Ocean’s Love to Ireland

Heaney summarised the sequence of 3 short poems and the two that follow in a response to DOD (p 169): an allegory involving the Elizabethan armies entering Gaelic Ulster (Smerwick below is in fact in Munster) and the ground being possessed by the planters – the whole ‘Aisling’ scenario – England being the male conqueror, Ireland the ruined maid and wee ‘no surrender’ Ulster being the product of the union … The ‘speaker in the poem’, whoever he is, is deeply aware of his implication in being ‘imperially’ male. The poems plot a crucial moment in political history pointing to the desolation that will be the outcome for Ireland;

The title requires a preposition. Heaney’s unexpected choice of to suggests an insincere, distant, impersonal expression of affection; certainly Ralegh demonstrated ‘love’ neither for nor of Ireland; his acts were those of an ‘imperialist’.


Heaney’s description of the invasion and occupation of Ireland by the Elizabethans is presented as an act of rape.

Betraying his unmistakeable English West Country origins (speaking broad Devonshire) the unscrupulous Ralegh imposes his sexual will upon a maid symbolic of Ireland (backed to a tree) as reflected in the atlas image (Ireland backed to England).

The imagery is a deliberate mixture of military strategy and carnality (drives inland) and Heaney’s ingenious use of vocabulary assembles geography, helplessness and bravery (all her strands are breathless).

The maid’s audible responses (drawn directly from the incident described in Aubrey’s Brief Lives) mimic both the thrusts of the sexual act itself and its effect upon the maid as her protestations turn to gasps: ‘Sweesir, Swatter! Sweesir, Swatter!

Ralegh’s principle reputation as a sailor provides the metaphor: he is water/ ocean, his adjustment of the maid’s clothing (farthingale) is as unstoppable as the incoming tide (scarf of weed lifting In the front of a wave).

  • Sir Walter Ralegh (1552-1618): English ‘hero’ and supposed ‘lover’ of Elizabeth I; an anti-Catholic who advised on Irish matters and managed Irish estates. He became infamous when implicated in the slaughter of six hundred Catholic Italian soldiers after their honourable surrender at the siege of Smerwick (1580). The failure of this and subsequent rebellions were hugely damaging to Irish history, leading to plantations, colonisation, poverty and disease;
  • broad: strong regional accent;
  • back: push, move backwards;
  • maid: female domestic servant, unattached woman , virgin;
  • drive: using force;
  • strand: OE noun for a geographical feature ‘beach’,’ shore’, ‘edge’; the verb has connotations of ‘abandon’ ‘leave helpless’; ‘fibre’ of human tissue used as a metaphor for courage;
  • Sweesir: shortened version of subservient pleading ‘Sweet sir’;
  • Swatter: panting version of ‘Sir Walter’;
  • farthingale: Elizabethan hooped skirt;
  • scarf: length of fabric, seaweed;


  • 3 triplets without rhyme scheme; variable line length; 2 sentence structure; 4 lines enjambed;
  • recurring assonant sounds:[ai] Ireland/ -shire; [i:] speaking/ tree later weed; [æ] Ralegh/ backed/ As/ backed/ strands; [e] Devon-/ breathless;[ɑː] farthingale/ scarf [ɪ] is/ inland/ lifting/ lifting/ in; initial string of sibilants after Ocean’s alongside alveolar plosive [d]; major cluster of onomatopoeic sibilants and bilabial [w]; final group of labio-dental fricatives [f];
  • Vocabulary of the sea: strands/ water/ ocean/ weed/ wave;
  • Vocabulary of sexual innuendo;


Yet wags its ‘nota bene’ finger: Ralegh is in Ireland at the behest of his English queen: his superb crest (he is both haughty military giant with crested helmet and figured in the sequence as a plunging wave) bows both in deference and supposed affection (inclines) to the Elizabeth I of his love poems (Cynthia).

Setting out Ralegh’s real intentions in his ruthless pursuit (bent) of his political mission, (In the rivers of Lee and Blackwater) Heaney reworks  Ralegh’s supposed gallant gesture to Elizabeth I (plashy spots where he would lay his cape before her) as the act of invasion that has placed rainy Ireland within her dominion.

A star who can do no wrong (name will rise on water) in a doting London perhaps, Ralegh’s reputation on Irish soil is besmirched (dark seepings) at the site of massacred Irish, Spanish and Italian Catholics by English troops in 1580 – Smerwick seeded (sowed) with the decapitated heads of its victims (mouthing corpses of six hundred papists).

He draws directly from  Lord Grey of Wilton whose callously condescending mockery of the defeated exacerbates the notoriety of the event amongst the Irish population.

