Route 110

A much admired sequence of 12 poems that ends with celebration of 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 staged journey of his own.

In an interview with Eimear Flanagan for BBC Northern Ireland of September 23, 2010 Heaney commented 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’.

Heaney’s Route 110 (a bus) is not dissimilar to Route 66 (a highway), the celebrated American route from the Great Lakes to Los Angeles immortalised for its emotional connotations of hope, dream and home.


Heaney provides the clues as to where his journey starts: enter an employee in a visibly grubby outer garment (stained front-buttoned shopcoat), dark and aged (sere brown) with just a touch of colour (piped with crimson). Heaney studied Latin at Advanced Level and was a star pupil. The second-hand bookshop in Belfast was just the thing for students with Latin texts in mind – the Classics bay, smelling of decay and pungent with disguising odours (dry rot and disinfectant).

This is an experienced saleswoman: single-minded (eyes front), juggling money (absorbed in her coin-count) within an apron pouch (slack marsupial vent of her change-pocket), toying also with the price she should ask for the iconic text (used copy of Aenied VI).

The air is unhealthy (dustbreath  … I inhaled) where student Heaney waits (in the cubicle mouth) and watches as his purchase is sheathed (slid) in 1950s’ wrapping (deckle-edged brown paper bag).

  • stain: dirty mark:
  • sere: dry, withered as vegetation;
  • piping: fabric covered cord to decorate edges;
  • bay: cubicle;
  • dry rot: fungal timber decay;
  • absorbed: totally engaged, tied up;
  • slack: loose;
  • marsupial vent: marsupial mammals (e.g. kangaroos) carry their young in a pouch on their bellies;
  • change: coinage returned for example after a transaction using paper money;
  • Virgil (70BC-19BC) ancient Roman poet of the Augustan period. Who wrote three of the most famous poems in Latin literature: Eclogues, Georgics, and epic Aeneid. The latter was selected by scholars as being culturally important, and is part of the knowledge base of civilization as we know it.
  • Aenied Book VI includes Aeneas’sjourney to the underworld and was much valued by Heaney’s Latin teacher at St Columb’s College, Father Michael McGlinchey. Heaney told DOD (p296): ‘I always remember him repeating at different times ‘ Och, boys, I wish it were Book Six’ –  which gave me an interest in that book long before I ever read it’;
  • bestirred: whipped up, triggered;
  • deckle-edged: the ragged edge of the paper as it leaves the papermaking machine becomes a decorative, textured edging;
  • first of12 poems comprising 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;


Ends of weeks were marked by jaunts (Smithfield Market Saturday) in the heart and soul of old Belfast: the unforgettable pet stall,  its rank odours (fetid with droppings) contrasting with sweet sounding (melodious) birdsong (canaries, green and gold) but no longer operational as he passes by and silent as the Italian entrance to the classical Underworld (birdless Lake Avernus).

For student Heaney no time to rest (hurried on), a bus to catch (shortcutting), elbow-to-elbow congestion to brave (parrying the crush) a sought-after text to read (my bagged Virgil).  En route outlets selling bottom-of-the-range items (canvas printsplasterartificial) and second- hand clothing that swayed as people tried them on (tugged from overcrowded frame), garments once worn (owners’ shades) now crammed together like the newly dead in the Virgil text (close-packed on Charon’s barge).

  • Belfast’s Smithfield Market was burnt down during the Troubles. No organisation took responsibility perhaps because they realised that it would have been a very unpopular thing to have done;
  • fetid: malodourous, foul-smelling;
  • melodious: tuneful;
  • 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’;
  • shortcut: quicker alternative route;
  • bagged: both enwrapped and picked up, acquired;
  • parry: fend off, ward off;
  • crush: crowd pressure;
  • booth: temporary market stall for selling goods
  • jamb: upright doorpost; also homophone for ‘jam’, bottleneck
  • canvas: coarse, unbleached fabric made from flax; string and cheap;
  • print: copy of an original painting;
  • plaster: solid white substance, soft and easily damaged;
  • plaque: ornamental display tablet
  • feather duster: long handled brush:
  • rack: free standing frame of rails and bars;
  • sway: move back and to;
  • shade: ghost, revenant;
  • close-packed: crowded in, loaded
  • Charon In Greek mythology was the ferryman of Hades who acted as arbiter of the regulations governing entry to the Underworld, ferrying selected souls from among the newly deceased across the Acheron and rejecting others;
  • 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.


