Whatever You Say Say Nothing

A poster put up during the ‘Troubles’, featuring a masked, uniformed paramilitary carrying a sten gun, bore the legend: ‘Loose-talk costs lives In taxis On the phone In clubs and bars At football matches At home with friends Anywhere Whatever you say – say nothing’. Composed of amateurish cut and pasted newspaper headings and snippets it was evidently the work of extremist factions. It was threatening.

A society is warned to refrain from unguarded political or religious comments that could cause a violent reaction. Heaney levels his anger against propagandist threats to free speech at a time when the voices of the neutral majority should be raised in protest; equally he deplores the imposition of repressive ‘political’ measures that fly in the face of natural justice. He acknowledges that he himself may not be practising what he preaches.


How it felt to be in Belfast in the early 1970s.

Heaney has been stung by the shallowness, insensitivity and ignorance of the British media, for whom the Troubles are just the latest news-event. This has become clear to him in the face-to-face encounter he has just held with an English journalist and triggered by the insulting, dismissive tone of his question: in search of ‘views/ On the Irish thing’.

The dismal escalation of strife, and the gloomy time of year are depressing; Heaney is confined to metaphorical winter/ Quarters where bad news is no longer news.

The media take over. Those involved are derisively authoritarian: they sniff and point; items of radio and television equipment lie scattered around public spaces: Litter the hotels.

Society is dislocated The times are out of joint (he has already alluded to strappado torture in the previous poem).

In present circumstances Heaney has as much (and thereby as little) respect for the power of prayer (rosary beads) as for the journalistic and political jottings that produce scribbled references to long campaign and its escalation from repressive gas/ And protest to violent paramilitary responses involving gelignite and sten.

He is scathing about politicians and journalists, whose views, as undisputed in their own minds as the blood flowing through their veins (proved upon their pulses) have produced the sound-bites, clichés and screaming headlines that indirectly trumpet violence and prejudice: ‘escalate’,/ ‘Backlash’ and ‘crack-down’, ’the provisional wing’,/ ‘Polarization’ and ‘long-standing hate’. (Indeed such terms did characterise British and Irish headlines during the period.)

In the clamour Heaney’s still, small voice is lost: Yet I live here, I live here too, I sing …

The social circles he moves in are inert, even dissembling: they retain their veneer of politeness Expertly civil-tongued with civil neighbours; they walk a perilous tightrope (On the high wires) of first wireless reports; they self-protectively avoid unpleasant issues (Sucking the fake taste, the stony flavours); they trot out empty but approved clichés: those sanctioned, old elaborate retorts. Heaney quotes examples of judgements and knee-jerk reactions (internment).

Influential voices are strained, so too reason The ‘voice of sanity’ is getting hoarse.

  • Quoting a Heaney comment, MP suggests that For too long (Heaney) and (his fellow countrymen) have connived in a conspiracy of ‘evasion and compliance’, which has made co-existence possible, but has left bigotry intact (p 145);

  • thing: this dismissive reference to a critically serious state of affairs hits a nerve, triggering the responses that follow;

  • stringer: press jargon reference to freelance correspondents who report on events; given Heaney’s tone he is using the term pejoratively to indicate pressmen who ‘string’ words together without skill or tact; jottings equally fits this context and is extended to politicians; equally scribbled;

  • leads: cables for electric power or interface;

  • incline: original meaning of ‘bend towards’took on a later metaphorical sense of ‘have a mental disposition towards’;

  • provisional wing: a radical faction within the IRA determined to remove the British from the six counties of Northern Ireland by whatever means; also known as the ‘Provos’;

  • out of joint: loss of unity, connection, association; dislocated;

  • internment or imprisonment without trial was a political response to terrorism imposed on Ulster by the British government in 1971.

  • 6 quatrains with rhyme scheme abab cdcd etc.

  • 7 sentence structure including short reported comments and questions; line length based on 10 syllables; enjambment used readily in the first 5 stanzas;

  • Assonant effects are signalled by different shadings:

I’m writing just after an encounter

With an English journalist in search of ‘views

On the Irish thing‘.

I’m back in winter quarters where bad news is no longer news,

Where media-men and stringers sniff and point,

Where zoom lenses, recorders and coiled leads

Litter the hotels. The times are out of joint

But I incline as much to rosary beads

As to the jottings and analyses

Of politicians and newspapermen

Who’ve scribbled down the long campaign from gas

And protest to gelignite and sten,

Who proved upon their pulses ‘escalate‘,

‘Backlash’ and ‘crack down‘, ‘the provisional wing’,

‘Polarization’ and ‘long-standing hate‘.

