Route 110

A much admired sequence of 12 poems celebrating the arrival of first grand-child, Anna Rose, born to son, Christopher and his wife Jenny. Heaney collapses the distance between the mythical and the personal, setting out Aeneas-like on a journey of his own.


The journey begins in a dusty, down-at-heel (it smells of dry rot and disinfectant) haunt of schoolboys and students of Heaney’s youth. Its trading purpose is revealed by succeeding clues. An employee enters wearing a visibly grubby outer garment,a stained front-buttoned shopcoat; of dark dried-out sere brown, edged with crimson piping. This is a second-hand bookshop with a Classics bay

Heaney adds further detail: she is single-minded (Eyes front); she is juggling money (absorbed in her coin-count within the slack marsupial vent/ Of her change-pocket); she is toying also with the price she should ask for the book-icon, a used copy of Aenied VI.

The atmosphere is unhealthy: Dustbreath bestirred in the cubicle mouth/ I inhaled. Once the deal is completed his purchase is slid …/ Into a deckle-edged brown paper bag.

  • Deckle-edged paper bags began to disappear in the 60’s. It refers here to the ragged edge of the paper as it leaves the papermaking machine. Left in place, the deckle edge becomes a decorative, textured edging.
  • Marsupial mammals (e.g. kangaroos) carry their young in a pouch;
  • all 12 poems in this sequence comprise 4 triplets of free verse;
  • each stanza contains a single compound noun or adjective: front-buttoned/ coin-count/ change-pocket/ deckle-edged ;
  • personification: Dustbreath … cubicle mouth;
  • alliteration of lines 1-6 using sibilants [s],  [sh] and [z] echoed later in slack marsupial;
  • alliterative impact also of Dustbreath bestirred;


A hectic stage in the journey takes Heaney through Smithfield Market Saturday at the heart and soul of old Belfast: The pet stall, remembered for its reek of droppings and the song of canaries, green and gold, is non-operational today, as silent now as birdless Lake Avernus

From there Heaney braves the elbow-to-elbow congestion Parrying the crush with my bagged Virgil en route to the bus-station, within quick reach thanks to his local knowledge. His shortcutting takes him past past retail outlets selling bottom-of-the-range items and second- hand clothing that swayed/ When one was tugged from its overcrowded frame, the garments crammed together Like their owners’ shades close-packed on Charon’s barge.

  • The early 1970’s saw the disappearance of the old Smithfield Market, which went up in flames during the struggle for Irish Independence. No organisation took responsibility perhaps because they realised that it would have been a very unpopular thing to have done.
  • Avernus (an actual Italian lake deemed ‘noxious’ by Virgil) lies on the road to Elysium in Aenied vi; its name derives from the Greek word meaning ‘without birds’;
  • In Greek mythology, Charon is the ferryman of Hades who acts as arbiter of the regulations governing entry to the Underworld, ferrying selected souls from among the newly deceased across the Acheron;
  • assonances create internal rhyme: pet / Fetid; birdless/ Avernus; overcoats/ overcrowded
  • poetic licence: shortcutting avoids an uglier longer version; dual meaning of bagged: the volume is in a bag; it has been secured, obtained, purchased;
  • alliterated displays: …maps, prints, plaster plaques;
  • alliteration weaves sibilants [s/sh], bilabial plosives [b/p] and alveolar [k]: owners’ shades close-packed on Charon’s barge.


The promise of information acts as a catalyst: Once the driver wound a little handle seeking to reveal the bus’s destination everything/ Came to life … all go.  The movements of the waiting passengers resemble those of agitated rooks/ Around a rookery. No-one is eager to get onto the wrong bus But undecided (because the scroll of destinations is long and the driver is still winding). 

Their need of guidance acts as a cue for the inspector/ Who ruled the roost, who separated and directed. His code, not to repeat the destinations but the route numbers, so that the folk scattered as instructed and Heaney caught his iconic Route 110, the one that would take him home.

