The Outlaw

Though the poem commands little attention from Heaney’s commentators it is a little gem – its grainy ‘period’ cine-camera sequence paints a humorous vignette of rural Irishness in the early 1950s, extending the Heaney family farm scenarios of Death of a Naturalist into the wider community one of myriad poems dealing with what it means to be Irish.

The poem illustrates the sharp-wittedness of Irish farmers and provides a mating session that opens a boy’s eyes to a more complete understanding of ‘the birds and the bees’. It also introduces the ‘vantage point’ metaphor whereby Heaney learned about the world unfolding below him from elevated sites on fences or in trees.

The ‘Agricultural Act Northern Ireland 1949’ stipulated that only Government approved bulls should be used in the cattle breeding process. This was a step too far for countless small farmers in 1950s’ Northern Ireland who found ways round the regulations. To make use of a regulated bull was an expensive process involving loading, transportation, time and breeding fee. The ‘wee’ smallholder with just a couple of cows to service probably did not keep regulatory milk yield records so could not meet the ‘small print’ anyway. The farmers sorted it out amongst themselves!

Archive photos picture young boys herding and driving cows and Heaney’s dramatization places just such a youngster in the role of driver, witness and commentator. It could of course have been young Heaney himself (as he implies in ‘A Constable Calls’ (‘North’ collection of 1975) his own father was not beyond stretching the rules). The youngster utters not a word.

Farmers knew the hush-hush place to go to have their cows serviced (Kelly’s) despite knowing it was against the law (an unlicensed bull); it all happening off the beaten track (well away from the road). They might be prosecuted if caught (you risked a fine) but took the risk. Not that any financial deals were to be had! The locals paid Kelly the same amount as for the licensed service (normal fee) …  take it or leave it (if cows were serviced there).

Enter farm-boy leading a reluctant beast (dragged) to the bull (nervous Friesian on a tether). Slow progress left room for a boy to appreciate his surroundings (lane of alder) and for a poet to interweave pollinators, female flowers and regeneration in nature (shaggy with catkin) as an overture to the physical event that followed (shed the bull was kept in).

Palm-sweaty money was tendered (clammy silver) to seal a deal the youngster was yet to comprehend (I could not guess), his only instruction from old Kelly (he grunted a curt ‘Go by’) to take up a safe position (my lofty station) and from a front row seat to witness a mating process where money changed hands (business-like conception)!

Launched with all guns blazing (door, unbolted, whacked back against the wall) the scene is reduced to burlesque by the underwhelming appearance of the ‘baddie’ (illegal sire fumbled from his stall), unhurried yet purposeful (old steam-engine shunting) engaging in a sniffing routine that would confirm the cow on heat (circled, snored and nosed).

The build-up betrays no hint of ‘passion’ (hectic panting), just the practised preparation (unfussy ease) of one competent at its job (good tradesman).

Eschewing fancy footwork (awkward, unexpected jump) the bull’s unattractive front end (knobbled forelegs) took up strategic position (straddling her flank) … before ‘wallop’ – insertion and insemination (slammed life home) delivered with the sensitivity of a military juggernaut that fires shells (impassive as a tank)!!

The job done bull’s dismount (dropping off) has all the slumping elegance of a building site (tipped-up load of sand).

His part of the deal accomplished (‘She’ll do,’ said Kelly) the old farmer moved the cow on (ash-plant across her hindquarters). If the bull hasn’t produced the goods, he adds, we’ll give it another go (‘bring her back’).

And the protagonists? The boy has completed his errand (walked ahead); the mated cow is relaxed (the rope now slack); the bull’s owner has money in his pocket (Kelly whooped) and ushers his unlicensed beast offstage (prodded his outlaw).

The bull’s reaction? His own master (in his own time) he went back to the easy life from which he had been disturbed (resumed the dark, the straw).

