An Aisling in the Burren

The direction in which life takes people distances them from places to which they are emotionally attached. The allure of the Burren has never faded: A time was to come when we yearned… They are back.

Poetic focus settles warmly on the animal, vegetable and mineral riches of its northern shore (overlooking the Bay of Galway), its considerable provision of small sea-fish along eel-drugged flats, its sea-weed and bird life. Nature’s species have evolved: vexed by sea-water brine-maddened grass ensures earthly riches of biblical proportions: the aftermath of the reign of the meek.

Other developments (political, social, or environmental) are not nearly so rosy: what the speaker can see is as much of hope that the purest/ and saddest were prepared to allow for; the land is in trouble.

The stage is thus set for the arrival of the ‘aisling’ presence and she does not disappoint. She is no Botticelli Venus blown onto a Mediterranean shore on a scallop shell; she is rather the product of a natural Atlantic phenomenon: licked with the wet cold fires of St Elmo.

She is a spiritual envoy sent to the Burren, an angel of the last chance, with urgent lessons to teach. Attention re-focuses on what is under threat: the fish in the rock … the fern’s/ bewildered tenderness deep in the fissure.

What started out as a recreational scramble over rough terrain with its audible clatter of stones assumes the proportions of a Sermon on the Mount, awakening conscience and the urgent need for healing. Failure is not an option: the Aisling’s face reveals all: her tears a startling deer/ on the site of catastrophe.

  • aisling: the Irish word for ‘dream’ or ‘vision’ was adopted to describe a poetic genre written in the Irish language (17th and 18th centuries): allegorically Ireland appears in the shape of a woman, young or old, lamenting the state of Ireland under Protestant rule but optimistic about Irish revival; ‘Aisling’ is roughly translated as an ‘apparition’, kindled here by St Elmo’s Fire, a natural phenomenon with superstitious connotations.
  • The Burren is a region in County Clare in the west of Ireland (Galway Bay washes its northern edge).
  • flats and dunes: features of the coast line, the former sea-floor, the latter sandy hillocks;
  • dulse: a form of algae, seaweed;
  • drugged: the derivation ‘drug’ via OF suggests no more than ‘provision’ or ‘stock’; more recent association with narcotics and opiates adds a second line of suggestion;
  • brine: salt water;
  • dykes: natural or man-made walls or embankments that regulate water levels; levées;
  • meek/ purest: cf.Matthew chapter5, verse 5 from the Beatitudes: Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth; blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God;
  • Botticelli’s Renaissance painting ‘The Birth of Venus’ (in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy) depicts the naked Venus emerging from the sea, standing in a shell;
  • fires of St Elmo: a luminescent phenomenon emanating from cold seas, a mirage; St Elmo the guardian saint of sailors;
  • fissure: the limestone ‘pavements’ of the Burren are characterised by crevices in which plants take root;
  • The poem has much to do with roots and associations concerned as it is with the need to protect a unique environment; salvation will only be achieved by the most intimate respect for Irish inheritance in all its forms. what is ostensibly environmental has thinly veiled social, political and religious connotations;
  • The Burren is presented as a place where Heaney had a vision, climbed a metaphorical ‘mount’ on which a sermon was preached and carried a message away;
  • an octet and two quintets forming a four sentence structure; line length from 6 to 10 syllables; some loose rhymes initially but no formal scheme;
  • more enjambed lines than punctuated ones, influencing rhythm and flow of oral delivery;
  • use of compound adjectives stitches multiple ideas into the hyphenated phrase;
  • the lyrical language echoes the initial feeling of yearning; spiritual responses via biblical references;
  • onomatopoeia ‘clattered’;
  • spirit symbol not from classical Art à la Botticelli but a message from the earth itself;
  • deer motif re-emerges: like the poet, a nervous onlooker;
  • 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:

  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies: the nasal sounds of the tile are carried into V1 joined by alveolar plosives [t] [d], a pair of bilabial plosive [b] and a sequence of voiceless alveolar fricative [s] with echoes of bilabial [p]; V2 adds a series of voiceless post-alveolar fricative [ʃ] of ‘she’ ‘shell’ ‘fissure’; initial alveolar [l] sounds are overtaken by labio-dental fricative [f] within a continuo of alveolar plosives [t] [d]; V3 features velar plosive [k] and a final cluster of voiceless alveolar fricative [s];

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