4 Summer 1969

Heaney was in Spain at the very moment riots were exploding on the streets of Belfast. His personal discomfort (I was suffering only the bullying sun of Madrid) paled into insignificance when compared with RUC (constabulary) using firearms against Catholic communities (deemed mob) around the Falls Road.

His personal daily schedule included some serious reading (life of Joyce) as he cooked slowly (casserole heat), unable to escape foul odours (stinks from the fishmarket) that reminded him of his Castledawson origins (reek off a flaxdam).

Evening brought tastes of Spain (gules of wine), youngsters heard but not seen (sense of children), elderly widows (old women in black shawls) enjoying the freshness of evening (near open windows), the sounds of Castilian rising up from below (the air a canyon rivering in Spanish).

Discussions as the ambled around (on the way home) talked of the central meseta plateau (starlit plains) and the shady presence of the Guardia Civil whose polished turn-out (patent leather gleamed) did not obscure its fascist role in recent Spanish history (like fish-bellies in flax-poisoned waters).

One voice, whoever’s it might have been, urged Heaney to concentrate on his own country (go back try to touch the people). A second warned him that poets who poked their noses into the political processes fared badly in fascist Spain (conjured Lorca from his hill).

In conversation with DOD Heaney summarised Lorca’s ‘impulse to show solidarity with the people’ and his ‘wariness of party lines … a victim figure … poet as free spirit, committed to the cause of liberation … conceived of as the enemy’ (181).

Victims in the Falls Road (death-counts) and news from the Plaza de Toros (bullfight reports) shared the television highlights; visitors turned up who had been on the ground in Belfast to remind him of the immediacy (from where the real thing still happened).

In  need of relief Heaney sought refuge in Madrid’s Prado art gallery … he escaped the heat of day (cool) perhaps but if it was peace he was looking for then maybe he chose the wrong place!

First Goya’s grand dimension painting of the summary execution of anti –Napoleon rebels in 1808 providing context, content, presentation and emotional force not far removed from images of the Troubles. Heaney’s paints a graphic word-picture of the ‘period’ (helmeted knapsacked) execution by firing-squad: rebel surrender (thrown-up arms), death convulsion (spasm of the rebel),  military precision (efficient rake of fusillade).

Heaney later explained to DOD (182) that he was not seeking out the Goya pictures that figure in the poem but when he saw The Shootings of the Third of May ‘It was Bloody Sunday avant la lettre’; the other canvases possessed ‘the force of terrible events’.

Even more traumatic was to follow …  in the next gallery, chosen from  Goya’s Black Paintings originally painted on the walls of his home now transferred permanently to the Prado (grafted to the palace): first a demented, anguished classical Saturn set against a seething background (dark cyclones gathering and erupting) engaged in infanticide (jewelled in the blood of his children); then sky-bound gigantic Chaos in profile turning his brute hips on the world beneath; finally holmgang – Duel with Cudgels (two berserks) – showing two peasants fighting each other with their legs stuck in a quagmire (greaved in a bog), unable to escape from one another (sinking) without beating their opponent to death. In Spain’s violent civil war of the time the only way forward for each side was victory. Their perceived purpose (honour’s sake) pitched Heaney back intothe insane cycle of murder and revenge currently visited upon Northern Ireland.

Heaney finds the metaphor to describe this unmistakably Spanish painter, likening Goya to a matador with a rough, uncompromising style (fists and elbows) haunted by his own demons (stained cape of his heart) needing to deploy all the artistry at his disposal to avoid violent death at the hands of the deliberately goaded bull of contemporary events (as history charged).

