Viking Dublin: Trial Pieces

Heaney feeds on poetic charges triggered by a cultural event: ‘Then there was the Viking Dublin exhibit in the National Museum, based on the dig being done by Brendán Ó Ríordáin at the Wood Quay site’ (DOD p.163).

An exhibit Heaney sees arouses his curiosity and sparks off subsequent associations. Heaney gives his imagination free rein in pursuit of Viking links with Dublin and by extension with Irish language and culture.


A museum exhibit invites questions as to its provenance … something human maybe (jaw-bone or a rib) or part of something more substantial (sturdier). Poised to move on (anyhow) the observer’s interest is captured by an original marking (a small outline) scratched into the bone (incised) a squared, rectangular shape (cage or trellis) that invites the imagination to weave its magic (conjure in).

Heaney imagines a child producing the original scoring that takes on a  life of its own –  from the immature lip movement (a child’s tongue) of a youngster forming characters (toils of his calligraphy) into complex intertwinings (like an eel swallowed/ in a basket of eels. The scored line discovers a power of its own (amazes itself), frees itself from its creator (the hand that fed it) and mutates – taking beak-like to the air (a bill in flight) or nose-shaped to the water (a swimming nostril).

  • Viking Dublin: Dublin was founded by the Norwegian Vikings in 841AD.
  • jaw: lowest moveable bone in the face;
  • sturdy: strongly built:
  • incise: carve, etch, engrave
  • conjure: bring about magical change, produce something from nowhere, bring to mind, evoke
  • toils: hard slog, labour, feeling of being caught in an unpleasant situation
  • calligraphy: handwriting;
  • elude: escape, cunningly avoid;
  • bill: slender, flattened bird beak;
  • nostril:one of two nasal openings;
  • 4 quatrains; variable line length from 3 to 8 syllables; no rhyme scheme;
  • 2 sentence structure with up to 8 enjambed lines that offer variable flow in delivery;
  • assonant effects: the piece is dominated by the 4 sounds of the sequence title [ai] Viking/ Trial [ʌ] [ɪ] Dublin[i:] Pieces; [ai] outline/ incised/ child’s/ line/ flight; [ʌ] could/ cut/ conjure/ tongue; [ɪ] it/ rib/ something/ incised/ trellis/ in/ -ing/ his calligraphy/ itself/ bill/swimming/ nostril; [i:] eels/ eel/ eluding; further sonic echoes with [ɔː] jaw/ portion/ small;
  • consonant effects emanate from velar plosive [k] and sibilant [s] sounds in sentence (1);
  • in (2 )these are joined by alveolar plosives [d] and [t] plus alveolar fricative [dʒ] cage/ conjure.
  • For Heaney, things in their “opaque repose” can be searched out only by divination, in a “somnambulist process of search and surrender” (as Heaney described it in a lecture to the Royal Society of Literature two years ago). When the diviner has found out, as by instinct, a hoard in the nether darkness, he must then gather words with “a binding secret” between them to lift the treasure into view. The serpentine line of Norse art “like an eel swallowed / in a basket of eels” becomes for Heaney a metaphor for his own intertwining of national and personal truth From ‘North’ an article published in the NY Times on April 18, 1976 by Helen Vendler


The exhibits represent starting points (trial pieces) destined to launch creative writing, to chronicle culture, energy and aspiration (craft’s mystery).

Initially improvised on bone the markings developed more complicated designs  – foliage, bestiaries interlacings as intricate as the criss-cross  maps that traced the Vikings’ daring expansion – routes of ancestry and trade (from southern Greenland to their west, along eastwards along Russian rivers feeding the Baltic, as far as Istanbul).

The pieces swell in the poetic mind (magnified on display) triggering a dramatic transformation: the swimming nostril assumes the elegant swan’s neck shape of a Viking longship feeling its way (migrant prow/ sniffing the Liffey) hiding any ulterior motives from the locals who watch (dissembling itself) behind a cargo of adornments for barter (antler-combs, bone-pins) and the accessories of trade (coins, weights, scale pans).

