A Lough Neagh Sequence – Forewords

Asked how his second collection differed from Death of a Naturalist Heaney commented (DOD98):  I don’t see all that much ‘development’ in Door into the Dark; it’s more a matter of trying out and spreading out, trying out a sequence like ‘A Lough Neagh Sequence’, spreading out from Toner’s Bog in Bellaghy parish to ‘Bogland’ in general.

(NC16) ‘A Lough Neagh Sequence’ gives Heaney his first opportunity for an organized form more ample than the individual lyric, an attempt renewed frequently, in different ways, in his later work … The sequence has a strange and compelling subject: the extraordinary life­cycle of the eels and the work-cycle of the fishermen on Lough Neagh … the cycle of the poem itself moves through proverb, legend, realism and ‘visionary’ transmutation;

Alongside At Ardboe Point and A Relic of Memory Heaney focuses his attention on the myriad faces, facts, folklore and myths associated with Lough Neagh.

Dedication For the fishermen

For the fishermen’ announces the lives of the lough’s fishers, their legends and beliefs, their work and ways. The different lengths and structures of the poems capture different seasons on the water, different personalities among the fishermen, and different elements of the work…  In eight pages, Heaney catches a place, a way of life, and the physical world that ties them all together (unattributed);

An expedition on Lough Neagh that delighted Heaney at the time he was courting Marie Devlin brought him into contact with the actuality of the work. The digging of worms, the baiting of hundreds of yards of line, the early rising to lift the lines, the drag and drama of it all. I went out with two men one morning, Louis O’Neill and Pat Hagan, and the experience was so pristine I could hardly not have written about it. (DOD 93) Ten years on Heaney will pay tribute to Louis O’Neill and the fishing treat to which he treated Heaney in the elegiac Casualty from the Field Work collection.

In the mid-1960s whilst Heaney was courting Marie Devlin who would become his wife Heaney spent increasing amounts of time in the area where she was brought up close to the Lough. He could be found in her father’s public house in Ardboe often serving behind the bar and listening to the chatter and banter of the locals many of them eel fishermen. Some of the content might well derive indirectly from casual conversations in the bar of Devlin’s pub. 

MP 82 The most ambitious and intricate piece in the collection is ‘A Lough Neagh Sequence’. This was published first by Harry Chambers in the Phoenix Pamphlet Poets series in January 1969, in a limited edition of one thousand copies. Drawing out and on the sacred and secular energies within Irish landscape, with its sister poems, ‘At Ardboe Point’ and ‘ Relic of Memory’, the sequence must be seen as a precursor for the bog poems of North, the Glanmore sonnets of Field Work, and Station Island.

Heaney explained he sequence’s format: I envisaged this sequence as a kind of Celtic pattern; the basic structural image is the circle – the circle of the eel’s journey, the fishermen’s year, the boats’ wakes, the coiled lines, the coiled catch and much else. (Poetry Book Society Bulletin 61 Spring 1969).

Cycle and circle, globe and girdle shapes provide a metaphorical underlay: ’Up the Shore’ hides a cycle of life and death; the life cycle of the eel ‘Beyond Sargasso’ involves huge distances; earth-orbiting satellites provide a navigation parallel; the Sargasso Sea itself is compressed into a circle by a gyre of competing currents; eels gyrate and swim in circles; the fishing line is paid out from a coil at the rear of the boat and rewound into a coil; the oars of the vessel go ‘round and round’ in circular oarlocks; seabirds ‘umbrella’ in circles to scavenge food; the injured eels in captivity form a globe; the tracks of the fishing vessels criss-cross each other; in his final vision the young poet acknowledges his enlightening experience -‘re-wound his world’s live girdle’.

Door into the Dark: ‘Up the Shore’ introduces an unexpectedly harrowing angle on the lough – drownings treated with rueful fatalism by the fishers; ‘Beyond Sargasso’ depicts the muddy holes the ‘he’ eels inhabit and their nocturnal feeding habits; in ‘Setting’ the fishing line disappears into the watery depths, reappearing in ‘Lifting’ festooned with soot-coloured deposits; the ‘she’ eel of ‘The Return’ spends her final moments in the Sargasso deep’s ‘weltering dark’; Heaney’s ‘Vision’ , set in a nightmarish darkness with a lurking cable to trip him up, reveals the sensitive, impressionable, insecure person Heaney remained.

Portrayal of a dying breed:

commenting on the ‘imminent obsolescence’ of traditional rural artisans in Door into theDark (ploughman, thatcher, blacksmith), HV (19) adds eel fishermen to their number … by choosing as his subject anonymous rural labourers, the young poet erects a memorial to the generations of forgotten men and women whose names are lost, whose graves bear no tombstones, and whose lives are registered in no chronicle … it is immensely important to Heaney to note down those expert movements – like an anthropologist inventing a notation for an unrecorded dance’.


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