A Lough Neagh Sequence 1 Up the Shore

The poem reflects conversational snippets picked up by the young poet in Devlin’s bar and around the Ardboe locality.


To the communities along its banks (Up the Shore) the ominous promise Lough Neagh delivers on an annual basis (lough will claim a victim every year) adds to its supposed magical transmutational  properties (virtue that hardens wood to stone), its myth of punishment visited on greedy locals (town sunk beneath its water), indeed its very existence – the legendary hole left when Finn McCool’s great handful of earth gouged out and thrown at a fleeing Scottish giant was sufficient to create a land mass in the Irish Sea (scar left by the Isle of Man).


The eel that will dominate the sequence come into play at the spot (Toomebridge) where the lough empties into the fast flowing Lower Bann (sluices towards the sea) and where the Fishermen’s Cooperative built a structure (new gates and tanks) to place a weir across the river (against the flow).

On occasion (from time to time) when eel migration was at its height it was deployed as a netting machine (break the eels’ journey) that harvested the creatures in huge quantities (lift five hundred stones) in a single effortless operation (one go).


Heaney deems this unfair practice: elsewhere (Antrim and Tyrone) folk set out honourable rules (sense of fair play in the game) pitting man against creature (fishermen confront them one by one) and with the personal ‘landlubber’ risk attached (sail miles out never learn to swim).


Pub banter made light of missed swimming lessons (‘We’ll be the quicker going down’), played down personal risk (there are no storms here) or the need for survival skills (one hour floating’s sure to land them safely). Their fatalism accepts the loss-of-life headline as part of the territory (‘The lough will claim a victim every year’).

  • claim: assert a right of possession;
  • virtue: ability, special property;
  • town sunk: according to myth the people of one of the kingdoms of ancient Ireland had a magical spring of freshwater. When the people became greedy the spring rose up and flooded the kingdom, leaving an underwater citybeneath the waves of Lough Neagh.
  • Isle of Man: a legend from Irish mythology drawn from An Fhiannaíocht (the Fenian cycle) tells of Finn McCool, a mythical hunter-warrior of extraordinary height who, in pursuit of a Scottish giant and hoping to prevent his escape by swimming across the sea, scooped a huge mass of clay and rock from the Irish land mass and hurled it; he overshot and the chunk of earth landed in the Irish Sea sufficient to create the Isle of Man.
  • Toomebridge: small Co Antrim town just north of Lough Neagh on the Lower Bann;
  • Sluice (v.) : gush, surge;
  • gates and tanks: the Lough Neagh Fishermen’s Co-operative with which Heaney’s future wife’s grandfather and father were connected manages the wild eel business in Northern Ireland; a series of sluices and eel traps were built across the Lower Bann to plunder the eel population;
  • eels spawn in the Sargasso Sea, South of Bermuda in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean. From here they travel almost 3000 miles westwards, a journey which sees them carried by the Gulf Stream towards Europe’s coastline; countless numbers gather at the mouth of the Lower River Bann from where they swim upstream to Lough Neagh and its tributaries and where they remain for 10 or 15 years before making the return journey;
  • stone: pre-metric unit of weight equal to 14 lb (pounds) (6.35 kg);
  • Antrim and Tyrone: Northern Irish counties the first forming the eastern and northern shore and the second its western shore;
  • fair play: respect for rules and equal treatment for opposing parties;
  • go down: sink and drown:
  • floating: resting on or near a water surface without sinking


  • MP83 Up the Shore offers ‘repeated personifications, scaling Man down to size, make the lough a watery equivalent of Hardy’s Egdon, a place where contemporary and ancient worlds collide. Paradoxically, humanity both controls and succumbs to natural forces. While at Toomebridge, ‘new gates and tanks’ have been constructed so that the fishing co-operative can ‘lift five hundred stone in one go’, further ‘up the shore in Antrim and Tyrone’ resigned, fatalistic fishermen refuse to learn to swim (‘We’ll be the quicker going down’), and catch their victims ‘one by one’.


  • 4 quatrains (Q) in 11 sentences; lines predominantly of 10 syllables;
  • Heaney experiments with rhyme patterns Q1 a very loose abab, Q2 a solid cdcd; Q3 loose efef; Q4 loose ghgh;
  • the balance of punctuation and enjambment dictates flow and rhythm within the oral delivery potential,  governing pace or pause;
  • Q1 in 4 sentences presents the myth: a set of headline/properties/ anecdote based on local parlance, itself one feature of the sequence’s language; present; narrative moves in single sentences between omen; slow chemical transmutation; and Irish legend; personification – lough a killer;
  • Q2 in 2 enjambed couplets depicts a site where the eel has no chance of escape; local colour – place and eel traps very much part of the landscape; ‘against’ ‘break’ are both harmful, fracturing and disruptive; catch of industrial proportions;
  • Q3 in 2 enjambed couplets depicts a second more labour-intensive scenario where the odds against the eel are shortened – a calmer, fairer contest between man and creature; fishermen’s bravery counter-balanced by their short-sightedness; in reality Lough Neagh the ‘scar’ is massive ‘miles out’ provides some hint as to the lough’s actual immensity;
  • Q4 reported banter from Devlin’s bar; use of direct speech; Irish combination of dark humour and pretend backwardness adds laughter; men of this ilk are not prepared to act more wisely;


  • 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 sequence: sixteen assonant strands are woven into the seven texts; 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;
  • the first two poems of ‘Up the Shore’ are dominated by alveolar plosives [t] [d ], nasals [n] [m] and sibilants [s] [z] alongside a cocktail of front of mouth sounds: aspirate [h], breathy [w], alveolar [l], bilabial plosives [p] [b], labio-dental fricatives [f] [v]; a smattering of velar plosives [k] [g] completes the alliterative deal;

Join the Conversation - Leave a comment