In the bustle of the bus depot information remerging as to the bus’s destination is key (driver wound a little handle) and acts as a starting-pistol (everything came to life all go) that turns the waiting passengers into startled birds (agitated rooks around a rookery). Perhaps because the scroll of destinations is long and the driver is still winding Indecision reigns (undecided).

Cue for him who must be obeyed (inspector who ruled the roost) to restore order (separated and directed). His code based not on destinations (route numbers) sent folk in the right direction (scattered as instructed) and Heaney caught his iconic Route 110, the destinations in the panel that led to home.

  • handle: hand-held device for manipulating something;
  • roll: move, scroll
  • fast-forward: control used to wind tape rapidly
  • panel: console with glass front:
  • flock: gather like sheep;
  • rook: large, black crow
  • inspector: senior official ensuring rules are followed:
  • rule the roost: be in complete control, king of the castle;
  • scatter: move quickly in different directions;
  • 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;
  • 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 huge gap that existed between his Northern Irish undergraduate winter appearance and memory of more sophisticated formal summer attire abroad.

The winter ‘uniform’ of Heaney’s Route 110 period included an unyielding, weather-resistant (tarpaulin stiff), saturnine (coal-black) skin chafing (sharp-cuffed as slate) over-garment bought on the second-hand market and  generally recognized (standard-issue railway guard’s long coat). 

Punishing to wear (scourge at the neck and wrists) he valued the coat as a symbol of resistance to parental preferences (dismay I caused) when he arrived home at unsociable hours and became an almost otherworldly presence (creature) associated with wild winter weather (cold blasts flap-winged rain).

In contrast (come finer weather) an invitation to Italy (wedding guest) required formal gear – modestly priced (bargain suit) of best possible quality (finest weave), airy and easy to wear (loose-fitting) and conservative (grey) allowing in a metaphor for marriage and an Aenied VI connection (Venus’ doves).

Paradoxically Heaney’s ‘cool’ image was part of a general exertion (hotfooting it with the tanned expats) the latter happy to commandeer a historic site (small brick chapel) as if they owned it (up their Etruscan slopes) but no doubt ignorant of its architectural significance – not lost on the classically-educated poet (the one there most at home).

  • tarpaulin: heavy –duty waterproof cloth;
  • stiff: rigid;
  • cuff: the wrist end of a sleeve;
  • slate: fine-grained metamorphic rock of bluish grey;
  • standard-issue: basic equipment supplied to everyone in a certain group;
  • guard: security lookout;
  • second-hand: owned by someone previously;
  • scourge: torture:
  • dismay: shock, consternation:
  • blast: wind described by the shock-wave it produced;
  • flap-winged: wing beat
  • up and away: in flight, taking advantage of new found freedom;
  • bargain: good value for money;
  • weave: pattern of interlaced threads;
  • Venus, classical goddess of love 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 VIher 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;
  • tanned expats: Heaney takes a gentle dig at expatriates who moved abroad for the sun, richer perhaps in pocket than in culture or discernment;
  • Etruscan: relating to ancient civilisation in what is now Tuscany, Umbria ad as far north as present-day Venice;
  • feel at home: feel comfortable, in one’s element
  • 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;


The golden bough of Aenied VI contrasts with the humble silver foil of the McNicholl household.

Heaney’s swaps Etruscan temples, well-heeled expatriates and classical mythology (Venus’ doves) for the home of modest Castledawson neighbours with its much humbler bird-stock (McNicholl’s pigeons) evident around the premises (pigeon holes) who followed their loyal instincts (homing still). Imagining their flight returns Heaney infailingly (unerringly) to the simple piety of the family’s kitchen with its rudimentary home-made altar (votive jampot on the dresser shelf).

No question (reach me not) of Heaney being offered an Italian, hot-climate plant (gentian) – rather the product of a mid-Ulster cereal crop (stalkshead of oats) sprayed (silvered smattering) and embellished (second husk of glittering foil) cheaply acquired (saved from chocolate bars) and finished with an assonant  ‘professional’ touch (pinched and cinched).