  • superb: haughtily dominant (Lat. super ‘over’);
  • crest: both helmet plume and foaming top of a wave;
  • inclines: serves a triple purpose: a sea-wave rises to its maximum height before tipping over and in that sense ‘inclining’, bowing its; then queen’s courtiers bow (incline) their heads in deference to her; Ralegh was said to be ‘keen’ on the queen (an emotional inclination);
  • Cynthia: loved-one in a Ralegh poem, generally assumed to be Elizabeth I, to whom his loyalties were devoted;
  • run its bent: “pursue a deliberate course of action” (from 1690s);
  • Lee, Blackwater: rivers in the Irish Republic (Munster);
  • plashy: word with a pleasant ring about it associated with ‘splash’;
  • lay his cape: reference to unattested laying of his plush velvet cloak in a ‘plashy’ London puddle so that Elizabeth’s feet were not soaked;
  • seepings: contrasting feel; maintaining the water imagery Heaney selects a word that has an ‘oozing unpleasantness’ about it;
  • Smerwick: Munster site of the massacre that took place during the Second Desmond Rebellion (1579-1583);
  • sow: plant seed;
  • papists: Catholic supporters of the Pope – Heaney uses the term adopted by 20th Northern Irish protestant zealots as an insult;
  • ‘as gallant and good / Personages as ever were beheld’: supposedly Lord Grey of Wilton’s remarks when is he saw the bodies of the 600 slain prisoners “stripped and laid out upon the sands.” (Pope-Hennessy, John. Sir Walter Raleigh in Ireland). Grey commanded the English troops and was later Lord Deputy of Ireland;
  • 3 triplets; no rhyme scheme; lines generally of 9/10 syllables;
  • 3 sentence structure; 6 lines of the 9 are enjambed;
  • Assonant effects achieved via [e] Yet/ crest/ bent later ever/ beheld; [ɪ] inclines/ it/ Cynthia/ in rivers later six/ papists;[ei] while/ rise [i:] Even/ Lee/ these/ seepings; [ei] lay/ cape/ name/papists: the final stanza employs 5 variants of vowel (o) sounds: sowed/ mouthing corpses/ of/ good;
  • consonant sounds are added: clusters of sibilant [s] prevail; alveolar [r] trill in (1); velar [k] in (2); (3) interlaces [s] with bilabial [p] and alveolar plosive [g];


Heaney finds it unacceptable that the muteness of Irish poetic voices has left unchallenged the impoverishing effect of occupation by English speakers on Ireland and its language since Ralegh’s time.

He lists the downsides of ignoble invasion (ruined maid): she goes unheard (complains in Irish), was deprived of political betterment involving Catholic Spain’s ambitions (scattered her dreams of fleets), her potential suitor (Spanish prince) sent to the bottom of the ocean (spilled his gold) and letting Ireland down (failed her).

The  rhythms of Irish poetic voices were replaced by the Iambic drums of English across the island’s landscape (beat the woods), incapable of continuing the line of heritage (her poets sink like Onan).

The simple sense-appeal of old-world Irish life (rush-light, mushroom flesh) no longer finds expression in Irish (fades from their somnolent clasp) her image reduced to a kind of saccharined femininity  (ringlet-breath and dew) that smacks of resigned capitulation to repeated occupation (ground possessed and repossessed).

  • ruined: irreparably damaged;
  • dreams of fleets: reference to the period of the Spanish Armada is evident enough; in fact anti-Catholic Ralegh himself played no part in the naval battles led by Howard of Effingham that thwarted Catholic Spanish king Philip II’s plans to invade Britain. Catholic Ireland would certainly have benefitted from the latter’s victory over the English;
  • iambic: iambic: iamb – a metric foot of one unaccented followed by one accented syllable; used here as a metonym for English poetry;
  • Onan: Old Testament figure given the task by Yahweh (the Hebrew ‘Lord’) of inseminating his dead brother’s wife to provide an heir and maintain the family line. He failed in the task because he withdrew before ejaculation. He is associated here with ineffectiveness.
  • rush light: simple basic low level illumination using waterside plant stems;
  • ringlet: ( diminutive let) small curled lock of hair;
  • 3 quatrains in 2 sentences; lines based on 9 syllables; no rhyme scheme;
  • assonant sound effects [ei] maid complains/ failed/ fades;ʊOcean/ gold/ poets/ Onan [i:] dream of fleets/ beat [ɪ] ruined/ spilled his/ Iambic/ sink/ ringlet; [ai] Irish/Iambic [ɒ] from/ somnolent/ possessed/ repossessed; distant echo ruined/ dew;
  • alliterative ingredients: sibilant variants [z] complains/his; [s] scattered/ fleets/ prince/ Spanish/ spilled through to repossessed; [ʃ]Irish/ Ocean/ Spanish / English/ mushroom; pulses of bilabial plosives [p] [b] and alveolar [t] [d];
  • The poems fall under the heading of politico-sexual allegories filled with civilised or barbarous irony (NC77);
  • The debilitations brought about by invasion are clearly demonstrated and expressed in language terms. The irony is, of course, that English is Heaney’s medium;
  • 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: fifteen 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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