The poem provides a series of visual dramas that occurred along the road outside Heaney’s second family home at the Wood which runs northwards from Bellaghy towards Portglenone via Mullhollandtown. Heaney uses Wood Road in his poems possibly because the actual name on the map (Ballymacombs Road) is too much of a mouthful!
The Wood Road (as it is and was) has been maintained but not upgraded (resurfaced, never widened). This is how it will present when at the end of the poem all its dramas have been played out.
Scene 1: a night scene from the 1950’s period prior to the so-called ‘Troubles’; a caricature B Special volunteer in training (Bill Pickering … with his gun ) on surveillance duty (nighwatching in uniform) both scene and atmosphere captured in black and white (moonlight on rifle barrels), freedom of movement for the locals severely disrupted (a van roadblocking the road).
Heaney comments sardonically on the puffed up self-importance (special militiaman), the toy-soldier mentality (staunch patrol in profile), the all for one and one for all (sentry-loyal) of volunteers engaged in an ‘epic’ training exercise on a burlesque level – a whole unit of militiamen armed to the teeth and laying siege to a hamlet (harassing Mullhollandstown) of no size whatsoever!
Scene 2: Heaney re-introduces anonymously his great Uncle Hughie Scullion to whom he had first paid tribute In Kinship from the North collection. Hughie was a highly respected link in the peat-cutting chain whose business involved regular delivery for the domestic hearth and who sometimes took child-Heaney with him (me in broad daylight) on his rounds (on top of a cartload of turf),a smartly turned out rig (built trig and tight).
How proud the youngster felt to be watched by the faces of passers-by (looked up to) from his seat on high (looking down), promoted to ‘grown-up’ (allowed the reins). This was a care-free, temps perdu (old cart rocked and rollicked).
Scene 3: images (that August day) of a coffin set out in a yard (the hunger striker’s wake) anonymous but that of Thomas McElwee buried in 1981. Heaney captures both the tenseness and solemnity of atmosphere (silent yard … watching crowd … guarded corpse ) and ritual – paramilitaries in balaclavas (guard of honour), intense, impassive (stared), technically illegal but left undisturbed.
Scene 4 from 1985 – an accident, presented anonymously , that delivered a nasty blow to the Heaney family (stain at the end of the lane) – 7 year old Rachel Heaney daughter of Heaney’s brother Hugh (child on her bike), killed by a road-hog (speed-merchant from nowhere) out of control (hard-rounding the corner) … stark images imprinted on Heaney’s mind … bicycle (back wheel spinning in sunshine) and vehicle (headlamp in smithereens).
Its dramas played out, whether via the brownish tint of old photographs (sepia) or the indelible colour of horror (drip-paint … in blood) the Wood Road remains exactly as described in the first couplet: an abandoned film-set of man-made dramas … just signs of farming left (milk-churn deck) and human activity taken over by invasive Nature (sign for the bus-stop overgrown).
- The Wood: farm inherited from great-uncle Hughie Scullion into which the family moved after the death of Heaney’s younger brotherNicholas outside Mossbawn in 1953;
- resurface: put on and compact a new surface;
- verge: grass edge on the roadside;
- militiaman: reference to the B-Specials, a largely part-time and unpaid protestant volunteer force affiliated to the Royal Ulster Constabulary, much disliked by the Catholic community for disproportionate responses. Their published role was to carry out ‘occasional duty, usually one evening per week exclusive of training drills, in an area convenient to members, day duties being required only in an emergency’. They were deployed particularly between 1956-62 in a counter-insurgency capacity;
- staunch: stalwart, trusty;
- harass: intimidate, put under pressure;
- in broad daylight: at a time when it might have been seen and prevented; sense of surprise even outrage;
- turf: peat used for domestic fuel;
- trig: dialect neat, spruce, well turned out
- tight: secure;
- look up to: raise to a higher level; admire
- rock: sway from side to side/ to and fro;
- rollick: behave in a bright and breezy way
- hunger striker: in Station Island IX poetic licence entitled Heaney to introduce the shade of an IRA hunger striker (said to be a composite of Francis Hughes and Thomas McElwee who operated out of the Bellaghy area during the Troubles and eventually starved themselves to death in 1981 after being held prisoner in the Maze prison and fasting very publicly to achieve prisoner-of-war status;
