Requiem for the Croppies, Heaney indicated, was written from the vantage point of a Northern Irish Catholic with a nationalist background. Once the poem took shape in his imagination he just went for it: I was conscious of a need to voice something that hadn’t got voiced (amongst contemporary Irish poets), to tune the medium in order to do that particular job. If he foresaw the poem’s provocative political potential he relegated it below his writerly entitlement.
Heaney plants a first flag in support of the Irish nationalist cause. His poem is set amidst the 1798 Rising, perhaps the first organised opposition to British rule in the south of Ireland at the time, emblematic also of a determination amongst Irish rebels that has persisted ever since. Think Croppies, think Ireland; think 1798, think ‘for ever after’.
Heaney and his reader are as if enlisted in the Wexford brigade of United Irishmen (our…we), wearing a uniform of sorts (greatcoats), carrying no more than the means to prepare a meagre gruel (pockets … full of barley), forced to eat on the hoof (no kitchens on the run), exposed to the elements day and night (no striking camp) trained to respond immediately to circumstances (moved quick and sudden) – ironically with the total right to be there (in our own country) reduced a classless miscellany of individuals from the ordained to the homeless (priest … tramp) lying in wait (behind ditches) … a contingent with a common identity (people), ragtag and untrained perhaps (hardly marching), constantly on the move (hike).
As guerrillas they became skilled at improvisation (new tactics happening each day) – adept at violent ambush (cut through reins and rider with the pike), sowing chaos and confusion (stampede cattle into infantry), slipping away (retreat through hedges), their withdrawal calculated to cause maximum damage (where cavalry must be thrown).
Finally (until) surrounded (on Vinegar Hill) (a sour and bitter tasting memory indeed!) comes the croppies’ dies irae day of reckoning (fatal conclave) – slaughtered for all their numbers and strategic advantage (terraced thousands died), their rural implements no match for artillery (shaking scythes at cannon).
The battle site (hillside) both shame-faced (blushed) and running with the blood (soaked) of men careering to their death (our broken wave) … bodies cast without memorial into open, common graves (without shroud or coffin).
A people vanquished? Think again! Renewal came within weeks (barley grew up out of the grave) and the poem, turned parable, predicts that indomitable Irish resolve has not and will not yield.
- requiem: piece for the repose of the dead, Catholic Mass, musical composition, here elegiac poem;
- Croppies: nickname given to Irish rebels fighting the British in the 1798 Rising;, said to have cropped their hair in the manner of the peasants of the French Revolution of 1789;
- greatcoat: long, heavy over-garment;
- barley: hardy cereal cultivated for human and animal consumption;
- run: quick movement; set journey; area set aside with relative freedom to move; connotation here of ‘on the run’, attempting to avoid capture
- strike camp: dismantle shelter and leave;
- ditch: narrow channel dug to carry away surplus water;
- hike: long walk, trek;
- tactics: planned strategic actions;
- reins: straps used to guide check the horse one is riding or driving
- pike: long, steel-pointed infantry weapon;
- stampede: cause animals to panic;
- thrown: unsaddled by reluctant horse:
- Vinegar Hill: battle during the Irish Rebellion of 1798 on 21 June 1798 when over 13,000 British soldiers launched an attack on Vinegar Hill outside Enniscorthy, County Wexford, the largest camp and headquarters of the Wexford United Irishmen;
- Heaney indicated that the genesis of Door into the Dark was influenced by a ‘new self-consciousness’ and a development away from the self – the ‘I’ that permeates ‘Death of a Naturalist’ – towards the ‘we’ of Requiem for the Croppies’ and later ‘Bogland’ in this collection (DOD89).
- MP (86) offers an informed summary of events: Written in 1966 at a time when most poets in Ireland were straining to celebrate the anniversary of the 1916 Rising 96 this sonnet rejoices in the seeds of liberty sown during the 1798 rebellion, when a largely Protestant leadership led the dispossessed Catholic masses in an abortive attempt to free Ireland from English domination …Ten thousand government troops, with twenty pieces of artillery, encircled the twenty thousand’ wretched rebels herded together around the green standards on the summit’, and bombarded them with ‘grape-shot and the new explosive shells’. According to a local Protestant clergyman, more than half the estimated 50,000 dead in the rebellion had been killed in cold blood.
