Sweeney Out-Takes

A three-poem sequence dedicated to the noted contemporary Cork writer and poet Gregory of Corkus, pseudonym for Greg Delanty (b. 1958). Heaney reprises the internal struggles of the medieval Irish king of the Buile Shuibhne  (Heaney’s published translation as Sweeney Astray,  November1983) . See also the Sweeney Redevivus section in Station Island of 1984. 

The basic story tells of Sweeney’s behaviour towards Bishop Ronan that brings the curse of madness upon him. He is driven out into the wilderness where readers follow him in his crazed wanderings through the forest and hills, torn within himself by his love of the wild and his incurable loneliness.

All three pieces bear inverted commas suggesting they are re-produced as, of course, are out-takes..

i  Otterboy

Heaney recalls a letter from home sent by Sweeney’s loyal wife Eorann in the original story.

It reports a shared pleasure (our two otters) and intimacies (courting yesterday by the turnhole) that in a sense she and Sweeney are now deprived of. Heaney, too, appreciates unfettered, spontaneous river behaviour (shiny romps) contrasting totally with the hierarchic conformist celibacy of the all-male Catholic Church of which he suffered a surfeit as a boy and Sweeney too in his legendary struggles.

Free imagination permits his otterboy to turn ‘altar-boy’ serving Bishop Ronan Finn (in cleric’s vestment) in standard pose (hand outstretched) with illustrated manuscript (bordered page massbook).

Heaney imagines altar-boy’s posture – subservient (kneeling brow inclined), facilitating (for his perusal), seeing only Ronan’s lower body vestment (big-thong tied feet protruding from the alb).

The poet likens his return from the Sweeney legend (shake myself) to a dog emerging from water, its ‘fetch that stick’ task forgotten in favour of shedding what soaks it to the skin (gambol in pelt sluice) dousing everyone around with unsolicited spray (unruly riverbreath).

  • out-take: unused materials later used to update content or footage dropped from a final version or omitted because it contains embarrassing shortcoming;
  • otterboy / altarboy: similar sounding words contrasting freedom with service;
  • Eorann: exiled Sweeney’s loyal wife;
  • court: make advances, woo;
  • turnhole: bend in a river where the fast flow has created perilous eddies;
  • romp: play, frolic;
  • Ronan: bishop with whom Sweeney is in conflict in the original work;
  • bordered page: the historical context is confirmed – medieval church books were copied and decorated with enhanced capital letters, ornate borders and other illustrative motifs by scribes;
  • massbook: service sheet setting out the liturgy;
  • peruse: browse, look through;
  • thong-tied: secured with a leather strap;
  • alb: derived from the Latin ‘white’; liturgical vestment of the Roman Catholic Church, an ample garment reaching down to the ankles and usually girdled with a cincture; reference to the long linen tunic used by the Romans;
  • bound: spring about;
  • retrieve: fetch;
  • gambol: frolic, dance about;
  • pelt: skin, hide
  • sluice: cascade, cause to release water;
  • unruly: disruptive;
  • 4 three-line units; free verse;
  • alliteration: Kneeling where Ronan stands; hold high; cocktails of sound: those big thong-tied feet/ Protruding from the alb;
  • assonance: high/ inclined/ tied;
  • shiny romps: indicative of freedom, watery reflection, playfulness and movement;
  • Heaney’s final line is another example of his skill at fusing ‘multum in parva’, weaving a host of images into few words: the lively playfulness of the dog; its enjoyment of immersing itself in water; the wild behaviour of river water at this point on a bend; smell: both river and dog produce strong ‘breath’;

ii  He Remembers Lynchechaun

In a moment of lucidity Sweeney awakens to the naivety of his once favourable view of a figure whose betraying nature he had failed to comprehend.

His need to re-assess is triggered by the discovery of a very Irish utensil used over the centuries (cast-iron pot), difficult to tip over (three-legged) capacious (round-bellied). Discovered abandoned (deep in the nettle clump), taken over by nature (cobweb-mouthed) and deceptively hazardous (black-frost cold) the receptacle retains the seethe and simmer of its former domestic purpose (cauldron life of plump and boil).

