After a Killing

Heaney explained what prompted the first stanza to DOD (211): the assassination of Christopher Ewart-Biggs wasn’t so much personal grief as shock … that knocked me and everybody else sideways … The news that morning on the radio mentioned two men with rifles running up the hill from the site of the explosion … it stayed with me as a kind of dream image: it was as if the ghosts of those Old IRA men of the West Cork Flying Column – ‘the unquiet founders’, the ones who’d fought and ambushed the Black and Tans – it’s as if they were coming back to haunt the state they’d fought to establish … but in my old-fashioned way, I thought the honour of the Irish nation had been compromised by the killing.

In the poems preceding the ‘Glanmore Sonnets’ it is worth considering how each individual lyric, elegy and meditative piece contributes to Heaney’s barely veiled relief at having severed his ties with the violence and contradictions of Northern Ireland.

A dream (as if our memory hatched them) fixes the image (here they were) of two paramilitaries overlooking an action (young men with rifles on the hill), reflections of the violent establishers of the Irish Free State in the 1920s (NC p.88) come back to life (unquiet founders walked again) to commit something unthinkable (profane) with the ease of musicians poised to follow a score (bracing as their instruments).

Heaney acknowledges that the Irish themselves have contributed to their divisions (Who’s sorry for our trouble?) the notion of a  harmonious nationhood (dwell among ourselves) but a figment of aspiration despite their common heritage – climate (rain and scoured light and wind-dried stones) geologies (basalt), genealogy (blood), life-sustaining element (water) respect for the dead (headstones) and tenacity (leeches).

They have fallen into longstanding separateness (neuter original loneliness) on both sides of historically imposed boundaries (Brandon to Dunseverick); they resemble tenacious if myopic flora (small-eyed survivor flowers) hoping beyond hope for a beautiful outcome (pined-for unmolested orchid).

Heaney can envision a unifying image of Irishness (stone house by a pier) – derestricting (elbow room) and enlightening (broad window light), that raises the downtrodden spirit (heart lifts) – nature’s marine bounty within a few steps (twenty yards), freshly landed (buy mackerel).

Nationhood delivered by an aisling figure (a girl walks in home to us) bearing vegetables (new potatoes tight green cabbages carrots) in the green, white and orange of the Irish tricolour,  new from the soil (tops and mould still fresh on them).

  • killing: Heaney composed the poem following the murder in Sandyford Dublin of Christopher Ewart-Biggs, the British Ambassador on 21 July 1976 at the hands of the ProvisionaI I.R.A.
  • hatch: incubate;
  • found: establish at its outset;
  • profane: secular, unhallowed; connotation in late Latin of ignorant, wicked and impious;
  • brace: bear, brandish with strength; connotations of immovability
  • scour: scrub clean; a second meaning contains the notion of scanning closely
  • basalt: hard volcanic rock often deposited with a columnar shape ( e.g. Giant’s Causeway)
  • headstone: slab placed at the head of a grave often bearing the name of the person buried;
  • leech: bloodsucking parasite; sometimes extended to describe people who profit from others;
  • neuter: neither masculine nor feminine or common to both; connotations of impotence;
  • Brandon to Dunseverick: Heaney alludes to a pre-lapsarian innocent and unspoilt Eden with no internal boundaries stretching from Brandon a Gaeltacht village on the Atlantic coast’s Dingle peninsula in Co. Kerry to Dunseverick a hamlet 300+miles to the north just east of the Giant’s Causeway on the North Antrim Coast of Northern Ireland;
  • small-eyed: with tiny flowers that seem to look at you;
  • survivor flower: indestructible remnant of Irish flora;
  • pine: long, yearn;
  • unmolested: left in peace, untouched by turbulence;
  • elbow room: room to manoeuvre, breathing space;
  • mackerel: plentiful sea fish enjoyed as a foodstuff;
  • tight: compact;
  • mould: soft, loose earth;


  • 5 quartets in 11 sentences; the balance between sentence length, punctuation and enjambed lines determines its rhythms and oral delivery shape;
  • line length between 6 and 12 syllables largely based on 10; unrhymed beyond occasional assonant final syllables;
  • ‘as if’ repeated to provide dream sequence linking old and current;
  • ‘memory’ becomes an incubator of memories – ‘hatched’;
  • comparison: rifles/ musical instruments – violins are held below the chin and follow a musical score;
  • compassionate Ulsterism not regarded as appropriate to Ireland’s circumstances;
  • human senses and elemental forces interwoven to create a scene;
  • enumeration of Ireland’s natural features; the succeeding nouns strike MP (156) as ‘Lowellian’;
  • place names suggest that Heaney wants us to picture an island free of political demarcation;
  • nature escapes man-imposed divisions;
  • the Atlantic coast reference support the notion that in Field Work has severed his links with the North, particularly the veiled allusion to Eire’s national flag;
  • alliterative effects: the final stanza is rich in alveolar plosives [t] [d] and nasals [m] [n] [ng] alongside sibilant variants [s] [z] and velar plosives [k] [g];
  • NC 88 suggests that both ‘Triptych’ and ‘The Toome Road’ ‘make use of an oracular, vatic (predictive of the future), quasi-Yeatsian rhetoric,;



Heaney consults (my tongue moved) an Irish soothsayer. He is not over-alarmed at the outset (swung relaxing hinge) but asks what the Irish future holds in store (what will become of us)?