  • Whilst the clamour and confusion of bus stations is unchanged, the format of buses certainly has; both double- and single-deckers of the period had manually operated panels at the front containing a roll of a rubberised material upon which all destination points were recorded alphabetically; this required change for each journey;
  • Heaney’s Route 110 smacks of Route 66, the celebrated American route from the Great Lakes to Los Angeles immortalised for its emotional connotations of hopes, dreams and home.


  • 9 consecutive enjambed lines,  punctuation occurring within the line;
  • assonance: roll/ go;
  • alliteration:[f] Fast-forward; [k] of Flocked/ kerb/ rooks/ rookery; scattered/ instructed
  • Both devices combined: ruled the roost; metaphor of the cockerel in the poultry-yard in unquestioned charge;
  • The town names in the panel-display  that still have a huge emotional resonance for Heaney more than 50 years on;



Heaney paints the contrast between the student figure he cut in winter and his summer image. The winter ‘uniform’ of his the Route 110 period was an over-garment bought on the second-hand market: Tarpaulin stiff, coal-black, sharp-cuffed as slate,/ The standard-issue railway guard’s long coat. 

The coat was punishing to wear: its scourge/ At the neck and wrists but worth it both as a symbol of resistance to against parental influence: the dismay I caused arriving home late, and for its weather-proofing that transformed him into A creature of cold blasts and flap-winged rain.

In contrast, come finer weather, an invitation to Italy brought need of a wedding guest’s bargain suit,  modest priced, easy to wear and grey/ As Venus’ doves (both metaphor for marriage and reminder of the Aeneas story). 

Heaney recalls his ‘cool’ image, paradoxically hotfooting it with the tanned expats, the latter happy to use a historic site for image in an Italian province they think they own, Up their Etruscan slopes, but almost certainly indifferent to its archaeological significance, thus rendering the classically-educated poet the one there most at home.

  • Venus, classical goddess of love, is often represented with doves as her avian companions. According to legend, doves are gentle and constant in love; significantly, she is mother of Aeneas In Aenied vi her twin doves lead Aeneas to the golden bough hidden in a grove, without which he will be unable to enter Elysium and meet his father’s shade;
  • Heaney takes a gentle dig at expatriates (those emigrating to live abroad), depicting them as eager to escape the Northern Irish climate but richer perhaps in pocket than in culture.
  • the piece provides a good example of the choice and use of language and poetic devices:
  • line 1 contains 3 similes in the form of compound words interwoven with alliterative effects Tarpaulin-stiff, coal-black, sharp-cuffed as slate:
  • the 5 lines following are strong in sibilant [s];
  • cliché of new-found freedom retaining the bird connotation : up and away;
  • salesman-speak: bargain suit of finest weave;
  • alliteration: hotfooting it with tanned expats/ Up their Etruscan slopes;
  • the first section lacks a main verb; the first, was, follows the colon;
  • alliterative suffering its scourge: metaphor of red-raw burns left by a whip. Aenied vi vividly describes the incongruous garments worn by the shades and the tortures they suffer within their individual purgatory;
  • flap-winged rain suggest the buffeting effect of rain squalls, the air heaved about as if by beating wings;


Heaney’s contrasts the central Italy of Etruscan temples, colonised by well-heeled expatriates, and the classical mythology of Venus’ doves with a needy Irish home and its much humbler bird-stock: McNicholl’s pigeons/ Out of their pigeon holes but homing still. To follow their flight leads Heaney unerringly to the simple piety of the family’s kitchen with its crude home-made altar: a votive jampot on the dresser shelf.

No Italian, hot-climate gentian plants in Ireland, just simple Irish oat stalks … each …/A silvered smattering, embellished with a second husk of glittering foil/ They’d saved from chocolate bars; the husks decorated with all the skills of a seamstress: pinched and cinched.

