Whatever You Say Say Nothing

Heaney once said that returning to Northern Ireland from his US part-year teaching commitments was like pulling on ‘an old dirty glove’. In 1974 after nearly two decades of sectarian and political turbulence things reached a very low ebb. By the end of the year 1281 murders directly associated with the Troubles period had been registered.

Little wonder that the generally mild mannered Heaney, empathetic, certainly, as regards the minority Catholic cause but opposed to violence for whatever reason, was depressed and angered by what was unfolding and the way people responded.

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 cut-and-paste newspaper headings and snippets it was evidently the amateurish work of an extremist faction. 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, for all his comment, he himself may not always practise what he preaches.


Heaney has been stung by the shallowness, insensitivity and ignorance of the British media, for whom the Troubles were merely the latest news-event. He has just emerged from a frank face-to-face (encounter) with an English journalist and smarting at the supercilious, dismissive tone of his questioner in search of ‘views on the Irish thing.

Unremitting strife and the gloomy time of year have confined Heaney within a metaphorical lockdown (winter quarters) in which atrocity has lost its sting (bad news is no longer news).

The media-men take over – derisively authoritarian (sniff and point), their radio and television equipment scattered around ‘hired’ spaces (litter the hotels).

Everything is topsy-turvy (the times are out of joint), in view of which Heaney would place his trust more in the hope and power of prayer (rosary beads) than hackneyed repetitions (jottings) and quickly written, insensitive (scribbled) comments garbling links between escalation (long campaign), repression (gas), public dissent (protest) and violent paramilitary responses (gelignite and sten).

Heaney excoriates politicians and journalists who express no doubt as to their rectitude (proved upon their pulses), a ‘hand-on–heart’ providing Heaney with a neat alliteration. These are the guys who came up with the sound-bites and screaming headlines actually promoting violence (escalate), retaliation (backlash) severe one-sided measures (crack-down), pointing the finger at a single group (provisional wing) yet equally entrenched (polarization) and effectively fanning the flames of ‘long-standing hate’.

Amidst the clamour of those holding the ‘microphones’ Heaney’s still, small Irish voice is lost (yet I live here, I live here too). He stresses his poetic voice (I sing …).

Heaney is all too familiar with Unionist social attitudes: the veneer of politeness (expertly civil-tongued civil neighbours); the seizure of the moral high ground (high wires) when news breaks (first wireless reports); the meal such people make of the propaganda (sucking the fake taste) and savour what is tasteless (stony flavours); the trite politically-approved clichés they trot out (sanctioned, old elaborate retorts); their opinionated judgments (disgraceful), and squeals of outrage; merchants of doom (getting worse); judge and jury (murderers) and approving of what amounts to a one-sided measure (internment, understandably).

To Heaney’s mind the voice of reason is strained to the point of extinction (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: dismissive reference to a critically serious Irish matter that hits a nerve;
  • winter quarters: place, accommodation where a soldier spends the winter;
  • 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;
  • sniff: detect the whiff of a story;
  • zoom lens; camera lens permitting rapid change from long-distance to close-up shots
  • leads: cables for electric power or interface;
  • litter: clutter
  • out of joint: dislocated, in disorder;
  • incline: original meaning of ‘bend towards’ took on a later metaphorical sense of ‘have a mental disposition towards’;
  • rosary beads: devotional method of counting prayers recited;
  • jottings: words strung together without skill or tact;
  • analyses: detailed investigations;
  • scribbled down: written hurriedly and carelessly;
  • gelignite: high explosive;
  • sten: lightweight sub machine gun
  • prove: show to be true;
  • upon one’s pulse: on one’s life
  • escalate: surge;
  • backlash: strong adverse reaction; term entered the political lexicon in the 1950s;
  • crackdown: severe measures to deal with people deemed undesirable;
  • 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’;
  • polarisation: separation into two opposed and entrenched ideologies;
  • civil tongued: purposefully polite and politically correct;
  • high wires: both the cables carrying electricity via pylons and tightrope requiring skill and training to navigate;
  • suck: draw into the mouth;
  • fake taste: false information broadcast for politically motivated purposes;
  • sanctioned: officially approved;
  • elaborate: convoluted, said for show, to get approval;
  • internment or imprisonment without trial was a political response to terrorism imposed on Ulster by the British government in 1971;
  • hoarse: (disturbingly) rough, harsh, raucous;
  • 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:
  • 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;


Caught up in the nasty reality of Troubled Belfast neighbourhoods (men die at hand) people could find no refuge (blasted street and home) from bombings (gelignite) endured on an almost daily basis (common sound effect).

