Viking Dublin: Trial Pieces

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); . Dublin was founded by the Norwegian Vikings in 841AD.

A sequence of 6 poems; Heaney permits his imagination free rein in pursuit of Viking links with Dublin and by extension with Irish language and culture.

I considers evidence offered by an early Norse record of its culture: the speaker reflects upon the significance of marks inscribed on a bone by a child of ancient Norse origins. II ponders the meaning of other exhibits and pictures bequeathed by the ninth-century arrival of Viking explorers on the Liffey river. III explores the retrieval of the inscribed bone from the Viking longship in which it has lain preserved for more than a thousand years. IV generates a drama of personal anxiety. V appeals for kinship, congruence and support for a country in crisis whilst VI offers a historical appraisal of Viking Dublin through the mouth of a character from an Irish play of 1907.


The speaker is inspecting a museum exhibit of uncertain provenance, maybe a jaw-bone/ or a rib or a portion; of little importance in itself, anyhow, for what has captured his interest is an original marking, barely recognisable but a source of something magical, scratched into the bone: a small outline/ incised, a cage or trellis to conjure in.

The outline takes on a life and momentum of its own: from its singular painstaking and deliberate composition Like a child’s tongue/ following the toils/ of his calligraphy it develops complexity twisting and turning like an eel swallowed/ in a basket of eels. The line develops a mind of its own and amazes itself at its own progress. Then it frees itself from its creator (the hand that fed it) and multiplies, taking beak-like to the air (a bill in flight) and nose-shaped to the water (a swimming nostril).

  • 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


These contrived linear shapes, exhibited as trial pieces, the craft’s mystery improvised on bone were harbingers of artistic creativity and culture, energy and aspiration to come. The markings reflected the more complicated designs of foliage, bestiaries, interlacings traceable and interchangeable between other cultures along vast Viking routes of ancestry and trade from southern Greenland, along Russian rivers feeding the Baltic, as far as Istanbul.

The pieces, enlarged so that exhibition visitors could see more clearly (magnified on display), trigger within the speaker a dramatic moment from Dublin’s history: the swimming nostril assumes the elegant swan’s neck shape of a Viking longship: its migrant prow/ sniffing the Liffey, the animal-like instincts of its silent crew testing the air to sense what lies in wait for them, any hostile intent disguised (dissembling itself) beneath a cargo of adornments for barter: antler-combs, bone-pins and others to do with trade: coins, weights, scale pans.

  • 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;

  • 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 potentially aggressive nature of the bird itself;

  • dissembling: by use of the reflexive Heaney appears to want us to go beyond the connotations of ‘pretence’ and dis-assemble the word to reach for his meaning;

  • bestiaries: “medieval treatise on beasts” usually with moralistic overtones; books containing stylised representations of animals;


The retrieval of a ninth century longship from the muddy banks of what is now the Liffey river where it has lain preserved Like a long sword/ sheathed in its moisting/ burial clays underwrites the ‘line of ancestry and trade’ between Scandinavia and Ireland.

The longship and the city subsequently founded on the spot are given a sonic link descriptive of the energy of those involved: a clinker-built hull/ spined and plosive as Dublin; the vessel’s overlapping planking , its frame and keel are as if linked via the percussive release of plosive consonants in spoken language (both spined and Dublin contain two each: either voiced bilabial [b] or its voiceless partner [p] and alveolar [d] ).

The ship’s skeleton is explored for evidence of those who sailed in her: we reach in (Heaney deploys a verb he uses elsewhere to denote close intimacy) to discover bodily shards of the vertebrae,/ the ribs of hurdle and explore the more private hiding places born of the river: mother-wet caches.

The real prize is the retrieval of the trial piece, the original child-made mark, as evidence of connection and continuity, ship-borne artefacts brought to Ireland, Viking incomers invading then creating a settlement there, a line of ancestry charted along the buoyant/ migrant line a longship would have followed.