Heaney paints the picture of a kindly woman of humble piety. He recalls the symbolic shine of the religious iconography; he signals his affinity to these folk and rememberss the blessing he received from old Mrs Nick in the shape of a stalk that as good as lit me home. The golden bough of Aenied vi contrasts with the humbler silver foil of the McNicholl household;

  • gentian: a plant with vivid blue flowers found in Italian upland areas
  • alliteration: silvered smattering contrasting with the golden bough required by Aeneasassonance: pinched and cinched (dressmaking terms);
  • regional usage: wee for little;votive: a vow is a solemn undertaking to God; its significance in poor households is in no way compromised by its association with the most humble of domestic containers
  • The light symbol (as good as lit me home) will recur in the final poem of the sequence (XII).
  • Lives are conjured up through objects, so that each instance seems to offer two timelines: one to do with the remembered life, the other to do with the ongoing power of the material world to trigger memory and reclaim narrative, as evidenced by a pen, a suit, an ash-pan or, as in the marvellous Route 110, a ‘‘votive jampot’’. Vona Groarke writing in the Sunday Business Post Online


This first of a batch of poems evoking departed ‘shades’ represents a further stage in the ‘journey’; Heaney offers insights into the ambiance of wakes where watch is kept over a corpse prior to its burial.

It was the age of ghosts recalls the casualty toll of Northern Ireland’s Troubled times and the contingent ceremonies of respect for the dead. Hand-held flashlamps./ Lights moving in the distance helped to divine (scried) and locate where death and misfortune had occurred: for who and why; who’s wake, say, in which house on the road.

This was the first of many ensuing wakes that Heaney attended as a full participant (accepted into the bosom of the family rather than seen as a passing bearer of condolence) and as such Sitting up until the family rose.

Given the unusually difficult circumstances, this particular family had been stressed to exhaustion Like strangers to themselves and us, having spent seventy two sleepless hours without a body before the ultimate recovery and delivery of the corpse of their own dear ill-advised/ Sonbrother swimmer, lost far from home in the Severn Estuary.

Those attending kept conversation going for three nights/ Around the waiting trestles, the ordeal ending when By the fourth/ His coffin… was in place. Heaney adds a euphemistic detail: with the lid on implies that the waterlogged body was too gruesome to view.

  • It was the age of ghosts: the final piece in the sequence will amend this sentiment in celebration of a new-arrival;
  • The Severn Estuary is the long and dangerous stretch of water also known as the Bristol Channel at the point where the river Severn flows into the sea;
  • Scrying (also called seeing or peeping): Heaney uses the vocabulary of a psychic practice used in many cultures as a means of divining past, present, or future events. Depending on the culture and practice, the visions that came when one stared into a mirror or crystal-ball were thought to come from God, or spirits, or the psyvhic mind, or the devil, or the subconscious.
  • In Aenied vi (ll.156+) Virgil describes the ceremonial following the death of dead comrade Mineus, one of the conditions of Aeneas’ entry to the Underworld;
  • sentences, some brief, ending largely in mid-line; frequent use of enjambement to allow variation of pace and tone in the reading;
  • whispered [w] sounds of stanza 1 introduce words requiring answers;
  • alliteration: Sonbrother swimmer; poetic creation: Sonbrother;
  • the phrasing of the final sentence allows the macabre element to be stressed:


Heaney shifts away from the mourning aspect of the wake towards its intimate neighbourly face: corpse house then a house of hospitalities: the long hours, the card-playing, the constant replenishment Of cigarettes on plates, biscuits, cups of tea; dialogues concerning those issues that could be repeated openly resembled standard religious ‘responses’,The antiphonal recital of known events whereas, in the troubled, paranoid society of the time other covert issues required whispered confidentialities: rare, clandestine, undertoned;

Heaney’s swift assimilation of wake lessons made him an Apt pupil at their night-school. He only returned home when all was done. The down-side: his smoke-imbued clothes stinking of cigarettes As if I’d fed a pyre; the up-side: he is ‘accepted’, his ‘membership’ confirmed  by the offer of a short cut home across private land, a permit to absolve me formally of trespass.

  • Heaney is skilled at lending phrases different layers of meaning; here night school: a college offering evening classes; a wake that lasts all night; a prolonged card-playing session;
  • Heaney has an eye for particular detail: cigarettes on plates
  • Antiphonal recital: the phrase combines religious and musical connotations indicating the set responses of alternate groups involved, say, in delivering a psalm or other piece of music in church;
  • pyre: in Aenied vi Mineus’ body was cremated;


Heaney suffers pangs of guilt recalling a moment of severance: As one when the month is young sees a new moon/ Fading into day. The speaker is empathising with someone he turned his back on, as if driven by some greater imperative akin to Aeneas’ rejection of Dido. He vividly recalls the moment of separation as dawn broke: again it is her face/ At the dormer window. He feels for the pain she is suffering: her hurt still new.

