mid poem; unrhymed beyond occasional assonant final syllables;
  • folky vocabulary describes the mood of a young chap out walking coming face to face with an entirely different mood;
  • possessive pronouns set out legitimate and incursive presences;
  • dream sequence hints at both the industry of a farming community and its superstition;
  • use of questions suggests insecurity as well as resentment;
  • the preoccupations of rural existence reduced to hatches and dispatches ‘seed’ … ‘headstones’;
  • old fashioned vocative ‘O’ introduces the mythological images and emblems in a triplet rich in adjectives;


  • 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 first sentence is dominated by nasals [n] [m] [ng] ahead of alveolar plosives [t] [d] and an even spread of front of mouth sounds breathy [w] continuant [l] , bi-labial [p] [b] and labio-dentals [f] [v];

Join the Conversation - Leave a comment