Heaney refocuses on Catholic reactions: first hyperbole – a soccer fan treating news of his Catholic side’s win as a Vatican headline (the Pope of Rome’s a happy man tonight).

Heaney recognises zealots from the Catholic ‘tribe’ (flock) pretending (suspect) in their most personal and secret convictions (their deepest heart of hearts) that the same nugatory ‘soccer’ victory has brought Protestantism (the heretic) to its knees (come at last to heel)  and exposed it to the merited punishment for nonconformity (the stake)

To Heaney such folk, and he falls into their category, are wimpish when it comes to turning words and feelings to direct action (tremble near the flames), too cowardly to put a match to the pyre (no truck with the actual firing). They simply set their ethics aside in pursuit of fortune or social status (we’re on the make as ever).

Conscious of their historical runtish second-class status (long sucking the hind tit) and despite the bleakness of their existence in Northern Ireland (cold as a witch’s [tit]) and disagreeable though it is (hard to swallow) they still avoid coming out openly as regards closer ties with the Irish Republic (fork-tongued on the border bit).

The voice of moderate Catholicism is muted (the liberal papist note sounds hollow) drowned out by the impact (bangs) on minds and homes in the wider Catholic community (shake all hearts and windows), unremittingly (day and night).

Heaney pauses briefly in the act of composition, tempted to rhyme on ‘labour pangs’ and weave in a metaphor of painfully recurrent Northern Irish minority Catholic destiny (rebirth in our plight).

The current (last night) so-called Marching Season heralds no let-up (you didn’t need a stethoscope) in the din of Protestant Unionism: the vulgar beats (eructation – literally ‘belching’) of Orange drums and their message of aversion (allergic) to Irish unifiers and supreme leader of the Catholic church alike (equally to Pearse and Pope).

A divided Province (on all sides) has produced a rash of factions pressing for stronger action (‘little platoons’ are mustering). Heaney gives credit for the phrase to two respected non-denominational celebrities, the first contemporaneous (Cruise O’Brien), the second of whom defied 18th century Law in his efforts to better Catholic fortunes (Backlash, Burke).

Heaney comes to the whole crux of the matter! He feels his poetic status and public voice should be active when they are not.  His conscience claims that speaking out is blocked by accursed (pestering) writer’s block (drouth for words) – so nothing from his pen, neither stick nor carrot (gaff … bait) to help him entice (lure) deeply entrenched persuasions (tribal shoals) to set down some pact in stone (epigram) and settle their differences (order).

Drouth overcome? The piece ends with a rallying cry: surely, he says, no one can fail to see through the principle obstacles (bigotry and sham) and by taking the honourable route (right line) baulk at raising a monument of non-denominational coexistence more durable than brass: aere perennius.

Heaney was not to know but it would take a further 23 years for the Good Friday Agreement to offer real prospects of peace in Northern Ireland.