Heaney speaks sensitively to DOD (pp 259-261) about hunger-strikers and the impact on him of the predicament; he felt sympathy for the men, acknowledging that some people would see their sacrifice as a knock-on effect of a ‘war of liberation’ and others that of a ‘war of genocide’, but he was wary of appearing to promote one cause and not the other; he also introduces Thomas McElwee a local man whose wake he was able to attend with its paramilitary ceremonial but whose family respected his presence as a Catholic above and beyond the politics that were distressing everybody (p 259-61);
- wake: watch or vigil held beside the body of someone who has died and returned to the family generally the day before burial, sometimes accompanied by ritual observances;
- guarded: kept watch over;
- guard of honour: respect shown by fellow members of a paramilitary group;
- stain: taint, blemish;
- child on her bike: In the Haw Lantern collection Heaney wrote The Summer of Lost Rachel in response to the tragic loss of his niece Rachel daughter of his brother Hugh who continued to live on the Heaney family property at The Wood; the accident occurred on the Ballymacombs Rd, Bellaghy just at the end of the lane leading down to the farm buildings
- speed-merchant: driver who goes too fast;
- hard-rounding: cornering at high speed cancelling out the effect of the suspension
- smithereens: tiny pieces;
- sepia: reddish-brown colour associated with early monochrome photos;
- churn: large metal container for milk;
- Thanks to the peace process Heaney can permit himself to be more forthright about the troubled past, as reported by Robert McCrum: ‘He concedes that the Troubles had given him “something of consequence” to write about, and that “Something was at stake. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but I’m aware of it since the peace process… “These were very dangerous times,” says Heaney, yielding a point with hindsight. “When the Provisional IRA began their campaign, people like myself, with a strong sense that things needed to be redressed, were excited.” Bloody Sunday and its poisoned aftermath polarised everything…But he always felt it was impossible to take sides, and I ask him if he has ever regretted not being more vocal. “Speaking out,” he insists, “one was cornered. My sympathy was not with the IRA, but it wasn’t with the Thatcher government, either.”
- But for all its acknowledgement of life, Human Chain cannot help but be concerned with death. Many of its poems, for instance, are dedicated to friends who have died either through the wear and tear of time or prematurely, like the child hit while cycling by “a speed-merchant from nowhere” or a victim of the Troubles, like Louis O’Neill, an eel fisherman friend of the poet, who is also commemorated in the poemCasualty which appeared in Field Work, published some four decades ago. Alan Taylor/ com of Aug 30th 2010;
- Heaney is also concerned with location, particularly Northern Ireland, where he lived until he was a young man. Here it is portrayed as largely bucolic and wild, infused with childhood memoriesChristine Fears writing in The Literateur of 13th September 2010 .
- 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 … 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… The Wood Road, which both ‘‘is and was’’, is ‘‘resurfaced, never widened’’… As a comment on how the artistic imagination operates (it both invents or – literally recovers the past, but also requires itself to honour the details of memory), this is wise and adroit. It is also typical of a masterful and luminous collection. Vona Groarke, Sunday Business Post Online, Sept 13 2010
- 6 five-line stanzas each followed by a single line; whilst not quite ‘refrain’, this line dwells on the part of the message Heaney would have us reflect upon;
- Heaney sifts visual opportunities like a film-director on specific location;
- other vocabulary is heavy with the poet’s mocking tone: special … staunch … loyal … harassing;
- a rich range of alliteration: in fours juxtaposed turf built trig and tight mimicking the clip-clop of the horse; as a pair rocked and rollicked as the horse’s walk becomes a trot; as a chain: walked … wake … watching;
- rich, too, in assonances: van/man; Mullhollandstown/ down; daylight/ tight; overgrown; yard/stared;
- neologism: hardroundingavoids a longer, less emotive alternative e.g. ‘going round a corner with his foot hard down on the accelerator’;
- Repetition: as is and wasreinforces the lack of change over 60 years.
- Contrasting adverbs denoting status: Looked up to, looking down;
- 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: thirteen 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;