Heaney depicts the generosity of a kindly woman of humble piety (old Mrs Nick) proud of the shine of the religious iconography who blessed him with her humble gift (stalk) that lifted his spirits and his spirituality (as good as lit me home) 

  • McNicholl: directly across the road from the gate to Mossbawn stood the house of Catholic neighbours, the McNicholl family; Heaney confessed he was close to ‘fey’ daughter Philomena who took him to Anahorish Primary School on his very first day;
  • homing; pigeons were found to return to their home from great distances:
  • votive: there to fulfil a vow or solemn promise
  • jampot: glass container that held sweetmeats;
  • dresser: sideboard with shelves above and storage space below;
  • gentian:a plant with vivid blue flowers found in Italian upland areas;
  • stalk: main stem
  • head: uppermost cluster in which the grains develop; oats a good mid-Ulster cereal crop
  • silvered: coated, covered with something silver coloured
  • smattering: in small amounts;
  • husk: dry outer covering;
  • pinch: nip, squeeze;
  • cinch: fix securely;
  • wee: Irish usage for small, little;
  • Mrs Nick: perfectly respectful short form/ nickname adopted by Heaney and siblings;
  • 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 Heaney’s ‘journey’; he  reflects on the very curious circumstances of the first wake he ever attended at the home of Protestant neighbours close to The Wood farm into which the Heaney family moved from Mossbawn in the mid -1950s.

At this period in his life, Heaney looks back: the whole ritual of vigils for dead individuals had more than a tinge of the otherworldly (the age of ghosts).  He expands: practical guidance for visitors after dark (hand-held flashlamps), Heaney’s choice of vocabulary suggests (scried), could readily be interpreted as phantasmal phenomena (lights moving in the distance) with some deep psychic meaning when in fact they were just signals on unlit roads of specific gatherings (for who and why) acknowledging that death and misfortune had occurred (who’s wake) and guiding uncertain folk to the vigil door (which house on the road).

The first one Heaney attended formally could hardly have been more incongruous – a wake without a body!

He was welcomed into the bosom of the family rather than seen as a neighbour bearing condolence (as a full participant), committed to follow the lead of the Mulhollands (sitting up until the family rose) disoriented as they were by loss (like strangers to themselves) and, Heaney slips in, Protestant so strangers to the Catholics present (us). The deceased is identified in absentia (their own dear ill-advised sonbrother swimmer) not yet retrieved from across the sea (Bristol Channel).

The intent on staying the course killed time (kept conversation going) with resolute determination (three nights) around the empty sacral space (waiting trestles) only filled much later (by the fourth his coffin was in place).

Heaney adds a final detail (the lid on) suggesting perhaps that after more than 72 hours the drowned body was too gruesome to view.

  • scry: in psychic practice ‘see images reflected in water that reveal the past ore forebode the future’;
  • wake: vigil held beside the body of someone who has died;
  • Mulholland family: neighbours of the Heaneys after they moved from Mossbawn to The Wood Farm in the mid 1950s; Protestant as Heaney revealed to DOD (132) ‘neighbours (‘beside us’) but non-Catholic (‘on the other side’);
  • sit up: remain awake, refrain from sleep;
  • ill-advised: unwise, imprudent;
  • there is an unattributed suggestion that the loss of Mulholland triggered recall of the death by drowning of Misenus in Aenied vi (II.156+) said to have unwisely challenged the Gods to a contest, deliberately drowned by Triton but deemed to have died guiltless;
  • Bristol Channel: long and dangerous stretch of water also known as the Severn Estuary at the point where the river Severn flows into the Atlantic due south of the island of Ireland;
  • 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 relates the change of atmosphere that followed the retrieval of Michael Mulholland’s body, shifting from the mourning aspect (corpse house) to the wake’s communal face (house of hospitalities) – its sleeplessness (small hours) mitigated by activities that relieved boredom (ongoing card game) and constant provision (cigarettes on plates, biscuits, cups of tea).

Conversation shared open memories resembling standard religious cues and responses (antiphonal recital of known events) and a second limited number of whispered confidentialities redolent of troubled, sectarian times (rare, clandestine, undertoned).

Heaney tuned in swiftly and sensitively (apt pupil at their night-school) and only returned home when all was done.

