Sweeney Out-Takes

A three-poem sequence dedicated to the noted contemporary Cork writer and poet Gregory of Corkus, pseudonym for Greg Delanty. Heaney reprises the internal struggles of the medieval Irish king of the Buile Shuibhne (Sweeney Astray,1983). See also the Sweeney Redevivus section in Station Island. 

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.

i Otterboy

Heaney imagines a letter sent to her exiled husband by Sweeney’s wife, Eorann, and quotes his reactions to it. The letter reports on happenings ‘back home’: our two otters/ Courting yesterday by the turnhole. The river-life she describes is all that Sweeney loves: natural, unfettered and spontaneous compared with the hierarchic conformist celibacy of an all-male Church. Otterboy turns altar-boy, serving Bishop Finn, Ronan … in cleric’s vestment. The latter’s pose might be set in stone: His hand outstretched to turn the bordered page. Sweeney, assuming the altar-boy’s rôle, sees himself reduced (kneeling), holding up the massbook … for his perusal; his subservience is apparent in his posture: My brow inclined to those big-thong tied feet/ Protruding from the alb.

Sweeney returns to nature, shaking himself free of compliance in much the same way as the waterdog throws off the retrieval task for which it was trained in favour of doing what comes naturally to it: gambol/ In pelt-sluice and unruly riverbed.

  • Otterboy / altarboy: similar sounding words; however one is free, the other serves;
  • Out-take: a ‘modern’ notion updating the medieval nature of the content. An out-take can be either a section or scene that is not used in the final version or a complete version dropped in favour of another version or a section of footage omitted because it contains embarrassing shortcomings!
  • turnhole describes a bend in a river where the fast flow has created perilous eddies.
  • alb: derived from the Latin word for ‘white’ the alb is a  liturgical vestments of the Roman Catholic Church, an ample garment reaching down to the ankles and usually girdled with a cincture. It derives from the long linen tunic used by the Romans.
  • Bordered page: the historical context is confirmed; medieval church books were copied and decorated with enhanced capital letters, ornate borders and other illustrative motifs.
  • Ronan: the bishop with whom Sweeney is in conflict in the main work.
  • 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’;
  • in support of the title, the inverted commas suggest that the narrative was once part of a document from which it has been removed or borrowed.


ii He Remembers Lynchechaun

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

His understanding is triggered by the discovery of a utensil from legendary times: That three-legged, round-bellied, cast-iron pot. There are two images; though long abandoned and overgrown (Deep in the nettle clump, cobweb-mouthed/ And black-frost cold) itthe receptacle retains the seethe and simmer of its former domestic purpose: cauldron life of plump and boil. 

The discovery leads to a re-assessment of Lynchechaun, the personable exterior concealing a cold, calculating nature beneath the surface: the cool consideration/ Behind the busy warmth. Sweeney reflects on another duality: how heavy the cooking-pot was When I’d lift it off the crane; how light it became once I’d tilt and drain it.

He could kick himself for not spotting earlier the contradictions in Lynchechaun; the cauldron’s duality (hot/ cold, weighty/ unsubstantial) has helped him see the light: I now see as premonitions/ Of my seeing through him. The impact resembles the shock when a blindfold is removed: the dizziness/ As scales fell from my eyes.

  • Lynchechaun is Sweeney’s pursuer in the original legend;
  • Crane: Heavy pots over open fires required a tripod with a winch mechanism;
  • 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 1st triplet;
  • 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 appears to empathise with Sweeney’s anti-religious rebellion, taking a wry look at the experience and lasting effects of his own First Confession. 

A youngster faces the long ordeal of moving down the full-length of an aisle to make his first confession. The impassive statue he passes (carved in stone) seems to embody thehead-on strength of character, honesty and openness required of a child-sinner to bear his soul for the first time: Full face, foursquare, eyelevel. The statue is as similar to and asunavoidable as the (stony-faced) priest awaiting him.

Though the child has been well rehearsed/ In the art of first confession, he is not emotionally prepared (unready).

Heaney summarises the sequence of events: the child cannot control his bladder: meltwater/ A little trickle on the tiles; he considers humiliated flight: Truthfunk and walkaway. Finally In the nick of time … Manfully, if late he outgrows the mishap; via a stiffening of his nerve he proceeds to cleanse his soul: heelturn, comeback/ And a clean breast made.

By successfully navigating his first confession, and here lies the rub, the child has adopted a form, order and routine in his life that meet the approval of the Church: The pattern set.

  • Pattern: the 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 uses the word in its ‘repeated design’ sense;
  • a clean breast made: the truth told about something, especially something bad, so that one did not have to feel any more guilt;
  • 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:

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 himselfAnis Shivani writing in the American Statesman of Saturday, Sept. 25, 2010