Yet I live here, I live here too, I sing,

Expertly civil tongued with civil neighbours

On the high wires of first wireless reports,

Sucking the fake taste, the stony flavours

Of those sanctioned, old, elaborate retorts:

Oh, it’s disgraceful, surely, I agree,’

Where‘s it going to end?’ ‘It’s getting worse.’ ‘

They’re murderers.’ ‘Internment, understandably. .

The ‘voice of sanity’ is getting hoarse.

  • [ai][ei][i:] [əʊ] [e][æ][ɪ][au][u:]  [ɜː][ɔɪ][ɔː] 12 sonic links are launched at different points with echoing frequency;

  • alliterative effects in sentence (1) are achieved using alveolar plosive [t] and nasals [n] and [m]; there are also beats of velar [k] and variant sibilant sounds [s] [z] [sh];

  • Added to these in (2) are voiceless bilabial plosive [p] from politicians to polarization and its voiced [b];

  • (3) runs with the velar [l] of ‘polarization’ then bilabial whispered [w] and alveolar [t]; after the colon the narrative is peppered with sibilants;


The unpalatable ‘political’ reality of the early 1970s was that Men die at hand in blasted street and home, that explosions were everyday events: gelignite’s a common sound effect.

A Catholic football fan is quoted as suggesting that his Catholic team’s winning result is a victory of vast religious significance: The Pope of Rome/’s a happy man tonight. It beggars Heaney’s belief that people from the man’s ‘tribe’(flock) could suspect/ In their deepest heart of hearts that an insignificant ‘soccer’ result would lead the unionists to change their behaviours and present themselves to be burnt at the stake: heretic/ ( ) come at last to heel and to the stake.

To Heaney, at this point in time, liberal Catholics (of whom he confesses to be one) are not in an honourable position: metaphorically speaking they tremble near the flames (of death by burning at the stake) yet would be unwilling to raise sectarian tensions, ignite the pyre: want no truck/ With the actual firing. Faced with violent threats, doing nothing to seek a resolution, they hedge and haver: We’re on the make/ As ever.

Conscious of their historical ‘runt’ status and the bleakness of their existence in Ulster (Long sucking the hind tit/ Cold as a witch’s and as hard to swallow) they still avoid coming out openly as regards closer ties with the Irish Republic: fork-tongued on the border bit.

The clamour of Protestant opposition drowns out the weak indecision of moderate Catholicism. The liberal papist note sounds hollow when measured against the sounds of conflict: the bangs/ That shake all hearts and windows day and night.

(Heaney pauses briefly in the act of composition, tempted to rhyme on ‘labour pangs’ and work a metaphor of recurrent Ulster Catholic destiny as a rebirth in our plight.)

No such let-up in the din of Protestant Unionism: Last night you didn’t need a stethoscope/ To hear the eructation (literally ‘belching’) of Orange drums,/ Allergic equally to Pearse and Pope, hostile to Irish Catholic freedom-fighters and supreme leader of the Catholic church alike.

In a divided Ulster where people seek sanctuary in the sectional groups to which they belong and in which they feel protected some sections are proactive: On all sides ‘little platoons’ are mustering. Heaney clarifies the phrase, used by two respected non-denominational celebrities, both unafraid to express their feelings.

Heaney explains his impasse: the necessity he perceives to speak out is blocked by his unsuccessful search for expression: his pestering/ Drouth for words (both ‘carrot and stick: at once both gaff and bait) prevents him from finding the ‘fishing-net’ that will lure the tribal shoals into epigram/ And order (if not communities in happy coexistence, at least obedient to God’s commandments as they were set in stone).

Drouth overcome! The poem ends with a rallying cry: it is within everyone’s capacity to challenge the obstacles of bigotry and shamandby takingthe right lineraise a monument of non-denominational love more durable than brass: aere perennius.