His departure can not be delayed: My look behind me hurried. He drives off In the car she’ll not have taken her eyes off, seeing through her The brakelights flicker-flushing at the corner.

The scene recalls the difficult times when drivers might be stopped by red lamps swung by RUC patrols/ In the small hours on pre-Troubles roads. The young were especially prone, returning from social events After dances. The demands of parents and society, particularly on young and as yet unmarried Catholics in the 1950’s and 60’s left them sexually inhibited: holdings on/ And holdings back, the necking/ And nay-saying age of impurity;

  • The citation is taken (omitting ‘or seems to see’) from Aenied vi; Aeneas has come upon the shade of Dido wandering in the Mourning Fields. They had fallen deeply in love in Carthage but were driven apart by the higher order of the Gods whom Aeneas obeyed. Dido’s anger at what she took as betrayal by Aeneas drove her to curse him, kill herself and thereby deprive herself of a place in Elysium ( ‘those whom stern Love has consumed; Ae vi). Aeneas bears this on his conscience;
  • The Dido figure in the poem is not identified and there are no clues; what is evident is the deep pang of conscience still felt by the speaker;
  • The alliterative flicker-flushing mimics the on-off action of brake-lights;
  • Assonance: her hurt/ hurried/ unlock;
  • Frequency of adverbs in stanza 2: behind/ on/ up/ out/ away/ off;
  • Heaney’s comment on propriety in stanza 4 hangs on the adverbs: holdings-on (embraces) and holdings-back (not getting carried away sexually);
  • Heaney creates an assonance that perfectly reflects contemporary ‘Thou-shalt-not’ morality: the nay saying age;
  • The final emphasis of impurity expresses a paradox that in turn opens more than one line of enquiryon the one hand remaining a virgin was a criterion of purity essential before marriage; Heaney compares the morality required of  youngsters with the impure example set by adults, for example that of the Protestant majority as regards the Northern Irish Catholic minority and vice-versa; the Sibyl leading Aeneas on his journey explains to him that ‘no pure soul may tread the accursed threshold (Aenied vi, after line 548).


The poem moves from pre-Troubles to the subsequent 1970’s period of violence and explosion which produced countless casualties some of whose unhappy ‘shades’ Heaney rubs shoulders with on this stage of his Route 110 journey.

The first two are identified. A Catholic publican is named and elements of his death described: Mr Lavery was blown to smithereens (what in the end was there left to bury) on December 21, 1971, in an attempt to remove a primed device left on his premises by the IRA and as a wandering ‘shade’ bears it still (see below). A second Catholic victim, Louis O’Neill, was blown up by the IRA in a bar in Stewartstown, in the wrong place, victim of a paramilitary revenge attack not aimed at Catholics, on February 2, 1972, the same day that victims of Bloody Sunday were laid to rest.

Then the unidentified: Unglorified, accounted for and bagged (the latter offering dual meaning: somebody ‘bagged’ them like game-birds at a ‘shoot’; their remains were placed in body-bags); inaccessible to their families Behind the grief-cordons; ultimately enjoying neither a Protestant burial In war graves with full honours nor a Catholic paramilitaryinterment in a separate plot/ Fired over on anniversaries. Heaney borrows the IRA parlance, paramilitary units. well trained, smart and dissident: drilled and spruce and unreconciled;