  • trial piece: earliest evidence of something experimental;
  • craft: the word applies both to the creative skill demonstrated and to the vessel that is represented;
  • swanning: the word evokes both the elegant swan’s-neck shape of the vessel and the dominant nature of the bird itself;
  • dissembling: concealing hidden intent;
  • bestiaries: medieval treatise on beasts, usually with moralistic overtones; books containing stylised representations
  • 4 quatrains, lines between 4 and 7 syllables; no rhyme scheme;
  • 2 sentence structure with up to 8 enjambed lines
  • the frequent assonant echoes of I viz [ai] trial/ improvised/ magnified/ migrant; [ɪ] mystery/ bestiaries/ interlacings/ display/ nostril/ sniffing the Liffey/ dissembling itself/ pins are supplemented by new clusters: [əʊbone/ foliage/ combs/ bone;[ei]interlacings/ trade/ display/ weights, scale; [e] bestiaries/ elaborate/ netted/ ancestry/ dissembling itself;
  • the final 10 or so lines are strong in bilabial [m] and alveolar [n] nasals interlaced with sibilants;


Heaney pictures the retrieval of the ninth century longship from the muddy banks of the Liffey. It has lain preserved in its Viking provenance (a long sword sheathed in its moisting burial clays) as evidence of the ‘line of ancestry and trade’ it set in train.

The Viking design (clinker-built hull, spined) provides a sonic link with the city now established around it (plosive as Dublin), its overlapping planking, frame and keel resounding with the percussive release of plosive consonants in the city’s spoken form.

The poet’s imagination undertakes an intimate exploration of the ship’s skeleton (we reach in) in search of human remains, bodily shards of the vertebrae, the ribs of hurdle, hidden in the vessel’s private hiding places (mother-wet caches).

The real prize is retrieved (trial piece) the original child-made mark, the link between cultures brought across the sea (buoyant migrant line), the antecedent line.

  • sheathe: protective holder;
  • moisting: retaining dampness;
  • keel: lengthwise timber base supporting a longship’s superstructure
  • slip: angled bank facilitating boat launch
  • clinker-built: ship design using overlapping lengths of timber to keep water out;
  • plosive: consonant characterized by sudden release of air: in Dublin [d] and [n] are alveolar, [b] bi-labial
  • shard: fragment, splinter;
  • hurdle (E. hyrdel): intertwined wooden frame, wickerwork frame, plaiting or netting;
  • mother-wet: notion of river mother protecting and preserving her foetus, here longship and contents;
  • cache: internal hiding-place;
  • 4 quatrains, lines between 3 and 7 syllables; no rhyme scheme;
  • 2 sentence structure with up to 8 enjambed lines;
  • the rarely used assonant [ɔɪ] of coins in II links with moisting and buoyant;
  • strong assonant echoes: [ai] Like/ spined later trial/ incised by a child/ migrant line; [i:] sheathed/ keel/ reach/ piece; [ʌ] stuck/ hull/ Dublin [ɪ] in its/ / in the slip of its clinker-built/ plosive/ ribs/ incised/ longship;
  • sentence (1) achieves alliterative effects with pulses of alveolar [l] sibilant [s] and velar plosive [k] ; stanza (3) combines alveolar fricative [tʃ] reach with velar fricative [ʃ] shards/ caches;


The agglomeration of history, myth, culture and language emanating from the trial piece is now being inscribed in Heaney’s writing (enters my longhand) by the pen with which he is composing (turns cursive).

The longship’s sea-borne track (zoomorphic wake) burrows into the poet’s intellectual preparation – worm of thought that has left him in murky confusion (into the mud). However he knows of a ‘Scandinavian ’ he can refer to

– Shakespeare’s Hamlet the Dane.

Heaney is happy to dramatize the correspondences – for Heaney consider Hamlet: a close witness of violence (skull-handler); a revealer of hidden messages (parablist); an assessor of contemporary disintegration (smeller of rot in the state), perhaps infected by it (infused with its poisons); a man shackled (pinioned) between incompatibilities (ghosts and affections murders and pieties); a man awakening (coming to consciousness) from self-torture that brought him to the point of aberration (jumping in graves) an incertus  torn between pressures (dithering); a gabbler who says nothing of much importance (blathering).