  • Belfast Celtic FC: a football side with a strongly Irish Catholic support base that was forced out of Irish League football largely for sectarian reasons;

  • heretic: a person accused of heresy, the latter originally defined in 12th c. as ‘an opinion of private men different from that of the catholick and orthodox church’ or an ‘unorthodox sect or doctrine’; generally accepted as a ‘religious belief opposed to the orthodox doctrines of the Church’;

  • stake: the post to which people were tied before being burnt to death; originally a Catholic punishment for heresy (during the Inquisition);

  • truck: sense of ‘exchange’,’ barter’, was extended; to ‘have dealings with’ was first recorded in 1610.; ‘to have no truck with’ indicates ‘to have nothing to do with’;

  • on the make: the phrase suggests that ethical considerations would be side-lined in a person’s quest for profit or social status;

  • sucking the hind tit: to do with being ‘inferior’. Female mammals feeding a litter have a row of teats; ‘hind’ means ‘rearmost’ and the weakest animal pushed to the end of the line would receive the least milk and metaphorically the worst deal;

  • fork- tongued: speaking with a forked tongue is deliberately saying one thing and meaning another or being hypocritical or acting in a duplicitous manner; Heaney perceives the loss of trust involved;

  • eructation: belching, expelling stomach wind through the mouth with a loud noise; regarded as vulgar behaviour;

  • pestering; the modern sense of ‘annoy’ derives from the much stronger (M Fr peste) sense of ‘pestilence’; Heaney’s feelings are running high so ‘a plague on my inability to find the right words’ would seem appropriate;

  • drouth: associated with drought (a long period without rainfall) suggesting thirst, dry mouth, shortage;

  • gaff: hook on a fishing spear;

  • epigram: inscription, epitaph; by extension things carved/ written in stone are ‘no longer subject to change’;

  • come to heel: to cease behaving in an unorthodox way and start obeying instructions; the order ‘heel’ to a trained dog will set it walking obediently just behind its master’s heel;

  • draw the line: generally implies ‘setting a limit on’, ‘restraining’ something; in parallel ‘to draw a line through something’ is ‘to cross it out’;

  • shoal: large number (especially of fish that mass closely together);

  • Patrick Pearse: one of the leaders of the Dublin Easter Rising of 1916 against British rule; declared ‘President of the Provisional Government’; subsequently captured and executed with 15 others at Kilmainham Jail;

  • Conor Cruise O’Brien was a 20th century Irish politician, writer and academic, from an intellectual and political background, sent to non-denominational school and proceeding to ‘non-denominational’ Trinity College, Dublin; his distinguished career included editorship of British newspaper, the Observer; a spectator and critic of events, O’Brien was unhappy, for example, about the so-called Peace Process in NI and probably ‘integrationist’ by nature; he felt an acknowledged affinity for Edmund Burke;

  • Burke (1729-1797) was a converted Anglican of Munster Roman Catholic stock. Opponents regarded this as dishonest because it permitted him to participate in public life when Catholics could not; statesman, author, political theorist and philosopher, he served as a Whig at Westminster, so to the right of centre; he was caught up in the political fall-out from the American Civil War, sympathising with the American side;

  • little platoon: “To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.” ~ Edmund Burke

  • aere perennius: reference to classical author Horace : I have erected a monument ‘more enduring than brass’;

  • 7 quatrains; lines based on 10 syllables; rhyme scheme abab cdcd etc.;

  • Constructed in 10 sentences, many short and sharp with polemic tone; notable also for the frequent use of enjambed lines, the whole creating varied rhythm and flow in oral delivery;

  • The choice of vocabulary unites the sounds of conflict, the historical language of religious courts and punishments with modern recreation, characters from history;

  • Heaney is critical of both sides in the conflict; the one for being ‘wet’; the other for its loud brashness;

  • parallels: tribalism and group behaviour of fish; oratory and fisherman’ equipment;

  • principal sonic chains of vowel sound are

Men die at hand. In blasted street and home

The gelig nite’sa common sound effect:

As the man said when Celtic won, ‘The Pope of Rome’s

A happy man this night His flock suspect

In their deepest heart of hearts the heretic

Has come at last to heel and to the stake.

We tremble near the flames but want no truck

With the actual firing. We’re on the make

As ever. Long sucking the hind tit

Cold as a witch’s and as hard to swallow

Still leaves us fork-tongued on the border bit:

The liberal papist note sounds hollow

When amplified and mixed in with the bangs

That shake all hearts and windows day and night.

(It’s tempting here to rhyme on ‘labour pangs

And diagnose a rebirth in our plight

But that would be to ignore other symptoms.

Last night you didn’t need a stethoscope

To hear the eructation of Orange drums

Allergic equally to Pearse and Pope.)

On all sides ‘little platoons‘ are mustering –

The phrase is Cruise O’Brien’s via that great

Backlash, Burke while I sit here with a pestering

Drouth for words at once both gaff and bait

To lure the tribal shoals to epigram

And order. I believe any of us

Could draw the line through bigotry and sham

Given the right line, aere perennius.