  • And what in the end was there left to bury: the Sibyl leading Aeneas into the Underworld points out the ‘helpless and graveless’ whom Charon turns away from the ferry as having no resting place (Ae vi after l.317); death by explosion places those referred to here in the category of wandering souls;
  • Bloody Sunday sometimes called the Bogside Massacre was an incident on 30 January 1972 in the Bogside area of Derry, Northern Ireland, in which twenty-six unarmed civil rights protesters and bystanders were shot by soldiers of the British Army.
  • the final line of each stanza emphasises a contributory aspect of the chaos: the nature of the explosives; the arbitrariness of death; the pain of those left behind;  the hard-line paramilitary response, agents intent on ‘revenge’;
  • alliteration: the explosive ’burst’ of bilabial plosive [b] of bury/ blown/ pub/ bore/ bears; bodies/ bagged;
  • adjectival phrases in balanced triplets: Unglorified, accounted for and bagged; drilled and spruced and unreconciled;


Heaney contrasts the fate of bloody victims of dirty sectarian reality in IX with Virgil’s happy shades in pure blanched raiment. Elysium is a place of healthy physical and cultural balance: wrestlers, dancers, runners. Music, too: Orpheus ..sweeping strings, aswerve/ To the pulse of his own playing.

Heaney revisits a scene from the pre-Troubles age of his own Northern Irish ‘back-yard’: a sports day in Bellaghy.  With humour and warmth he fleshes out the Ulster version of Elysian sophistication: Slim Whitman’s wavering tenor; a fairground atmosphere: sparking dodgems, flying chair-o-planes; social inclusion and mass local appeal: A mile of road with parked cars.

He recalls the ‘Bellaghy games’, not as the pursuit of an ideal of mental and physical fitness mens sana in corpore sano, but rather: teams of grown men stripped for action; their competitive rivalry Going hell for leather; the aftermath: stud-scrapes on the pitch and on each other.

  • Dewey Whitman, Jr., known professionally as Slim Whitman, an American country music singer and songwriter, known for his yodeling abilities, high notes, and crystal-clear vocals ; wavering: using a crooner’s tremulous vibrato;
  • the first of 2 sentences focuses on Aenied vi; the second on its Ulster ‘equivalent’;
  • 5 lines are rich in stylistic devices: the assonance of shades/ raiment; the combined alliteration and assonance of Orpheus/ Weaves among them, sweeping strings, a-swerve/ To the pulse; the word-end sibilants of pulse/ wrestlers, dancers, runners on the grass; 7 lines use the popular language and vocabulary of working folk;
  • litotes: not unlike invites the reader to correct the phrase;
  • irony: the competitors in the Bellaghy Games allegorise an Ulster society that, before the Good Friday Agreement constantly left stud-scrapes … on each other.


An Elysian moment fuses illusion and reality. Heaney renews personal memories of times spent fishing with friends on the banks of the Moyola,. On one occasion they experienced the riddle of the otter’s head: maybe it was really there in the flow or maybe it was a figment: only/ A surface-ruck or gleam. 

The watery surroundings themselves were real: The gleam, a turnover warp in the black/ Quick water. Beyond doubt, too, the solid ground of the waterside meadow twilit and a-hover/ With midge-drifts akin to the midge veils of The Riverbank Field. 

The convergence of Virgil’s Elysian- and Heaney’s riverbank-fields (as if it were possible for the living we and the dead shades and shadows to be rubbing shoulders) awakens deep issues within the poet that crave clarification. Achieving understanding of what lies beyond the brink (be it riverbank or death) requires the same patience as awaiting the angler’s anticipated ‘tug on the fishing line’ of the first line. Heaney suggests that, at 70, he can not be then only one in waiting, watching/ Needy and ever needier for translation.

  • The chosen ones of Virgil’s Elysium are summoned to drink Lethe water; this releases them from all previous memory and prepares them for a second existence on earth; the Organised Church promises eternal life for believers in Jesus who repent of their earthly sins. Heaney ponders.
  • structure: a first sentence setting time and place is followed by an extended question, followed in turn by 2 statements, the first a short sharp focus on water effects; the second introducing the weightier theme;
  • alliteration: we’d just wait and watch; sonic eschoes: Those / flow; assonance by repetition: gleam/ gleam; doubting/ doubting
  • Quick: dual meaning, fast-moving/ alive;
  • imaginative touch/sight description: surface-ruck/ turnover warp;
  • lyric charm of riverbank field twilit and a-hover/ With midge-drifts;
  • Needy and ever needier for translation: in Heaney’s case the urgency is down to his stroke;



Heaney reveals the principal intention of the sequence: the new-born link in his human chain, the age of births. He pays tribute to the birth of his first granddaughter, Anna Rose, (to be followed, soon after, by a second).