  • longhand: handwritten form;
  • cursive: written with letters joined so that the pen need not be lifted from the page;
  • unscarf: reveal by removing layers;
  • zoomorphic: elusive reference associated with or representative of non-human forms
  • wake: the visible track of a ship/ longship; also vigil;
  • worm: something that burrows:
  • Hamlet the Dane: central character of Shakespeerean tragdy of theat name;
  • skull-handler: reference to the skull of Yorick, Hamlet’s father’s former jester
  • parablist: constructing parables that provide concealed lessons or parallels;
  • rot in the state: refers to Marcellus quote from Hamlet ‘Something is rotten in the State of Denmark’;
  • infused: permiated, overtaken;
  • pinioned: constrained, shackled;
  • consciousness: awareness, perception;
  • dithering: indecisive, faltering;
  • grave: Hamlet leaps into Ophelia’s grave;
  • blather: talk at length without making much sense;
  • Heaney seems to place himself under an unfair burden of responsibility: the sectarian and political turmoil in NI had reached a climax before 1975; yes, he had his conscience to come to terms with; yes,he had his actions (including a move south into the Republic) and the balance between his celebrity and his public comments to consider;
  • Heaney is confessing his own inability to be heroic, to be the man of action demanded by current circumstances and reduced, like Hamlet, to dithering, blathering.
  • 4 quatrains, lines between 3 and 7 syllables; no rhyme scheme;
  • 2 sentence structure with up to 6 enjambed lines;
  • sentence 1 contains variant vowel (o) sounds: longhand/ zoomorphic/ thought/ follow into; [ɜː] cursive/ worm; alliterative combination velar plosive [k] and bilabial [w];
  • sentence (2) features [ei] Dane/ state/ graves [æ] am Hamlet/ handler, parablist/ affections [ɪ] infused with its/ pinioned/ coming/ jumping in/ dithering/ blathering;sibilant [s] offers an alliterative effect
  • IV is the ‘Hamlet’/Heaney look-alike section. It raises questions. Just how serious or tongue-in-cheek is the self-identification? To what extent does it represent a kind of self-deprecation? Is Heaney really viewing his response to the current state of affairs in NI as ‘feckless’ or ‘ineffectual’? In short, is he being light-hearted or going for himself ‘big-time’ as incapable of action?


We are invited, Sweeney-like, to share a bird’s-eye view with Heaney (fly) and assess the locals (sniff the wind) as the longship incomers would have done (expertise of the Vikings).

The longshipmen meet their match! A neighbourly folk (since Funeral Rites the word possesses overtones of horror); persistent and vexatious (haggers); cute at recording debt (scoretakers); argumentative on prices (hagglers); shady wheelers and dealers (gombeen-men); assiduous keepers of ‘black books’ and easy pickings (hoarders of grudges and gain).

Beyond this, Heaney suggests, they possessed an almost professional (with a butcher’s aplomb) streak of cruelty and lingering death (spread out your lungs, make warm wings for your shoulders)!!

Heaney appeals to the Viking elders (Old fathers) whose blood runs in the veins of what is now Ireland  – skilled at sorting out dispute (cunning assessors of feuds) with a proven track record of military strategy (sites for ambush) and settlement-planning (town). We are a nation in crisis and we need you now (be with us).