  • [ei][i:] [əʊ] [e][æ][ɪ][au][u:]  [ɜː][ɔɪ][ɔː] [ʌ] [ai];

  • alliterative effects in stanza (1) are achieved by alveolar plosives: voiceless [t] and voiced [d];

  • (2) supplements the continued use of [t] with aspirate [h] and velar plosive [k];

  • (3) is strong in [d]; (4) picks up the bilabial [p] of papist and (5) runs with the sibilants of the previous stanza; final bilabial ‘pop’of Pearse and Pope;

  • in (6) sibilant frequency is sustained alongside percussive [k]: (Cruise) Backlash, Burke;

  • final stanza combines alveolar [l] with emphatic bilabial [b] in key words;


The indelible marks of difference. Heaney rejects dissembling attitudes that avoid the contentious issue of sectarian identity (a subject tastefully to be avoided in general discussion where you hold your tongue) because, for those speaking, recognition actually requires no discussion: You know them by their eyes. He objects too when peoplesit forever on the fence: ‘One side’s as bad as the other’, never worse.

For him it is time that the minority: stood up for itself, by Christ; challenged Protestant dominance in Ulster; punctured some small leak…/ In the great dykes the Dutchman made when Catholicism was ousted after 1689; halted the the dangerous tide of bullying victimisation that followed Seamus (the self-identifying Catholic name tagged later in the poem).

He castigates himself for his own feeble rôle: Yet for all this art and sedentary trade/ I am incapable. He is dismissive of his own routine excuses: Northern reticence, the tight gag of place/ And times: yes, yes; he might sing warmly of the ‘wee six’ provinces of Northern Ireland but speak out, no: he lives by a general consensus that bows to the threat implicit in the original poster: to be saved you only must save face/ And whatever you say, say nothing.

Communication between fellow-Catholics is woefully silent: Smoke signals are loud-mouthed compared with us.

Religious backgrounds are revealed by artful Manoeuvrings that identify names, addresses or schools attended. Heaney provides stereotypes (signalled/ sure-fire) from both sides of the sectarian divide; he quotes the derogatory labels people use for each other: Prod/ Pape.

There are coded messages, too; Ulster is a land of password, handgrip, wink and nod, where superficial impartiality is getting on with the job of discrimination: open minds as open as a trap, where word-of-mouth can lead to unexpected disqualification: tongues lie coiled, as under flames lie wicks.

No wonder the Catholic minority is tight-lipped. Heaney illustrates this with an incident from the Trojan War in which the wily Greeks paradoxically Besieged (in the horse) within the siege (of the city) sat in silence, Cabin’d and confined in the wooden horse, whispering morse lest by speaking they should betray their presence and be killed (or here in Ulster betray their religion and be excluded!).

  • Dutchman: reference to protestant William III of Orange; made king of England and Ireland after 1689; his victory at the Battle of the Boyne 1690 established Protestantism in NI and the ‘Twelfth’ (of July) remains sacred to Orangemen and provided the pretext for annual confrontations before the Good Friday Agreement; see the time-line in Afterthoughts;

  • reference to the Trojan horse: this wooden replica gifted by the Greeks to the Trojans was transported it into their city; it was filled with Greek soldiers and proved a successful ruse leading to the fall and sack of Troy;

  • save face: preserve esteem, avoid humiliation;

  • wee six: Northern Ireland, or ‘the Wee Six” as it has been commonly called since it was partitioned from the Twenty-Six counties that comprise the Republic of Ireland (1920-22);

  • wink and nod:subtle movements of eye and head, visible signals between people wishing to avoid words being overhead;

  • Heaney castigates the offensive nature of society in the North. Sectarianism permeated not only government, institutions, education, employment and housing (MP p 145)

  • 6 quatrains; lines based on 10 syllables; rhyme scheme abab cdcd etc.;

  • Constructed in 9 sentences, the first 3 short, quoted comments; 10 enjambed lines;

  • The choice of vocabulary confirms the inability or unwillingness or fear of one section to criticise the other, language of secretiveness two-facedness;

  • Sound effects: similar assonant sounds in chains or clusters carry the same shade:

Religion’s never mentioned here,’ of course.

‘You know them by their eyes,’ and hold your tongue.

‘One side’s as bad as the other,’ never worse.

Christ, it’s near time that some small leak was spru ng

In the great dykes the Dutchman made

To dam the dangerous tide that followed Seamus.