- conclave: place where people meet for a purpose, come together, go head to head; original Latin meant ‘private room which might be locked’; refers to the group of cardinals who select the Pope;
- scythe: long-handled farm tool with a curved blade for cutting crops;
- cannon: heavy artillery mounted on wheels;
- blush: redden (colour, shame, embarrassment);
- wave: surge, flow;
- shroud: winding sheet, burial cloth;
- in a very subtle way Heaney weaves ‘movements’ of the classical musical format into Requiem for the Croppies: one can distinguish passages that summon or invoke, share the wrath of a dies irae, acknowledge an anthem of respect;
- DOD asked how the poem was received during Heaney’s and Michael Longley’s ‘Room for Rhyme’ Arts Council tour of remote communities in May 1968 with audience both Catholic and Protestant. Heaney’s reply hedged a little suggesting that those interested could follow both the narrative and coded messages of the the ‘Seasons’ section of his and Longley’s published anthology – an image of resurrection, of spring sowing and summer growing. Yet I’d guess there was nobody who didn’t feel a frisson of transgression at the fact of a so-to-speak rebel poem surfacing in an official context, even though that particular context permitted it.
- Heaney changed tack when further pressed on the subject: What was needing to get expressed, Heaney told DOD, wasn’t so much the political complaint of a minority being discriminated against – political protest and dissent had been there from the start in Northern Ireland. What I was after, even if I wasn’t as clear about it at the time, was a way of making the central tradition of English poetry, which we’d absorbed in college and university, absorb our own particular eccentric experience … there was an element of transgression in celebrating the Croppies in official Ulster in I966.
- Later once the Troubles flared Heaney, in the University of California, Berkeley, discovered the poem included in an LP of rebel songs; initially unworried ultimately he realised he had been hijacked: but it hadn’t been written as a recruiting song for the IRA. No way. In the Northern Ireland context, its purpose was to exercise the rights of nationalists to have freedom of cultural speech, as it were. To make space in the official Ulster lexicon for Vinegar Hill as well as the Boyne and the Somme. In 1970 and 197I there was promise in the air as well as fury and danger, but soon enough it all went rancid. Internment was bad enough, but then you had Bloody Sunday in I972, and Bloody Friday, dismaying hardness and ruthlessness in the violence all round, and at that stage a reading aloud of the poem would have been taken as overt support for the Provisionals’ campaign. He stopped reading it in public (DOD119).
- NC (24) contributes to the debate: Heaney has subsequently registered unease about how readily it could be appropriated. In this context, it is worth saying that it has stood up very well over the years as a text in which depth of empathetic feeling is imaginatively expressed with a kind of tragic economy. Its local details note the miseries of an actual history of hopelessness (‘shaking scythes at cannon’) without rhetorical heightening; and it risks, and justifies, an ironically Keatsian luxuriance in the line ‘The hillside blushed, soaked in out broken wave’, where the verb’s vividly peculiar but appropriate personification dramatizes the sense of shame take into the land itself by the atrocity committed on it;
- Frank McNally too: When Seamus Heaney first read Requiem for the Croppiesalmost half a century ago, he could hardly have been misconstrued as glorifying war. Yes the poem was a tribute to the doomed heroism of the 1798 rebels, who died “shaking scythes at cannon” … And many years after he wrote the poem, Heaney recalled having read it to Northern Protestants in the mid-1960s, as an exercise in “silence-breaking rather than rabble-rousing” … But then 1969 happened, after which his lines became more than just a requiem. For those who saw the Troubles as unfinished business from an unbroken line of previous conflicts, including 1798, the barley growing from graves was a potent metaphor. And being always careful not to add fuel to fires, Heaney worried about its potential for misuse. He didn’t want to have to ask, like Yeats: “Did that play of mine send out/ Certain men the English shot?” So he stopped reading the poem. Frank McNally in the Irish Times Sept 2021
- Thinking back to Death of a Naturalist MP76 suggests Heaney was able to achieve a poetic resolution to inner tensions as he confronts the familial, parochial and national past. Moving into these regions, in poems such as ‘Docker’, ‘At a Potato Digging’, and ‘Requiem for the Croppies’, he stumbles upon mines and myths Ieft over from previous conflicts, which would prove impossible to defuse by literary devices.