  • outlaw: said of those acting outside the law, bandit;
  • unlicensed: without a certificate of legality, law-breaking;
  • Friesian: breed of black and white cattle common in Ireland;
  • tether: rope with which an animal is led;
  • fine: cash penalty imposed by a court of law;
  • normal fee: cost with no reduction:
  • alder: tree of the birch family;
  • shaggy: describing profuse unkempt growth
  • catkin: hanging flowery spike pollinated by the wind;
  • clammy: damp and sticky to the touch
  • silver: possible allusion to the thirty pieces of silver Judas was paid for betraying Jesus;
  • curt: brusque, abrupt, not warm;
  • lofty: elevated; Heaney’s poetry is dotted with vantage points from which he looks down on and gleans information about the world beneath:
  • business-like: both a deal involving money and an efficient, systematic process;
  • whack back: open forcefully and with the sound of impact;
  • sire: male animal used to breed the next generation;
  • fumble: act clumsily, act with indecision;
  • stall: individual space in a cowshed;
  • shunting: railway movement that shifts rolling stock into the desired order;
  • circle: walk around;
  • snore: snort, grunt;
  • nose: sniff to detect a smell (here of a cow in season)
  • hectic: manic, uncontrollable
  • panting: heavy breathing caused by excitement, sexual stimulus
  • unfussy: basic, without frills;
  • tradesman: said of small-scale operators skilled in a trade:
  • awkward: ungainly, ungraceful;
  • knobbled: lumpy, slightly misshapen;
  • straddle: stand with one leg on either side of;
  • flank: side of animal’s body between rib and hip;
  • slam: impact forcefully;
  • home: implies reaching a deliberate target;
  • impassive: without evident feeling or emotion;
  • tip up: empty contents from a container using an angle and gravity;
  • ashplant: walking stick cut from a tree used by cattlemen (Heaney’s father was never without it)
  • slack: loose, not taut;
  • whoop: utter loud cries of joy;
  • prod: poke, jab with a stick;

MP 82: In its original version, ‘The Outlaw’, entitled ‘Oh Brave New Bull’, concluded with Kelly’s prosecution, and the white heat of the new technology; a ‘white-coated, rubber-gloved’ man wandered into the byre, and “as I scratched the Ayrshire’s rump/ He chose the labelled seed for his glass pump.” No doubt Heaney decided to revise the poem because of the flatness of this ending, and, because he admired the bull’s creative power, he did not want to leave the laurels with the ‘artsem’ (artificial insemination) man. Kelly’s bull is a master of self-possession, like ‘The Bull Moses’ in Ted Hughes’ ‘Lupercal’… Though more effective than its predecessor, ‘The Outlaw’ is flawed by the excessive demands on the imagination its metaphors make and a somewhat ‘slack’ conclusion.

  • Heaney experiments with form: twelve rhyming couplets (C) in 12 sentences (S) not including a semi-colon; variable line length between 10-12 syllables;
  • the balance punctuation marks and enjambed lines determines the flow and  rhythm within the oral delivery potential; this is further broken up by direct speech (Old Kelly’s only – the boy does not speak)
  • the sequence is set a recollection (whether real or a re-worked version of an original using, with the exception of the direct speech, past tenses
  • S1 introduces the secretive venue and reasons for this plus the potential indignation of Mid –Ulster farmers’ mind-sets (‘normal fee’);
  • In S2 the cow’s reluctance ‘nervous…tether’ will contrast post insemination ‘(rope now slack’); nature is hinted at as having its own reproduction line (pathetic fallacy perhaps);
  • Only setting up the drama replaces the objective language of first six lines: in C4 ‘silver’ hints at deceit of Biblical proportion; its clamminess based on the boy’s stress of deceit recognition (compare ‘A Constable Calls’ to acknowledge Heaney’s precocious awareness of right and wrong if not yet the symptoms of mating! ); Kelly’s lack of sophistication defined once and for all (‘grunted’…’curt’);
  • C5 introduces the vantage point from which the young Heaney will learn about the world below particularly in ‘Anahorish 1944’; and reworked to fit the roof-sentry of ‘Mycenae Lookout’; conflation of conflicting pretexts within the same phrase ‘business-like’;
  • C6 contrasts epic ‘whacked’ and burlesque ‘fumbled’;
  • C7’s initial simile bull and ‘old stream-engine’ is superseded by triple verbs unmistakeably taurine; modern age locomotive twinned later with military ‘tank’ with different connotations;
  • S9 the longest in the piece spells out the mating stages; where might a precocious youngster have overheard the human version(‘hectic panting’) one wonders; parallel between the systematic thoughtful weighing up a craftsman make and the instinctive systematic if inelegant, incongruous, unattractive steps followed by the bull; the climax (no pun intended) of the process; emphatic perhaps deliberately euphemistic transfer of epithet ‘slammed life’ more tasteful and poetically successful than ‘slammed his penis’; building site simile descriptive of the final dismount drawn from rural building trades experience;
  • S10 Irishness ‘ash-plant’ cattlemen’s standard appendage; Heaney’s father was renowned for his;
  • S11/12: camera pans from protagonist to protagonist; boy unchanged; cow freed from tension; shady farmer jubilant; bull focussed on little more returning through its door into the darkness where life is comfortable;


  • 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: thirteen 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;
  • the final lines are dominated by alveolar plosives[t] [d] [th] alongside nasals [m] [n] , sibilants [s] [z] [sh] and a strong weave of front -of-mouth aspirates [h], bilabial [b] [p], labio-dental fricatives [f] [v], airy [w];

Join the Conversation - Leave a comment