He recalls his own fatherhood: he came home once from a wake At dawn … The last to leave … with fresh-plucked flowers, blooms that helped cleanse him of the smells of drink and smoke in anticipation of the homecoming of a mother and child from the nursing-home.

Heaney now a grandfather presents the new-born as one/ Whose long wait on the shaded bank has ended. His thank-offering is deeply spiritual: a bunch of humble stalks(symbols of  light as from the McNicholl household in VI): Silvered heads/ Like tapers that won’t dim/ As her earthlight breaks.

The poem’s coda sets aside all learning and literature: in line with all other families in like circumstances members of the Heaney family simply gather round/ Talking baby talk.

  • the ‘now’ and the ‘once’ emphasize  the generational steps in the human chain;
  • alliteration: fresh-plucked flowersdrink and smokesmells … linger; stalks and silvered heads;
  • a delightful poetic alternative for ‘a child is born: her earthlight breaks;
  • simplicity of the final line.
  • ‘‘It was the age of ghosts’’ begins poem vi of Route 110.  This is a book that, though as rich in the bits and pieces of the material world as any Vermeer or Metsu, also teems with other lives, whether they be family members (Heaney’s father in The Butts, his parents in Uncoupled, his granddaughter in Route 110), colleagues and friends”. Vona Groarke writing in the Sunday Business Post Online
  • ‘Mixing the high-brow with the highly personal, Route 110 is his childhood bus journey from Smithfield bus station to Hillhead in County Londonderry, intertwined with references to the underworld adventure of the Aeneid. He said that “oddly enough” the poem began without any mourning intention, and was intended to mark a very happy family occasion. “Book VI, where Aeneas goes down to meet his father in the underworld, meets all the souls of the dead, the people he knew, people like his warrior friends,”  “But then he is shown all the souls on the banks of the Lethe that are going to be reborn under the sky and I thought – this is the way to greet our first grandchild”.’ from an interview with Eimear Flanagan for BBC Northrn Ireland, September 23, 2010
  • (Heaney’s) human chain is tolerant, durable, compassionate and every link is reinforced by literature. In more than one poem he makes this plain, recalling the moment in his younger life (in “Route 110”) in an Irish bookshop when a woman in brown overalls with a “marsupial” pocket (a perfect, unexpected adjective) sold him a “used copy of Aeneid VI” in a “deckle-edged brown paper bag”. What follows is a poem in which the Aeneid co-exists with autobiography. Heaney reminds you that this is what literature is: another life.Kate Kellaway, Guardian/Observer review of August 22, 2010
  • … its tour de force for me is Route 110, a wonder-filled revisiting of his home places, their personally and historically charged spots of time seen not through a glass darkly but plain and unquestionable as day. This procession of vignettes reads like a collage drawn from Heaney’s life-long understanding of Wordsworth’s Prelude , each element (in 12 separate 12-line segments) a brief, packed epiphany illuminating another corner of private/public life faithfully re-examined, all in an idiom that can only be called visionary.Aemon Grennan writing in The Irish Times of August 28, 2010
  • ‘The book includes a sequence based on Book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid, about Aeneas’s journey into the underworld where he meets both the shade of his father and a gathering of souls yet to be born. “He comes to the banks of the Lethe and there is this great crowd humming like bees, they’re souls who’re going to return to earth. So, not only did this appeal to me because it was about getting ready to go down, but we’ve also had our first grandchildren in the last two or three years, so it’s about getting ready to come back in.” Becoming a grandfather has been, he says, “a very enriching thing”, which landed him in the happiest of conundrums. The book was all but finished with a poem to his first grand-daughter, but the arrival of a second child required parity. A new last poem had to be added, “A kite for Aibhín”, which in turns looks back to the poem he wrote a generation ago for his sons, “A kite for Michael and Christopher”.’ Heaney interview with Susan Mansfield in The Scotsman of March 14, 2010.