Station Island – the Sequence VIII

The mood has changed: the soothing clear water of VII is replaced by the sombre turbulence of some Wagnerian overture.

From his kneeling ‘station’ at the hard mouth of St Brigid’s Bed our staring pilgrim is conscious of darkening nature around him (Black water … granite airy space), of strengthening wind (White waves. Furrows snowcapped. A magpie … staggered), of physical discomfort.

Enter another ghostly presence: there at the bed’s stone hub/ was my archaeologist (Heaney’s friend Tom Delaney who died of tuberculosis aged 32).

Heaney recognises the man and his manner (very like himself … scribe’s face … straight-lipped smile …pretence of amazement) likening him to a 16th century Irish forest outlaw with his wing/ of woodkerne’s hair.

Cheerless Nature’s blackened stubble (stalks of harvested wheat or male chin) and dark weather herald Delaney’s unspoken pain. The dream-encounter pauses to allow the passage of a pilgrim bent and whispering on his rounds.

Heaney confesses the contrition he feels for his paltry contribution to their last meeting beside Delaney’s sick-bed. He was distracted by information displayed on a heart-monitor that stripped things naked. He is remorseful and self-critical: my banter failed too early. His departure left him guilty and empty, feeling I had said nothing, amounting to religious pledges broken … covenants, a failed obligation towards a dying man. His farewell did nothing to appease that recognition that they would not see each other again.

Delaney celebrates his life-work, the still-faced archaeology that helped anaesthetise his thoughts of impending death: half numbed him to face the thing alone. Archaeological features spurred him to dig in, excavate that hard place. What he foundconfirmed the religious and political conflicts characterising more than three hundred years of Irish history: a muck of bigotry under the walls, picking through shards and Williamite cannon balls. Not a single person took it seriously enough (turned tobanter too).

Delaney is angry at not having had time to see more of the poet (but dead at thirty-two!) and grieves that what seemeddeserved and promised was withheld from him.

Reduced to silence, the speaker envisions both archaeological artefacts retrieved and modern weaponry deliberately concealed, hidden bombs and nests of grenades: a cairn of stone force that might detonate …eggs of danger.

Delaney’s gift to him of a plaster cast of an abbess gently mild-mouthed and cowled, a character of grace is a source of delight, a candle in our house.

The courage at last to turn and look the ghost in the eye comes too late; Delaney has been replaced by a hunkering figure: a bleeding, pale-faced boy, the ghost of his second cousin Colum McCartney (a sectarian murder victim; see below), a revenantwith ‘axes to grind’.

McCartney fires pot-shots at the poet’s conscience, painting a picture of the Kilkenny Arts Week site at Jerford (where Heaney had a commitment at the moment of his murder), its flowers turned symbols of his own spilt blood (The red-hot pokers blazed a lovely red).

His allegations multiply:Heaney chose to stay there rather than showing flesh and blood solidarity at the victim’s funeral back in Bellaghy; the poets Heaney was hosting showed greater agitation at the news. Heaney defends his position: it was live news for outsiders, for him such things could be forecast as the repeated fate of folk in Ulster: I was dumb, encountering what was destined.

He alludes to his poemThe Strand of Lough Beg writtenin the boy’s memory. The random assassination of his kin had opened a void in him: seeing ( ) the strand empty at daybreakI felt like the bottom of a dried-up lake.

McCartney is relentless in his reproof: poetry cannot be a hiding-place; You confused evasion and artistic tact. Hedeclares Heaney indirectly guilty, proved by his presence on the island now as a form of atonement for a poetic response that whitewashed ugliness and drew/ the lovely blinds of the Purgatorio/ and saccharined my death with morning dew.

The poem’s cadence is in flat contrast to the lines that precede it: the pilgrim has awakened from a dream, back amongst pilgrim folk he does not know drifting to the hostel for the night.

