A Lough Neagh Sequence 6 The Return

Heaney pays tribute to the eel’s extraordinary return trip to Sargasso.

It turns out eels live out almost their entire lives in a juvenile form, only developing sex organs as they make their final journey back to the Sargasso. Heaney converts the ‘he’ of Beyond Sargasso into the female pronoun.

After ten or fifteen years (older now) the eel’s Northern Irish location (ponds, drains, dead canals) is suddenly in her slipstream (turns her head back). Driven by an irresistible impulse (whim deliberately) she has set out on her journey back to Sargasso roots (at sea in grass) with not the slightest intention (damned if she’ll turn) to refashion (new trenches)  the habitat she has just vacated – Heaney lists the sites she passes on her journey seawards from Lough Neagh and the Lower Bann (lough river).

Her physique has altered (stomach shrunk) and (Heaney lends her emotions) she feels totally excited (exhilarates) to be on her way. The ocean’s heartbeat (throbbing) will spur her on in her marathon challenge (speed through days and weeks).

The whole eel mind set is beyond Heaney’s ken (who knows) – perhaps beyond her own (if she knows) as regards her exact location (depthdirection).

Charts provide progress indicators understood by humans – the sea area Malin, Tory island off Donegal. She-eel leaves no sonar clue (silent) no give-away trail (wakeless), no global tracker with which to follow the progress of this tiny, tiny creature (wisp), self-energizing (wick), this mere minuscule reflection (own taper and light) in the disordered deep (weltering dark).

Her journey’s end in every sense: she-eel spawns and dies (lost once she lays) in the Sargasso trench (ten thousand feet down) back home (in her origins). Yet her legacy and with it the eel cycle live on: clouds of floating eggs (slicks) as yet unfertilized that will never know their parent (orphaned spawn).

  • return: after 10 or 15 years in its distant home, here Lough Neagh, the eel returns to the Sargasso Sea where it was born; once there she spawns and dies;
  • pond: body of still water;
  • drain: channel carrying off surplus water;
  • head back: neat use of a phrase doubling the sense of ‘go back in the direction you came from’;
  • whim: urge, sudden desire;
  • grass: forests of seaweed;
  • damned if: strong indication of lack of intention to behave otherwise;
  • shrink: become smaller;
  • exhilarate: ex adds a connotation of ‘thoroughly’ to ’feel glad’;
  • throb: beat, pulsate steadily;
  • Malin: sea area immediately west and north of the Irish landmass; the Lower Bann flows directly into it;
  • Tory: rugged island 10 miles west of west of the Co Donegal coast within the Malin sea area;
  • wake: trail of disrupted water;
  • wisp: small, insubstantial object;
  • wick: porous strip that draws fuel up to a naked light (capillary action);
  • taper: slender candle;
  • weltering: turbulent;
  • lay: deposit eggs, spawn;
  • slick: layer, thick cloud (coined to describe discharged floating oil that does not mix with water);
  • orphaned: the eel’s offspring is parentless;


  • (MP84) After the massacre, in the penultimate section, ‘The Return’, Heaney celebrates the resilience of the female eel, who ensures the survival of the species despite her ordeal in ‘the weltering dark’. She ‘exhilarates’ in her ‘mid-water’ element, and, again like the maturing poet, delights in the deep, the familiar unknown.
  • 2 lengthy verses (12 + 11) (V) in 7 sentences (S); lines based around 6 syllables;
  • unrhymed – loose play of alliterative or assonant effects in end of line words or phrases;
  • the combination of punctuation and enjambment dictates flow and rhythm within the oral delivery potential,  governing pace or pause (note colons and dash);
  • V1 in 3 richly enjambed sentences; S1 the last stage in a life-cycle; she eel personified , aware of what she is leaving behind but taken over ‘whim deliberately’; capable of firm decision; S2 new-found delight; different athletic shape as if trained for an ordeal; ocean personified – ‘throbbing’ of its/ their joint heartbeat;
  • V2: interrogative questions the urge that defeats choice; if the eel was large in previous settings she is infinitesimally small alongside a Sea area, a land mass or ocean depth; imagination creates an eel with ‘wing-light’ pulses that give her position away to the eye in the sky; S6 S7 set out the inevitable fate (compare the salmon) once the life-cycle/ life-circle is complete; ‘slick’ perfectly describes the sleek, glossy, treacly substance that will not mix with sea-water (compare the negative image of oil pollution); life cycle begins again without maternal  guidance ‘orphaned spawn’;
  • NC21 Having noted ‘self-inwoven similes’ (also referred to as ‘reflexive imagery’) in In Gallarus Oratory, Peninsula, Girls Bathing and At Arboe Point NC links the example in The Return  (‘wick that is its own taper and light’ with ‘the structural circularity or reflexivity’ of the sequence as a whole;

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