The down-side: his clothing stank of cigarettes (smoke-imbued) suggestive in his mind of funeral rituals in other cultures (as if I’d fed a pyre).

The up-side: sectarian differences played no part – Heaney was accepted as a fellow human being in mourning – any fear of his own that  he was intruding  was snuffed out by the offer of a short cut home to one fully on board  (absolve me formally of trespass).

  • hospitality: generosity, warm heartedness
  • small hours: early hours of the morning after midnight (clocks chime less often);
  • round: series;
  • antiphonal: solemn responses between groups;
  • rare: limited, infrequent;
  • clandestine: furtive, secretive;
  • undertoned: expressed by low voices;
  • apt: quick to learn, quick on the up-take;
  • night school: allusion to educational establishments providing evening classes;
  • imbued: impregnated with, carrying the strong smell of;
  • pyre: fire, suggestive of eastern religions that cremated dead bodies as part of the funeral ceremony;
  • right of way: public footpath across private land;
  • back: to the rear of;
  • absolve: free someone from a charge;
  • trespass: illegal presence
  • 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;


Dream poem, hybrid or personal reality? Heaney does not say! His citation pushes us in the direction of the ill-fated relationship between Dido and Aeneas in Aenied vi yet in fact we are firmly anchored in mid-20th century Northern Ireland at dawn (new moon fading into day).

A young man is leaving a young woman behind having, it seems, spent the night with her, now turning his back on her as if driven by some greater imperative akin to Aeneas’ rejection of Dido.

His abiding memory vividly recalls the aftermath (her face at the dormer window) and the pain he knows is being felt felt by someone who might have hoped for more (her hurt still new).

The young man is not prepared to prolong the agony (my look behind me hurried). Five references follow the driver’s routine (from unlock to drive away) His receding presence (car she’ll not have taken her eyes off) reaches the point of where he is no more (brakelights flicker-flushing at the corner). She is already a thing of the past for him.

He recalls the possibility of being routinely stopped and checked at a Protestant road-block (red lamps swung by RUC patrols) given the time of day (in the small hours) from the period before Catholic paramilitaries took up arms against them (pre-Troubles roads).

Young drivers were especially prone following social events (after dances) where sex hormone sprang to life (holdings on), then inhibited by the demands of parents and social mores in the 1950’s and 60’s (holdings back) which didn’t stop them – the necking and irresistible temptation that led to Dido and Aeneas situations (nay-saying age of impurity) and left him with a pang of conscience.

  • the citation is borrowed 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’). Aeneas bears this on his conscience;
  • the Dido figure in the poem is not identified and Heaney leaves no clues; what is evident is the pang of conscience still felt by the speaker;
  • dormer: window projecting from a sloping roof;
  • hurried: fleeting, perfunctory;
  • flicker-flushing: alliteration mimicking the on-off action of brake-lights;
  • hold: usage varies according to the adverb from cling, embrace to show restraint;
  • necking: informal reference to kissing and embracing with great passion;
  • nay-saying: sign of refusal or restraint;
  • impurity: lustfulness, immorality;
  • 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 paradox of nay-saying age of impurity opens more than one line of interestmost feasibly perhaps the Sibyl leading Aeneas on his journey explains to him that ‘no pure soul may tread the accursed threshold (Aenied vi, after line 548); on the other hand remaining a virgin was a criterion of purity essential before marriage; finally Heaney compares the morality required of  youngsters with the impure example set by adults especially that of the Protestant majority as regards the Northern Irish Catholic minority;


The sequence moves from pre-Troubles times to the 1970’s period of violence and mayhem in Northern Ireland which produced countless casualties some of whose unhappy ‘shades’ Heaney may well have rubbed shoulders with during this stage of his Route 110 journey. The unifying message from Virgil’s Aenied vi is that these victims of violence found no resting-place.

A Catholic publican (Mr Lavery) is named and elements of his murder describedblown to smithereens (what in the end was there left to bury) on December 21, 1971, as he tried to remove a bomb (primed device) planted in the Ashley Arms close to the Heaney home in Ashley Avenue, Belfast by the IRA and fated as Aenied vi suggested to remain a wandering ‘shade’ (bears it still).