- NC (24) picks out three early poems, which though fifty years apart articulate Heaney’s views of the ‘sectarian problem’ the Famine of I845-8 in ‘For the Commander of the “Eliza'” and ‘At a Potato Digging’ in Death of a Naturalist; and the 1798 rebellion of the United Irishmen in ‘Requiem for the Croppies’ in Door into the Dark. He describes the Eliza and Croppies poems as early examples of Heaney’s use of dramatic monologue;
- HV(22) The Croppies die ‘shaking scythes at cannon’: ‘They buried us without shroud or coffin / And in August the barley grew up out of the grave’ (DD, 24). The resurrection-motif makes the Croppies resemble a vegetation-god. The poet’s piety writes for them – creates for them to speak – the epitaph that their lack of funeral rites or a gravestone denied them;
- sonnet in 7 sentences (including a colon and 4 dashes); variable line length between 9 – 13 syllables; Heaney’s experimentation with the sonnet form disregards classical sonnet rhyme schemes opting for abab cdcd X (l. 9 is unlinked) efefe; the sonnet’s volta might be said to coincide with the final rhyme cluster that coincides with verbal tense change from present to past;
- rhythm changes are marked in this poem the sonnet is punctuation rich with 2 enjambed lines only; the addition of colon and dashes breaks up flow and rhythm within the oral delivery potential, governing pace or pause;
- personal pronouns ‘we, our, us’ enlist poet and reader into the action;
- S1introduces the shape of renegade life; adjectives (permissible) where adverb forms might have distorted the meter; irony: natives on the run in their own land were Irish; the British were actually the trespassers in Ireland;
- S2: in adversity the most unlikely bedfellows (cleric and vagrant) pull together;
- S3 highlights guerrilla tactics deemed effective against tyrannical occupation; use of modal auxiliary suggests no other alternative;
- S4: a bitter-sounding battle site ; powerful juxtaposition of impending slaughter seen, perhaps, as the ‘key’ to the fate of the rising (‘fatal conclave’);
- S4/5/6: sequence of single line sentences enabling distinct pauses for contemplation; vocabulary of blood-letting and impotence; personification – Irish hillside literally blood-red, metaphorically ashamed;
- S7 common graves without religious rites = soldiers deserving memorial: the barley of line 1 provides the testimony – self-regenerating cereal becomes the emblem of recurrent passionate opposition to British rule;
- HV(22) comments on Heaney’s experimentation with the sonnet form: ‘Requiem for the Croppies’ is an anomalous (deviating from the expected in its structure) sonnet, adding to its three Shakespearean quatrains a couplet that prolongs the rhymes of the last quatrain instead of introducing a new rhyme-sound: ababcdcdefefef Heaney’s surprising choice of the sonnet – that European court form – for his epitaph for an Irish peasant army has formal meaning: it affirms that the old aristocratic genres have life in them yet, and may be translated into poems defending rural values;
- 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: fourteen 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]
- the use Heaney seeks to make of assonant effects can be judged and measured in the ‘coloured hearing’ that follows;
- 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 final lines are interwoven with front of mouth sounds: aspirate [h], breathy [w], alveolar [l], bilabial plosives [p] [b], labio-dental fricatives [f] [v], with a dominant contribution from alveolar plosives [t] [d], ahead of nasal [n], sibilants [s] [z] [sh] and velar plosives [k] [g]