The two sides to the pot point to Lynchechaun – his calculating nature (the cool consideration disguised (behind the busy warmth). The cooking-pot metaphor reveals another duality in Lynchecaun – dead weight (when I’d lift it off the crane) proving less substantial (once I’d tilt and drain it).

Sweeney could kick himself for not spotting earlier (premonitions) Lynchechaun’s base nature (my seeing through him). The cauldron’s duality – hot/ cold, weighty/ unsubstantial – that unsteadied him (giddiness) is replaced by a clear truth resembling the shock when a blindfold is removed (as scales fell from my eyes).

  • Lynchechaun: Sweeney’s nemesis in the original legend;
  • crane:heavy pots over open fires required a tripod with a winch mechanism;
  • cast iron: iron shaped using moulds first used in 5tth century China:
  • pot: round, metal cooking utensil;
  • cobweb: tangled, three-dimensional spider’s web;
  • black ice: thin transparent coating almost invisible to the eye;
  • plump: swell;
  • scales fell from my eyes:the obstacles to clear-sightedness have disappeared’; the phrase appears in The Bible (Acts ix ll17-18)describing the conversion of Saul; where Sweeney is weighing up an opponent the alternative suggestion of ‘scales’ that measure sits in the back of the mind;
  • lines of different metre; final line emphasis of scales;
  • solid utensils require solid language: 5 compound adjectives in the 1sttriplet;
  • weaving metaphors: black-frost cold offers the following ideas: utensils black-leaded to resist heat and thereby rust; the icy touch of cold metal, black ice that possesses a dull sheen on exposed surfaces;
  • alliteration: legged/ bellied; clump/ cauldron; cool consideration;
  • assonance: cold/ cauldron; warmth/ -chaun; crane/ drain;


iii The Pattern

Heaney condones Sweeney’s anti-religious stance, aiming a wry look at the trials and lasting effects of his own Catholic training.

First Confession! The statue a youngster passes – watching him (full face), intransigent (foursquare), unavoidable (eyelevel), immutable (carved in stone), child-height (low-set lintel), in full regalia (vested), inescapable (unavoidable) – calls for strength of character (head-on) in a child-sinner required to bear his soul to the bishop who awaits him far away (the full-length of an aisle).

Calamity awaited: well trained and prepared of course (rehearsed) Heaney sets out his emotional unpreparedness (unready).

He peed himself (meltwater little trickle on the tiles), considered humiliated flight (truthfunk and walkaway) then, before it was obvious to all (In the nick of time), stiffening his nerve (manfully, if late), he outgrew the mishap (heelturn, comeback) and confessed his sins (a clean breast made).

There lay the rub, suggests Heaney: he adopted a form, order and routine (the pattern set) that would resonate throughout his existence.

  • pattern: model or template from which identical copies are made; figuratively the first confession (formal admission of sins before a priest in return for forgiveness) set the shape for all those that followed; patterned tiles self-repeat;
  • low-set: close to ground level;
  • lintel: horizontal support;
  • head-on: face to face, person to person;
  • aisle: central corridor in a church;
  • confession: formal admission heard by a priest of one’s sins in the Catholic Church;
  • meltwater: generally applied to ice:
  • funk: panic;
  • nick of time: last second, with no time to spare;
  • make a clean breast: tell the truth told about something, especially something bad;
  • 4 triplets; free verse; a first sentence setting the ordeal in its context; a second playing out the drama; the final phrase pointing to a whole way of life;
  • vocabulary suggesting contrivance: rehearsed, art;
  • transpire:neatly chosen with dual implication: to leak out (whether of information or liquid);
  • word combinations are reworked so as to invent nouns: meltwater/ truthfunk and walkaway/ heelturn;
  • alliteration: Full face foursquare/ vested and unavoidable; frequent alveolar [t] sounds in the final 6 lines;
  • assonance: head/ length/ unready;

The ensemble:

The suggestion is made  that the Heaney-Sweeney hybrid reveals chunks of the poets’ own character: Sweeney’s wife, Eorann; Ronan, the cleric with whom he is in conflict; and his pursuer, Lynchechaun, are reprised here, as Sweeney stands in for the sheer madness and sweetness of the poet himself. Anis Shivani writing in the American Statesman of Saturday, Sept. 25, 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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