A second Catholic victim, Louis O’Neill, was blown up by the IRA in a bar in Stewartstown on February 2, 1972, an innocent non-specific casualty (in the wrong place)  of a paramilitary revenge attack not aimed at Catholics on the same day that thirteen victims of Bloody Sunday were laid to rest.

Countless deaths of unremarkable people (unglorified), each one registered or eliminated depending which side you were on (accounted for) each one stored in a body-bag or added to the tally according to your sectarian affiliations (bagged); all of them inaccessible to their families (behind the grief-cordons) ultimately given neither a military burial (war graves with full honours) nor a paramilitary interment (separate plot) commemorated by illegal gatherings (fired over on anniversaries).

Heaney borrows the IRA parlance (units) to describe the shooters involved – well trained (drilled), well turned out (spruce) and well dissident (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 (Aenied vi after l.317); death by explosion places those referred to here in the category of restless, wandering souls;
  • pub: British tradition of premises where people gather to chat and drink alcohol;
  • primed: set up to explode; device: explosive mechanism;
  • in the wrong place; unlucky;
  • Derry: Bloody Sundaysometimes called the Bogside Massacre was an incident on 30 January 1972 in the Bogside area below the City walls of Derry, Northern Ireland in which thirteen unarmed protesters and bystanders were killed outright by soldiers of the British Army and a further thirteen died of their injuries; Heaney was outraged and very deeply affected by the massacre;
  • bag: container in which corpses were placed;
  • cordon: sealed off area;
  • full honours: military funerals, copied by paramilitaries involved guards of honour and volleys of shots over a coffin;
  • unit: discrete detachment;
  • spruce: with neat appearance;
  • drilled: trained, practised;
  • unreconciled: unappeased;
  • 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 claims a symmetry between the ostensible contentment of the exclusive souls (happy shades in pure blanched raiment) dwelling in Aenied vi’s Elysium and his memories of the annual mid-Ulster Bellaghy games.

First the Virgilian  version of paradise – a place of healthy, physical and cultural balance (wrestlers, dancers, runners) with its resident musical magician (Orpheus), virtuoso lyre player (sweeping strings) navigating a sinuous way through (aswerve to the pulse of his own playing).

From fiction to fact, Heaney revisits of his Northern Irish ‘back-yard’ (sports day in Bellaghy). With warmth he identifies the Bellaghy-Orpheus (Slim Whitman’s wavering tenor), the event’s fairground atmosphere (sparking dodgems, flying chair-o-planes), its social inclusion and mass local appeal (mile of road with parked cars).

Whilst the Virgilian shades seem to compete (contend) in pursuit of some ideal of mental and physical fitness (mens sana in corpore sano), the same cannot quite be said of its Bellaghy equivalent: contention between rival units (teams of grown men stripped for action) … no let-up (going hell for leatherfinal whistle) … aftermath (stud-scrapes on the pitch and on each other).

Yet who is to suggest that the Bellaghy bruises and badges of honour were less meritable than the more disciplined competitions of Elysium?

  • blanched: made white, white coloured;
  • raiment: clothing;
  • contend: compete;
  • Orpheus: said to be the son of a Muse (probably Calliope, the patron of epic poetry) and in some versions Apollo who gave Orpheus his first lyre. Orpheus’s singing and playing were so beautiful that animals and even trees and rocks moved about him in dance;
  • weave: wind one’s way;
  • sweep: strum;
  • aswerve: swaying from side to side
  • pulse: beat;
  • Bellaghy: village along the road from Castledawson; site of the Seamus Heaney HomePlace;
  • Slim Whitman: American country music singer and songwriter, known for his yodelling abilities, high notes, and crystal-clear vocals ;
  • wavering:using a crooner’s tremulous vibrato;
  • tenor: high male register:
  • sparking dodgems: fairground cars with bumpers used to drive into and bounce off others; electrically powered from ceiling level, hence ‘sparked’;
  • chair-o-plane: fairground feature – chairs suspended from a carousel above that swing outwards as the rotation speed increases;
  • go hell for leather: spare no efforts, go full tilt;
  • studs: traditionally leather projections nailed beneath sports footwear that help the wearer with grip;
  • scrape: wound, abrasion;
  • 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 leftstud-scrapes … on each other.


What is myth and what is reality? What is illusion and what is indisputable? Heaney searches unsuccessfully  for reassurance.