  • sniff: sample the smell of;
  • expertise: authoritative knowledge
  • scoretaking: taking revenge, getting even
  • hagger: soothsayer;
  • haggle: argue about price
  • gombeen-men: pejorative Irish word for a wheeler-dealer looking for a quick profit
  • aplomb: composure under pressure;
  • cunning: crafty, sly;
  • feud; prolonged dispute
  • ambush: surprise attack from people lying in wait;
  • 4 quatrains, lines between 3 and 7 syllables; no rhyme scheme;
  • 4 sentence structure with up to 9 enjambed lines;
  • the principal assonant cluster is [ʌ] grudges/ butcher’s aplomb/ lungs/ us/ ambush; other sonic pulses include:[ai] fly/ Vikings; [i:] me/ expertise/ gombeen; [ɪ] sniff the wind/ killers; [æ] haggers/ hagglers; [ei] neighbourly/ gain; [ɔː] scoretaking/ hoarders; [əʊ] shoulders/ old;
  • alliterative clusters include: the labio-dental pairing [f] [v] in stanza (1); the aspirates [h] and velar plosive [g] of (st.2); sibilant [s] volume in the rest.


Heaney borrows from Act III sc.1 of Synge’s Playboy of the Western World; quotation marks indicate direct borrowing from the original text. John Millington Synge, an Irish comedy playwright and author published the play in 1907; Jimmy Farrell is one of the characters;

A tipsy Jimmy Farrell treats anyone in his bar who is listening to a tale about dead Dubliners. He is fixated on the sheer variation of skulls they have in the city of Dublin. His tale is a rambling concoction (compounded history) to which Heaney adds reference (his words) to the mindset (pan) of his Hamlet figure … and now Farrell’s words ‘an old Dane, maybe was drowned in the periodic havoc wreaked on Dublin by the Liffey (in the Flood’).

Was Farrell right? Heaney’s imagination takes him to the Liffey –  his narrative (my words) an ethereal presence on the waterfront (around cobbled quays) probing like a tongue (lick)  in search of tell-tale signs (go hunting), on tip-toe (lightly as pampooties) – he discovers human craniums disguised as cobblestones (skull-capped ground).

  • hear tell: example of Irish raconteur’s patter introducing a tale;
  • compounded: made up of many elements;
  • pan: the original text gives a clue via Farrell’s reference to his‘brain-pan’;
  • Flood: Historical Dublin reports on the relationship between Dublin and the Liffey:’Floods have wreaked havoc on Dublin through its thousand years and more of burgeoning cityhood. Swollen by frequent and torrential rainstorms, the floods were as fearsome and deadly as they were unpredictable and uncontrollable. And where the rising tide met the swift Liffey waters, bridges of stone and timber crumpled, men and animals were swept away and floodwaters sloshed through the streets and under the doors of city residences.
  • lick around: move lightly and quickly;
  • cobbles: small rounded stones used to surface roads
  • quay: waterfront
  • pampooties: light, rawhide moccasin-style shoes once worn in Ireland;
  • VI 4 quatrains, lines between 3 and 8 syllables; no formal rhyme scheme but some end-of-line pairings;
  • 3 sentence structure with as many as 9 enjambed lines;
  • sound effects: assonant [ɪ] Did [e] ever/said/ yellow/ [ʌ] skulls/ some repeated Dublin/ hunting [i:] teeth/ maybe [au] compounded/ drowned/ around/ ground [ei] Dane maybe;
  • the final stanza contains a variety of vowel (o) sounds [au] around/ ground; [ɒ] cobbled [ɜː] words [əʊ] go/ over [uː] pampooties;
  • alliterative effects of velar plosive [k] via skulls; alveolar plosive [d] in stanza (3); return of [k] in (4): lick/ cobbled quays/ skull capped;
  • NC (p54) construes the title as Pieces made as specimens for future designs;
  • Heaney identifies a marked degree of self-reflexivity in this poem (NC59);
  • A poem about the emergence of ‘writing, historical pictures and ideas becoming ‘word’
  • the poem describes a migration, an invasion, an exploration, a journey into ‘longhand’;
  • Transference from one culture to another .. the historical conceit of these poems (NC59);
  • V includes the poet’s prayer to his forefathers regretting the repetitions of Irish history (ibid);
  • The reader is invited to enter the processes of the poem’s composition (NC58) sustained in ‘Bone Dreams’;
  • The Synge connection introduces regional vocabulary; ‘pampooties’ recalls Synge’s book on the Aran Islands.
  • 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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