  • granite: an extremely hard, dark coloured rock;
  • furrows: a ploughing analogy applied to the troughs of the waves;
  • St Brigid’s Bed: a pilgrim ‘station’ on the island dedicated to one of Ireland’s patron saints (alongside St Patrick to whom the basilica is dedicated);
  • Thomas Delaney (1947 – 1979): born in Dublin, educated at Blackrock College and University College, Dublin. His excavation work at Carrickfergus earned him a place as one of the country’s leading archaeologists. He was the only Irish member of the British Archaeological Society. At the time of his death he was head of the Department of Medieval Archaeology at the Queen’s University, Belfast; 
  • scribe: reference to the painstaking medieval clerics who in their monasteries made careful handwritten copies of manuscripts, preserving them for posterity;
  • straight-lipped smile: a juxtaposition of opposites Heaney’s phrase suggests impassiveness within the smile of the dead friend;
  • woodkerne: reference to wood-dwelling Irish rebels of old;
  • pulse: the throb of the heartbeat felt through pressure points around the body, e.g. inside the wrist
  • banter: easy,familiar conversation that includes exchange of personal comments;
  • covenants: the notion of agreements and promises echoing God’s arrangements with Man from the Bible;
  • obligation: to the general idea of ‘duty’ one may add the notion of a ‘binding religious pledge’;
  • physiognomies: more than just a synonym for ‘faces’, the term suggests human nature as discernible via facial features;
  • shards: from OE, the sharp fragments, splinters of pottery, glass;
  • Williamite: (opposite to Jacobite ) reference to protestant William III (also known as William of Orange, nicknamed ‘King Billy’ in Northern Ireland) who defeated Jacobite forces at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, still celebrated by Protestant loyalists;
  • basalt: a very hard stone akin to granite (above);
  • abbess: female abbot;
  • Gowran master: his specific identity is not revealed; the church of this historical Kilkenny village (associated with a siege by Oliver Cromwell’s forces in 1650) contains noteworthy statuary and carvings;
  • cowled: of a cleric ‘hooded’;
  • Colum McCartney: Heaney’s second cousin was murdered by Loyalist paramilitaries in 1975; at that very moment Heaney was organising a Kilkenny Arts Week event with distinguished participants;
  • hunkering: uncertain Scottish origin, ‘squatting’, ‘crouching’; compare ‘haunches’;
  • Jerpoint: An outstanding Cistercian abbey founded in the second half of the 12th century.
  • Bellaghy: a village of historical interest close to Heaney’s childhood home and where after his death in September 2013 the poet himself would be laid to rest;
  • the Fews: a medieval barony in South Armagh bordering Eire, marked by its forests; the area where Colum McCartney met his death
  • Lough Beg: a small freshwater lake north of Lough Neagh and east of Bellaghy, part of the general area of Heaney’s upbringing and scene of his 1979 elegy in memory of McCartney;
  • whitewashed: the white, lime-based liquid covering used for wall surfaces was subsequently used figuratively to suggest ‘concealment’, ‘cover-up’;
  • Purgatorio: Italian form of Purgatory; title of a Dante work;
  • saccharined: a man-made sugar substitute, used metaphorically as ‘oversweet’, ‘falsely sweet’;
  • two ghosts whose challenges provoke self-rebuke: Tom Delaney and Colum McCartney; the latter is the most unrelenting in his criticism of all the ghosts;
  • Heaney’s responses to issues surrounding the McCartney incident are recorded in DOD (p220): Colum was a distant relative not personally known to me; Heaney was represented by family at the wake; he admits that Colum’s presence and rôle in the poem however locate his personal feelings as somewhere between guiltandunease;
  • Heaney concedes that the dramatic dialogue was there to explore the whole idea of public poetry, thatthe‘creative’ and the ‘responsible’ are under interrogation. In the wider Irish context he suggests that he and Colum had been born into the same quietist, fatalistic tribe(ibid p222);
  • Accusations that Heaney had sometimes softened cruelty and sentimentalised brutal events were not new. Thecomment questions the validity and effectiveness of offering a lyric riposte to violenceMP(p200);
  • Colum McCartney utters the most unrelenting accusation in the sequence ( ) reproving the poetNC (p116);
  • Like Aeneas or Odysseus in the underworld, Heaney also meets fallen warriors. Most dramatically, he again encounters his assassinated cousin, already memorialized in the pastoral elegy, “The Strand at Lough Beg” (published in Field Work). Here Colum, the (second) cousin, the voice of accusation in Heaney’s own mind, accuses Heaney of having “saccharined my death with morning dew”. The poet repents, dreams up (in canto IX) the image of an old brass trumpet (poetry?). Heaney, angered by his own hesitancy of word and deed, turns it around once again turns it back on his psychic pilgrimage for the remission of sins Shaun O’Connellin the February 1985 issue of Boston Review:
  • MP feels that canto VIIIexposes the poet’s inadequacy in the face of death (p200):
  • In cantos VII, VIIIandIXfour dead men leave Heaney at his most exposed … each of them forces him to live their final moments, to scrutinise his conduct in the face of their deaths; exposure will lead Heaney via lame excuse through accusation , self-accusation to self-disgust and might be said to bea critical requirement of the pilgrimage which is to ‘chastise one’s own soul (MP p198);