  • at hand: close by
  • blasted: devastated
  • sound effect: artificial sound in a film here very real;
  • Belfast Celtic FC: football side with a strongly Irish Catholic support base that was forced out of Irish League football largely for sectarian reasons;
  • flock: people over whom someone has a duty of pastoral care;
  • heretic: a person accused of heresy, as result of ‘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’;
  • come to heel: cease behaving in a natural way and start obeying instructions; the order ‘heel’ to a trained dog will set it walking obediently just behind its master’s heel;
  • stake: the post to which people were tied before being burnt to death; originally a Catholic punishment for heresy (during the Inquisition);
  • have no truck with: have nothing to do with;
  • on the make: side-lining ethics in the quest for profit or social status;
  • suck the hind tit: accept being ‘inferior’ – ‘hind’ is ‘rearmost’; ‘tit’ a mammal’s teat; the weakest animal in a litter was pushed to the end of the food line thus receiving the least milk and metaphorically the worst deal;
  • witch’s tit: abnormal breast said to be a sign of consorting with the devil thereby the nipple of a true witch;
  • swallow: ingest, stomach, endure;
  • fork- tongued: deliberately saying one thing and meaning another, being hypocritical or acting in a duplicitous manner;
  • border :the frontier between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic stretching 499 km (310 miles) from Lough Foyle next door to Co Donegal in the north-west to Carlingford Lough in the north-east alongside Co Louth;
  • bit: used to downplay it’s significance;
  • liberal: open-minded, unbigoted;
  • hollow: meaningless, empty;
  • amplify: make louder, intensify;
  • labour pang: sharp regular spasm of pain associated with childbirth;
  • plight: predicament, sorry situation;
  • stethoscope: medical instrument that amplifies the sound of heartbeat;
  • eructation: belching, expelling stomach wind through the mouth with a loud noise; regarded as vulgar behaviour;
  • Patrick Pearse: one of the leaders of the Dublin Easter Rising of 1916 against British rule; declared ‘President of the Provisional Government’; idolised by nationalists subsequently; captured and executed with 15 others at Kilmainham Jail;
  • 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
  • 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;
  • 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;
  • gaff: hook on a fishing spear;
  • bait: food used to entice fish;
  • lure: tempt, coax
  • shoal: large number (especially of fish that mass closely together);
  • epigram: short, clever remark or poem with a witty ending; originally  an inscription, epitaph, something metaphorically set in stone’;
  • draw the line: ‘set a limit on’, extended to suggest ‘cross out’, ‘erase’;
  • 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
  • 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;


Heaney exposes an offensive side within Northern Irish social groupings that probe for indelible marks of difference –  knowledge of an individual’s religion that will trigger long standing  hard-wired responses.

Heaney can see right through politically-correct claims in some circles that they avoid the contentious issue of sectarian identity altogether (never mentioned) and has learnt not to get involved (hold your tongue); such people give themselves away suggesting there is no need to probe (you know them by their eyes). He objects too to people sugaring the pill ostensibly to imply impartiality (‘One side’s as bad as the other’, never worse).

Heaney’s outrage has reached a new level (Christ) urging Catholics (discriminated against in matters of government, education, employment and housing) to reverse the customs and practices resulting from history – to puncture some small leak in the Protestant earthworks created by King Billy (great dykes the Dutchman made) that signalled the end of Catholic aspirations (dangerous tide) and its tags (Seamus the self-identifying Catholic name that is also Heaney’s).

From his work table (sedentary trade) and given his sophistication (this art) Heaney no longer holds his tongue.

He gives himself high marks for feeble ineffectiveness (I am incapable). He is dismissive (yes, yes) of his own routine excuses: his and his fellow Catholics’ nature (Northern reticence) fear of retribution (tight gag of place), the Troubles (times).

He might be warmly attached (sing) to his northern Irish roots (‘wee six’) but speak out? Hang on a minute!

As he sees it personal salvation (to be saved) is predicated currently on people not speaking their mind (you only must save face) and obeying threats of violent retaliation (whatever you say, say nothing). Dialogue between fellow Irishmen has been stifled (smoke signals are loud-mouthed compared with us).

Intercommunication falls back on detective work (manoeuvrings) to establish religious background – just hearing a name or identifying a denominational school attended. Heaney produces undeniable (signalled sure-fire) examples that fall under derogative labels used to spell out prejudice (Prod Pape).

Then come the quasi-semiotic messages: Northern Ireland a Protestant land of password, secret handgrip, subtle movements of eye and head (wink and nod) – superficial impartiality getting on with the job of discrimination (open minds as open as a trap), preparing predatory (tongues lie coiled) disqualifications as surely as eggs are eggs (as under flames lie wicks).

Heaney finds a startling parallel from Antiquity: Greek soldiers, read Catholic equivalents (half of us), sitting tight-lipped (cabined and confined) within a symbol of cunning (wily) duplicity (wooden horse) paradoxically excluded within their own communities (besieged within the siege of Troy), voiceless lest by speaking they should betray their presence and be killed … communicating by coded gesture (whispering morse).