  • Hurdle :O.E. hyrdel “frame of intertwined twigs used as a temporary barrier”; “wickerwork frame, hurdle”;”plaiting, netting”;

  • 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;


As the trial piece reaches ‘journey’s end’ it generates a ‘crise de conscience’ in the poet.

This is the point at which the agglomeration of history, myth, culture and language emanating from the trial piece surges into, enters the poet’s longhand overlaying a written dimension upon the ideas he is running with; it turns cursive (the term is applied to the way letters are joined in writing so becoming part of a continuum of expression).

Its zoomorphic wake takes the shape of a worm of thought leading the speaker into the mud and leaving him as if sightless in a murk of confusion. The reassurances of ancestry, language and myth have collided with the anguish of contemporary reality in Ulster particularly sectarian-fuelled violence (murders and pieties). A sense of acute insecurity is ignited.

Heaney’s speaker dresses himself up as another ‘Scandinavian ’- Shakespeare’s Hamlet the Dane. The syndrome is well-known. Hamlet is a prince caught up in a tragic family circumstance, a smeller of rot/ in the state and contaminated by it (infused with its poisons); he is faced with an obligation to respond when his nature prefers to shy away from things: dithering; a man swearing revenge for murders but unable to formulate public expression; a noble man reduced to playing a part; self-torturing to the point of aberration: skull-handler/ pinioned by ghosts/ and affections; driven mad with self-doubt and melancholia: blathering; reduced to the actions of a madman: coming to consciousness/ by jumping in graves. For Hamlet read Heaney.

  • Heaney is more the parablist, constructing parables that comment on the Irish situation;

  • 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

  • zoomorphic:1872, from comb. form of Gk. zoion “animal” (see zoo) + morphe “shape”; so ‘animal-shaped, taking animal form’

  • cursive: from Latin cursus “a running,” from pp. of currere “to run” (see current). The style of writing is “written with a running hand” (without raising the pen);

  • 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 take a bird’s-eye view (fly) and assess the situation: sniff the wind. The view from above of past and present provides sightings into Viking nature and as a historical consequence, inherited Irish traits.

What follows should be applied equally to both racial groups: neighbourly (since Funeral Rites, the word possesses overtones of horror); haggers (‘persistent’ and ‘vexatious’) opportunist scoretakers; ever seeking the best deal hagglers; gombeen-men (a hiberno/English term for ‘shady wheelers and dealers’); possessed with a long memory and a ‘black book’: hoarders of grudges and gain. Whatever their reputation they knew how to be inventively violent and bloodthirsty: with a butcher’s aplomb/ they spread out your lungs/ and made you warm wings for you shoulders.

The poem ends with an appeal to the ancestors, the Viking elders whose blood runs in the veins of what is now Ireland; the Old fathers, respected both for their longevity and their skills as military strategists and settlement-planners (old cunning assessors/ of feuds and of sites/ for ambush or town) are summoned to the aid of a nation in crisis: be with us.

  • 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.


On the face of it the character from Synge’s play is flippant and slightly drunk as he describes his version of the city. For Farrell the sheer variation of skulls they have in the city of Dublin celebrates its cosmopolitan ancestry. For him the strength of Viking input reaches incongruous biblical proportions, flying in the face of chronology: compounded history/ in the pan of (Heaney’s words) ‘an old Dane,/ maybe was drowned/ in the Flood’(Synge’s words).

The speaker claims a ghostlike presence around the historical site: My words lick around cobbled quays like a probing tongue of film animation; wearing olden-times Irish footwear he seeks his evidence on tip-toe: go hunting lightly as pampooties.

The waterside is a place beneath which past populations are buried. Their existence has been revealed by the excavations, their craniums disguised as cobblestones: skull-capped ground.

  • VI borrows from Act III sc.1 of Synge’s Playboy of the Western World; the 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;

  • 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;

  • pampooties were light, rawhide moccasin-style shoes once worn in Ireland;

  • 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.

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