Yet for all this art and sedentary trade

I am incapable. The famous

Northern reticence, the tight gag of place

And times: yes, yes. Of the ‘wee six’ I sing

Where to be saved you only must save face

And whatever you say, you say nothing.

Smokesignals are loud-mouthed compared with us:

Manoeuvrings to find out name and school,

Subtle discrimination by addresses

With hardly an exception to the rule

That Norman, Ken and Sidney signalled Prod

And Seamus (call me Sean) was surefire Pape.

O land of password, handgrip, wink and nod,

Of open minds as open as a trap,

Where tongues lie coiled, as under flames lie wicks,

Where half of us, as in a wooden horse

Were cabin‘d and confined like wily Greeks,

Besieged within the siege, whispering morse.

  • [ai] [ei] [i:] [əʊ] [e] [æ] [ɪ] [au] [u:] [ɔː] [ʌ] [ɒ] 12 assonant chains or clusters create a poetic music however unmusical the content;

  • consonant effects: (ll.1-6): principally bilabial nasal [m] and velar nasal [n] rhythms within sibilant [s] [z] frame; percussive velar [k] in leak/ dyke alongside cluster of alveolar [d];

  • (ll. 7-13): frequent plosive [t] and sibilant [s]; late alveolar [d] and bilabial [m] cluster that will run into the next section with Manoeuvrings; alliterative [d] loud-mouthed compared

  • (ll. 14-24): sibilant [s] joined by voiceless post-alveolar fricative [ʃ] discrimination/ exception/ Seamus/ Sean will resonate to the end: morse; beats of bilabial nasal [m] will recur; later inclusion of bilabial [w] and velar [k] in the final quatrain;


Heaney has witnessed a new sign-of-the-times: a camp for the internees in which the British government now imprisons without trial . The signs of paramilitary response and military defence are evident : bomb/ crater; machine-gun posts … a real stockade. Alongside this turbulence, nature quietly defines a time of year: dewy motorway/… that white mist you get on low ground.

What he has seen recalls a film dramatisation from a previous conflicts: it was déjà-vu, some film made/ Of Stalag 17, a bad dream with no sound.

Is there a life before death? A passer-by chalked this wry comment on the grim quality of life in troubled Ulster on a wall in Ballymurphy. Heaney uses it to help define what being an Ulster-Irishman feels like to him: coping but suffering (Competence with pain); living a life of shared, consistent gloom (Coherent miseries); existing on basics: a bite and sup.

Ulster’s current experiences reflect Ireland’s repeated fate in the broader scheme of things: We hug our little destinies again.

  • internment or imprisonment without trial was a political response to terrorism imposed by the British government in 1971. Internment camps were set up; the most infamous of these was Long Kesh later known as the Maze; the site is on the outskirts of Lisburn SW of Belfast past which the motorway M1 runs; the camps succeeded only in inflaming sectarian tensions;

  • Stalag 17: a 1953 war film set in a WWII German prisoner-of-war film; its main theme was the discovery of treachery amongst the inmates and just punishment;

  • is there life before death?’ refers to a subtle but wry graffito inscribed on a wall in Ballymurphy (on the western fringes of Belfast); it plays on the religious notion of ‘life after death’ making a direct comment on the bleakness of existence during the Troubles;

  • 12 lines of 10 syllables in 3 quatrains; 3 sentence structure with frequent use of enjambment; rhyme scheme abab/cdcd;

  • ‘coloured’ sound suggests up to 9 main assonant groups woven into the narrative

This morning from a dewy motorway

I saw the new camp for the internees:

A bomb had left a crater of fresh clay

In the roadside, and over in the trees

Machine-gun posts defined a real stockade.

There was that whitemist you get on a lowground

And it was déjà –vu, some film made

Of Stalag 17 (seventeen), a bad dream with nosound.

Is there a life before death? That’s chalked up

In Ballymurphy. Competence with pain,

Coherent miseries, a bit and sup,

We hug our little destiny again.

  • [i:] [ei] [u] [e] [əʊ] [ai] [ɪ] [ʌ] [au]

  • alliterative effects are achieved in the first sentence via the use of bilabial [w] and voiced and unvoiced alveolar fricative/ sibilant variation [s] [z] [ ʃ /sh]; the second sentence introduces alveolar plosives [d] and [t] in combination while the final 4 lines use bilabial plosives [b] and [p];

  • the vocabulary features contemporary and older (stockade) references to military installations;

  • Heaney demonstrates his talent for creating cinematic effects and atmosphere; he uses WWII icons and French phrases adopted into English.