  • by their eyes: their eyes are a giveaway;
  • hold one’s tongue: choose to remain silent;
  • spring a leak: contrive to weaken something impregnable;
  • dyke: embankment built to avoid flooding;
  • 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; the ‘Twelfth’ (of July) remains sacred to Orangemen and provided the pretext for annual confrontation;
  • art … sing: words associated with the poetic trade;
  • sedentary: inactive, desk-bound;
  • reticence: reserve, diffidence;
  • gag: tie around the mouth to prevent people speaking;
  • wee six: Northern Ireland, or ‘the Wee Six” as it has been commonly called since it was partitioned from the Twenty-Six counties that comprised the Republic of Ireland (1920-22);
  • save face: preserve self-esteem, avoid humiliation;
  • smoke-signals: messages to distant people transmitted by the smoke of open fires
  • loud-mouthed: offensively or stupidly garrulous;
  • discriminations: unjust, prejudicial treatment;
  • Prod: informal, derogatory or offensive reference to Protestant;
  • sure-fire: beyond doubt;
  • Pape: informal, derogatory or offensive reference to Catholic (shortened form of papist’);
  • password: secret word permitting access;
  • handgrip: handshake;
  • wink and nod: subtle movements of eye and head, visible signals between people wishing to avoid the necessity of using speech;
  • coiled: the retracted tongues of some insects are used to predate;
  • reference to the Trojan horse: this wooden replica gifted by the Greeks to the Trojans was transported into their city; it was filled with Greek soldiers and proved a successful ruse leading to the fall and sack of Troy;
  • wily: skilled at gaining an advantage using deceit;
  • morse: coded alphabet based on sounds;
  • 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:
  • 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’s consciousness is continually bombarded with reminders that the Troubles are on-going. From behind the wheel of his car on the Northern Irish M1 he is driving past Long Kesh (new camp for the internees), not just the physical symbol of the British government’s policy of imprisonment without trial, but very real target of paramilitary riposte (bomb crater) and bristling with defences (machine-gun posts a real stockade).

Alongside and irrespective of the signs of violence, nature quietly defines a time of year (dewy white mist you get on low ground).

A sudden poetic charge takes Heaney back in time (it was déjà-vu) to a seat in a cinema – some film drawn from WWII (Stalag 17) equally to do with conflict and betrayal among compatriots (a bad dream) as empty as the world beyond the windscreen (no sound).

Has Heaney room for a wry smile … the guy who chalked up his ironic comment on a wall in Ballymurphy using a neat switch of preposition (Is there a life before death)?

No! It confirmed to Heaney that he was not alone in what he thought – that life as a Northern Irishman amounted to getting by but suffering (competence with pain), enduring a life of shared, consistent gloom (coherent miseries), living off crumbs (a bite and sup).

In fact … being second class was routine within in the broader scheme of history (we hug our little destinies again).

  • internee: IRA suspect incarcerated without being brought to trial; Internment without trial was introduced in 1971 by Northern Ireland’s Minister of Home Affairs Brian Faulkner ; 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 nationalists tensions; the policy lasted until December 1975 and during that time the 1,981 people  interned came to include 107  loyalists
  • machine-gun: automatic rapid-fire weapon;
  • post: emplacement:
  • stockade: defensive barrier of upright posts or stakes:
  • déjà vu: feeling of having been in a situation before
  • Stalag 17: a 1953 war film set in a WWII German prisoner-of-war camp; its main theme was the discovery of treachery amongst the inmates followed by just punishment;
  • ‘is there life before death?’ refers to the subtle but wry alteration of a message you might find on a church poster ‘Is There Life After Death?’ seen in Ballymurphy (on the western fringes of Belfast); the original plays on the religious promise of ‘life after death’ making a direct comment on the bleakness in both communities of Irish existence during the Troubles;
  • 12 lines of 10 syllables in 3 quatrains; 3 sentence structure with frequent use of enjambment; rhyme scheme abab/cdcd;
  • 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.


  • 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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