The crone’s forecasts a seismic effect only visible to the close observer (as forgotten water in a well might shake) but of sufficient proportion (explosion under morning) to cause structural damage (crack run up a gable).

Her prophecy is directed at nationhood in flux but also  as we are beginning to sense to the poet’s current circumstances (our very form is bound to change).Then, in line with her Delphic sisters, the Irish sibyl descends into a mystical gobbledygook involving creatures unpalatable to humans – (dogs in a siege), lizards (saurian relapses) and ant-life (pismires).

No rapprochement, she warns, will be possible in Ireland without pre-conditions (unless): the pardoning of past outrage (forgiveness) the approval of people with courage (nerve) speaking out (voice); the provision of conditions in which the blood-stained symbol of political subjection (helmeted and bleeding tree) such as are found in the underworld of Virgil’s Aeneid VI can spring naturally in Ireland (green and open buds) and generate renewal (like infants’ fists); finally, however implausibly, coaxing from earth’s polluted core (the fouled magma) the rebirth (incubate) of the Celtic river and woodland spirits of yore (bright nymphs).

What chance of that, wonders Heaney, in a society driven by materialism (my people think money) and shallow considerations (talk weather), seduced by earth-polluting promises of prosperity (oil-rigs lull their future) … dividends that will be pocketed by capitalists (single acquisitive stems) indifferent to the depletion of natural resources not least the livelihood of fishermen (silence has shouted into the trawlers’ echo-sounders).

Talk of reading the runes (ground we kept our ear to) has failed to register signs of degeneration (flayed or calloused), earth’s murdered remains reduced to a crime scene (entrails tented) – the truth however politically unwelcome (impious augury).

No Caliban optimism as in Shakespeare’s ‘Tempest’ – Heaney’s Ireland has a scary future (our island is full of comfortless noises).

  • sibyl: woman from an ancient time (e.g. oracle at Delphi) said to transmit messages from the classical gods and prophecy the future; also subject to sudden obscure outpourings;
  • hinge: movable joint attaching two parts (e.g. a gate to a gatepost);
  • under morning: beneath the light of morning;
  • crack: split, fissure;
  • gable: wall with a triangular upper part associated with a ridged roof;
  • saurian: lizard-like
  • pismire: archaic word for ant;
  • helmet: protective head covering;
  • foul: make dirty, pollute; connotation of desecration;
  • magma: molten materials beneath the earth’s crust;
  • nymph: mythological nature spirit in the shape of a young woman haunting rivers and woods;
  • lull: offer deceptive security;
  • acquisitive: eager for material things; more concerned with ‘having’ than ‘being’;
  • stem: main support of a plant critical to its existence;
  • silence shouted: example of oxymoron;
  • echo sounder: device that detects presences below the surface using rebounding signals;
  • flayed: beaten so harshly that the skin has been removed;
  • calloused: left with areas of hardened skin;
  • tent: cover so as to conceal; connotations of crime-scenes;
  • impious: sacrilegious; wicked, godless
  • augury: omen ,sign pointing to what will happen;


  • 5 quartets in 13 sentences; the balance between sentence length, punctuation and enjambed lines determines its rhythms and oral delivery shape;
  • line length between 8 and 10 syllables with single exception; unrhymed beyond occasional assonant final syllables;
  • image of the ‘hinge’ suggests that the speaker is being controlled by some else;
  • vocabulary of seismic outburst includes something only Heaney might have experienced (he claimed elsewhere that the passing of a railway train at Mossbawn wrinkled the drinking water stored in the kitchen;
  • the sibyl’s mystic gobbledygook elusive to human understanding;;
  • use of conditional conjunction ’unless’ used to spell out the immense challenges that precede any improvement;
  • tree: used both as a symbol of political liberation and agent of renewal;
  • depressing picture of change and general indifference to important issues; hi-tech equipment reflects an empty ocean;
  • metaphorical comparison: planet Earth a murdered body;
  • final Shakespearean allusion;
  • alliterative effects: the final stanza is rich in alveolar plosives [t] [d] alongside velar plosives [g] [k], nasals [m] [n], sibilants [s] [z] and front of mouth [l] and labio dental fricative [f];


At the Water’s Edge

Heaney’s quest for personal ‘comfort’ is met with seemingly intractable divisions in Irish society.

Heaney’s attention turns to a chain of wooded islets amongst the oldest inhabited sites on Lough Erne with both christianized-Celtic and Christian settlements where he discovers elements that corroborate the Irish plight.