  • nearly eighty lines of poetry built into 7 sections (S) of irregular length; a 38 sentence construct;
  • line length based upon 9/ 10 syllables; the single line exception points the finger of guilt;
  • following early free verse a clear rhyme pattern emerges, largely couplet based; variable sentence length, the interweaving of punctuated and enjambed phrases and later dialogue in imagined direct speech produce varying currents of flow and rhythm also affected by the emotions expressed;
  • S1 begins with a simple antithesis based on monochrome; bird and man both struggling against the elements; possessive pronoun hints at closeness; historical comparisons intrinsically Irish: rebel and academic; oxymoron: ‘straight-lipped smile’; comparison suggests pathetic fallacy: nature reflecting physical pain;
  • S2 is a monologue addressed to the ghost; comparison of stars and heartbeats; contrast between emotion and medical technology; vocabulary of empty failure, guilt and regretted severance;
  • S3 uses multiple compound phrases; description of religious archaeology, the thanklessness of the job and the ‘dirty’ history that is revealed; it ends with a cri-de-coeur;
  • S4 creates emotional associations including a gift that has outlived the giver; cinematic technique melts one scene into the next, a calm individual replaced by an aggressive ghost twisting the knife of guilt; dialogue reflects the actual historical events;
  • in S5 the poet sets out his defence and refers to what he feels proves he was not indifferent;
  • in S6 his appeal is rejected in language reflecting contemporary media sound-bites: ‘evasion’, ‘whitewashed’, ‘saccharined’ in the words of an untutored rebel who can refer to Dante!
  • the final triplet affords the relief of blessed anonymity;


  • the music of the poem: fourteen assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhyme , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text:

  • Analysis of Heaney’s poems reveals how deliberately he seeks alliterative effects that allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify his assonant melodies. Heaney deliberately deploys pairs or clusters of like consonants; these come and go as the poem develops, entering the sound narrative, dropping out or reappearing at interval; he rings the changes. The simplified phonetic table that follows will facilitate your own analysis. Consonant sounds are formed in various parts of the mouth; most of them come in pairs (and Heaney will often deploy both in combination in the same phrase or sentence or stanza): a voiceless version and a voiced version; for example [p] and [b] are identically formed but [b] requires input from the vocal chords whereas [p] is simply air modified by the lips.
  • Front-of-mouth sounds and their phonetic symbols:

voiceless bi-labial plosive [p] voiced bi-labial plosive [b]; voiceless labio-dental fricative [f] voiced labio-dental fricative [v]; bi-labial nasal [m]; bilabial continuant [w]

  • Behind-the-teeth sounds:

voiceless alveolar plosive [t] voiced alveolar plosive [d]; voiceless alveolar fricative as in church match[tʃ]; voiced alveolar fricative as in judge age [dʒ]; voiceless dental fricative [θ] as in thin path; voiced dental fricative as in this other [ð]; voiceless alveolar fricative [s] voiced alveolar fricative [z]; continuant [h] alveolar nasal [n] alveolar approximant [l]; alveolar trill [r]; dental ‘y’ [j] as in yet

  • Rear-of-mouth sounds:

voiceless velar plosive [k] voiced velar plosive [g]; voiceless post-alveolar fricative [ʃ] as in ship sure, voiced post- alveolar fricative [ʒ] as in pleasure; palatal nasal [ŋ] as in ring/ anger.

Sound it out for yourself and witness Heaney’s intricate sonic draughtsmanship.