  • Summer 1969: DOD (xxiii) explains the circumstances: Heaney is abroad with his family to fulfil the conditions of the Somerset Maugham Award for Death of a Naturalist, first in France then Madrid with Marie Heaney’s sister; he attended a bullfight;
  • Constabulary: reference to the predominantly Protestant Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC);
  • mob: disorderly, trouble-making crowd;
  • Falls Road is the main road through west Belfast in Northern Ireland. Its name is synonymous with the republican communities in the city; the neighbouring Shankill Road is predominantly loyalist, separated from the Falls Road by peace lines. The road is usually referred to as the Falls Road and the general area ‘the Falls’.
  • The 13th, 14th and 15th of August 1969 witnessed some of the most serious rioting of the Troubles. An initially peaceful Catholic protest turned ugly resulting in attacks on the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the setting up of barricades at points where Protestant and Catholic estates divided; escalation of the violence on the 14th led to the deployment of armour and machine guns; by the end of the day there were a number of fatal casualties on both sides; Catholic homes were torched by the Protestant crowd; by the 15th August Catholic families from mixed estates were fleeing to Catholic areas of Belfast; British troops were eventually deployed to restore order;
  • a subsequent Tribunal of Inquiry heavily criticised the RUC for its handling of the riots and its inability to control events before the army was called in;
  • bullying: oppressive;
  • casserole: slowly cooked stew;
  • reek: particularly unpleasant odour;
  • flax dam: an open air site in which flax plants are deposited and where they rot as part of a process that retrieves the fibres used to make fabric, dye, paper, medicines, fishing nets, hair gels, and soap;
  • gules: coined from French/ Spanish sources; reference to the ‘throat’ and in this context ‘throatfuls’ ‘gulps’, ‘mouthfuls’ of wine;
  • black shawls: apparel worn to demonstrate widowhood;
  • canyon: deep narrow gorge with river at its base;
  • Guardia Civil: one of three police-forces in Spain; shared a military and civilian role; once regarded as heavy-handed and anti-minorities, now enjoying a much more positive reputation;
  • fish bellies: dead fish poisoned by pollution;
  • conjure: cause to appear as if by magic;
  • Federico Lorca: emblematic left-wing Spanish poet and playwright assassinated at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War in 1938; the Guardia Civil, siding with Franco, was implicated in the death of a person seen as a dangerous dissident;
  • celebrities: person with a high profile;
  • Prado: renowned world-class Art Gallery in central Madrid;
  • Goya: late 18c Spanish painter regarded both as ‘classical’ (he was a court painter) and, more recently, as the ‘Father of Modern Art’. Social and political upheaval led to a nightmare elements in his work. 85 etchings entitled Disasters of War depicted a dark, Godless landscape with no salvation. His despairing Black Paintings provided examples of frenzied violence and incoherence: in one ‘two berserks’ suggest that men will beat each other to death in perpetuity; in two others a pilgrimage procession exhibits ‘lunatic’ faces and Saturn devours his own children with orgiastic energy;
  • thrown-up: raised in surrender;
  • spasm: involuntary convulsive movement;
  • knapsack: period canvas military bag with shoulder-straps;
  • rake: to do with line and width of fire; the canvas portrays a firing squad bristling with rifles trained on a group of unfortunates;
  • graft: originally a horticultural term indicating ‘shoot inserted into another plant’; skin is grafted over wounds; both cases point to the idea of a painting hanging on a gallery wall that has become permanently associated with it;
  • cyclone: the circular, spinning weather patterns that produce devastating storms;
  • host: gather as of soldiers;
  • Saturn: a powerful Titan god from classical mythology of whom it was prophesied that he would lose his power base at the hands of his children; said to have devoured them to prevent this happening;
  • Chaos: in one ancient Greek creation-myth, the dark, silent abyss from which all things came into existence; Hesiod portrayed Chaos as a figure rather than a place, generating the solid mass of Earth, from which arose the starry, cloud-filled heavens;
  • brute: lacking reason or intelligence;
  • holmgang (hólmganga in Old Norse and modern Icelandic, holmgång in Swedish): duel  practiced by early medieval Scandinavians as a recognized way to settle disputes; it is also translated as ’island walk’suggesting that duels were arranged in watery places closely resembling an Ireland that has strong Viking connections and where people are still fighting;
  • berserk: individual out of control:
  • greave: as a noun shin armour
  • flourish: wave about to attract attention;
  • cape: carried by a matador to attract the bull;
  • 34 lines in four sections (split 14/ 5/13/ 2); line length based on 10 syllables; no rhyme scheme;
  • 11 sentence structure; the distribution of punctuation and enjambed lines provides break,s ebbs and flows in the rhythm, even occasionally a knid of musical syncopation;
  • evocation of heat: bullying sun; casserole heat/ sweated (physical and figurative); vocabulary of unhealthy smells; stinks; reek/ flax-poisoned; vocabulary of execution, surrender, nightmare, power and violence;
  • shocking juxtaposition: Jewelled in the blood of his own children;
  • consonant sound are assembled then either resonate on or are replaced by others: [k] and [f] in the early lines; [k] carried through between stinks and dark corners; doses of [g], then [t] in the quatrain; prominent [k] in the next 13 lines: cool to sinking;the final couplet blending labio-dental [f] and sibilants;
  • 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: fifteen 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;

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