First a ruined monastic site (Devenish) with its lough-side timelessness (I heard a snipe) and echoes of erstwhile burial chants (keeper’s recital of elegies) amidst remnants of religious statuary (carved monastic heads) degraded by erosive forces (crumbling like bread on water).

At the next lake-stop (Boa) a standing stone carved for both Christianized (god-eyed) and pagan fertility purpose (sex-mouthed) is wedged between the signs of human demise (socketed between graves) – the so-called ‘Janus figure’ looking forwards and backwards with its hint of double standards (two-faced and a cavity in its head (trepanned). Poet and statue have no message to exchange (answered my silence with silence). Nearby a hollowed stone bereft of Holy water (stoup for rain water) – the scene is a total let-down to the hopeful visitor (anathema).

From above the final drumlin vantage point (Horse Island) of an uninhabited wallstead (cold hearthstoneopen chimney) comes the sound of a reality Heaney seeks to put behind him: the ‘comfortless’ ‘wop-wop-wop’ (thick rotations) of military occupation in Northern Ireland (army helicopter patrolling) and evidence before him of Irish life in tatters (hammercracked jug full of cobwebs). 

Faced with evidence of spoliation and subservience Heaney has to fight (everything in me) to resist recourse to God’s help (bow down … offer up), monk-like (barefoot), in extreme panic (foetal), contrite (penitential) and on his knees (pray at the water’s edge).

After Bloody Sunday the way ahead came not from any help God offered but from self-help: in February 1972 the political and moral defeatism of the minority Catholic community turned to protest (how we crept before we walked) – folk turned their back on ban and military threat (helicopter shadowing our march at Newry) and, no turning back, placed principles and justice above fear of repression (scared, irrevocable steps).

  • Devenish … Boa …Horse: islands in Loch Erne;
  • Lough Erne – (named after an ancient population group called the Érainn, or after a goddess from which the Érainn took their name) in Co Fermanagh – centres of faith, fertility, certainty in ancient Celtic Ireland
  • snipe: marshland wading bird will a long bill and distinctive flight;
  • recital: audible performance, recitation:
  • carved: fashioned, shaped;
  • socket: natural or man –made (eye or wood joint) hollow or cavity into which something fits;
  • Janus figure: ancient Roman deity, guardian of doorways and gates and protector of the state in time of war; usually represented with two faces, so that he looks both forwards and backwards; sometimes represented as having two sharply contrasting aspects or characteristics and devious.
  • trepan: originally – perforate, make a hole in a skull;
  • stoup: bowl-shaped container for holy water, jug;
  • anathema: indicator of strong dislike; allusion also the formal curse or denunciation uttered by a Pope;
  • thick rotations: spin of helicopter rotors; ‘thick’ is suggestive of the wide diameter of the gyration and, maybe, the beefiness of the sound produced;
  • foetal: bent, folded shape of a foetus in the womb;
  • penitence: act of showing regret for some action; repentance;
  • Newry Northern Irish town five miles north of the border with the Irish Republic;
  • march at Newry: there were in fact two marches in Newry; the first in January 1969 a protest banned by the Stormont government who feared, rightly as it turned out, sectarian violence. It went ahead illegally and descended from peaceful protest into violence. A second march took place in Newry on Feb 6th1972 exactly one week after Bloody Sunday (30 January 1972). the authorities took steps to constrain the event but minor route changes and strong organisation led to a peaceful outcome without a single violent incident
  • irrevocable: irreversible; connotations of ‘last straw’;


  • 5 quartets in 10 sentences; the balance between sentence length, punctuation and enjambed lines determines its rhythms and oral delivery shape; sentence 6 is a fully enjambed stanza that builds up to the controlling eye-in-the-sky; elsewhere closely aligned sentences provide a different, more staccato effect
  • line length between 8 and 11 syllables with single exception that juxtaposes the Newry march and attached danger; unrhymed beyond occasional assonant final syllables;
  • St1 juxtaposes friendly reality and dream; simile to describe the effect of acid-rain eroding soft stone;
  • St2 uses compound adjectives economical in joining ideas/ images together; in this case contributing to tha assonant contrast between sibilant [s] and alveolar plosive [t];
  • ST4 vocabulary of abandonment and neglect – unused ‘hammer’; sudden change from objective description to internal emotions as Heaney seeks to get his point over to whomever will listen; he follows the pilgrimage pattern he had followed as a teenage pilgrim on Lough Derg;
  • final triplet reflects the posture of those who got the bit between their teeth opting for direct action rather than just grinning and bearing it;


  • 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;
  • Triptych’s final quatrain is dominated by impactful alveolar plosives [t] [d] alongside nasals [m] [n] and velar [k]; a selection of front-of-mouth sounds includes breathy [w] and aspirate [h] interwoven with bilabial plosives [p] [b];

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