He reprises times spent with friends along the banks of his local Moyola river, sometimes just kicking their heels (wait and watch) sometimes with purpose (fish).

When suddenly something extraordinary transpired at dusk (otter’s head) assumed to be fact (in the flow), retrospect places certitude in doubt – a figment of shape and light created by the river itself (only a surface-ruck or gleam). The watery surroundings made optical illusion entirely feasible: reflection (gleam) and distorted perspective (turnover warp) magnified by river current (black quick water).

Beyond doubt, too, the solid ground of the waterside meadow at dusk (twilit) with its swarming flying insect life (a-hover with midge-drifts (recognizable too in the midge veils of The Riverbank Field). 

Heaney has reached his Virgilian moment – the convergence (as if commingled) of distant friends on Moyola’s bank and the Lethe’s bank of Aenied vi – the living we of yesteryear rubbing shoulders with the classical dead on the edge of the ‘river of sorrows’ (shades and shadows).

Heaney shares the apprehension of unfinished business with Virgil’s shades (on the brink) – he is a mortal they are already dead, needing to know what comes next, be it climbing into Charon’s barge or being left behind to face some other outcome.

The poem comes full circle … the otter/ non-otter spotter is returned to the very first line (waiting, watching). ‘At seventy plus,’ said Heaney ‘thoughts of mortality tend to creep in a bit’.

Does death bring elevation to a higher state of being? Heaney could do with knowing (needy and ever needier for translation).

  • ruck: untidy fold (of cloth for example)
  • gleam: brief, faint light;
  • turnover: water effect;
  • warp: buckle, distortion:
  • quick: both swift-moving and living;
  • solid ground: terra firma, connotations of territory, land;
  • twilit: at dusk;
  • a-hover: poised, floating;
  • midges: minute flies that swarm together in huge numbers;
  • drift: carry slowly;
  • commingle: mix together;
  • on the brink: on the edge of something possibly bad;
  • needy: insecure, confused;
  • translation: the original Latin carries both a semantic sense of ‘transfer of meaning’ and a variation appropriate to the Aenied vi circumstance of ‘carrying across, removal, transporting’: the dead of Aenied vi gather on the banks of the Styx awaiting Charon’s barge that will ferry them to the Underworld if selected by the ferryman;
  • 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 echoes: 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 demotes Aenied VI (age of ghosts) which contained no births in favour of a new-born link in his Human Chain (age of births). 

Son Christopher and Jenny had Anna Rose, to whom Route 110 is dedicated followed by Michael and Emer who produced Aibhín (pronounced Ayvèen – accent on the last syllable) who arrived just in time to be included in this collection.  Shortly before Heaney’s death Michael and Emer produced a second little girl, Siófra (pronounced Sheefra – accent on first syllable) who prompted one of the poet’s final poems, ‘In Time’. All three granddaughters would subsequently plant commemorative trees at the Seamus Heaney HomePlace in Bellaghy.

Heaney recalls his own fatherhood: the occasion (once) he returned from a wake (at dawn) having seen it through (last to leave) bearing a tribute (fresh-plucked flowers) whose fragrance would both offset associations of death (smells of drink and smoke in favour of new-born life (mother and child from the nursing-home)

A generation late grandfather Heaney presents the new-born entering the flow of life in Virgilian terms (one whose long wait on the shaded bank has ended).

His thank-offering is deeply spiritual and nothing grandiose: a bunch of humble stalks and silvered heads reflective of the modest McNicholl household in VI, emblems of an inextinguishable light (tapers that won’t dim as her earthlight breaks).

The poem’s coda sets aside all learning and literature: families in these circumstances simply celebrate their infant-centred pleasure (gather round talking baby talk). Heaney’s poetry is on the side of life.

  • pluck: pick from a plant;
  • quell: stifle, mitigate, suppress;
  • nursing home: small private clinic;
  • stalk: thick stem of flower or cereal plant;
  • silvered heads: reminders of the spiritually inspired altar in the McNicholl household:
  • taper: slender candle;
  • dim: grow faint;
  • baby talk: childish chatter used to or by young children;
  • 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.

The sequence:

  • ‘‘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 Castledawson, 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 Aeneidco-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.
  • 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;

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