Part Two: Station Island – the Sequence

Part 2 traces a ‘pilgrim’s progress’; Heaney composes a sequence of 12 poems under a chosen topological heading. At least twenty five years separate his original experiences on Station Island and the moment at which he chooses the location to draw together the different strands.

Much water has passed beneath Heaney’s emotional, ethical, aesthetic and spiritual bridges in the interim. The older poet and his younger self face a selection of ‘ghosts’ who express their opinions or respond to Heaney’s inner conflicts some of which have remained obstinately present despite the passage of time;

the ghosts are friendly, sad, self-defining, exemplary, admonitory, rebuking (NC p115).
the ghosts are predominantly shades the poet own dream-life who have actually existed in Ireland; designed to probe his own commitment ( ) inhabitants of the actual Irish world ( ) their conversations turn on the living of a proper life or on the production of significant art ( ) advisers, from beyond the grave, on the poet’s responsibilities in the realms of ethics and aesthetics (NC p116).
The pilgrimage site featured in this section is to found on a small rocky isle in the middle of Lough Derg in Co. Donegal dominated by a basilica dedicated to St Patrick. The three day pilgrimage involves a punitive schedule of praying, fasting and barefoot walking. Pilgrims were accommodated in a modest hostel;

The penitential ‘Beds’ on Station Island derive from the Celtic monastic period. They were reconstructed remains of monastic cells or oratories where monks might spend time alone to pray. They are rings of boulders and rough stones embedded up-endedly in the soil, some on a steep incline; in the centre of each stands a crucifix; the beds are dedicated to seven saints, each having some association with the area; a Franciscan Friar, Michael O’Cleary, recounted that the pilgrimage was being performed as early as1600, the earliest systematic account to survive.
Station Island is the name for a nexus of Irish Catholic religious, historical and cultural affiliations (NC p115).

The nature of the pilgrimage:
Heaney explains how the the first of  three Lough Derg experiences came about:  I’d been hearing about Lough Derg since I was a youngster about people in earlier generations doing the ‘black fast’ ( ) eventually I set off (with University friends in a  mixed group) for the company and the outing  (this first occasion followed undergraduate exams at Queen’s, so in Heaney’s late teens, 1957 or 1958, perhaps) … there was a flirtatious aspect to the trip. But there was a religious dimension too (DOD pp232-233);
The fasting and the all-night vigil had the attraction of the unknown …end-of-term expeditions … it’s possible at this stage to see them as rites of passage (DOD ibid);
At this stage in his life , Heaney explains, religion was still a pervasive element. Lough Derg was a ritual, it entailed the fulfilment of set exercises, the repetition of prayers, keeping a fast, going round the basilica and ‘the beds’ in your bare feet (DOD ibid);
Technically speaking there was a plenary indulgence to be gained from completing the pilgrimage but the real motivation was in pitting yourself against the conditions. At the end of it there was a definite catharsis (DOD ibid);

Lough Derg and the examination of conscience:
Heaney describes the sequence as more of an examination of conscience than a confession written to release an inner pressure, providing a medium for different voices; a poem cycle with a central protagonist on his fixed route through the pilgrimage … a three day station, no heaven, no hell, just ‘Patrick’s Purgatory’, which is how the place is known to this day (DOD p234-5);
Heaney reveals that Dante’s meetings with ghosts in ‘Purgatorio’ was the first mover of the sequence according to (DOD p234);
Heaney indicates that the timing of Station Island  was no coincidence (he was in and out of Northern Ireland during a period of particular political turbulence): the radical sequence was composed in order to have it out with myself, to clear my head, if not the decks (DOD p236);
Heaney clarifies: The predominant hauntings, the things that stirred behind the sequence and got it going were generally to do with Northern Ireland politics. The examination of conscience was conducted mainly in that arena (DOD p247);
NC  adds other issues: The second section, also entitled ‘Station Island’, is an autobiographical account of Heaney’s second journey to the island. Here he considers the purpose and power of a poet’s occupation, especially in regards to how he or she might speak to political issues- in his case, the Troubles in Northern Ireland in particular.
Shaun O’Connell suggests that the tripartite structure of the collection seems inspired by Joyce’s assertion (through Stephen Dedalus) that “art necessarily divides itself into three forms progressing from one to the next”: lyrical, epical, and dramatic. Part II carries him through Station Island’s penitent grounds, where he encounters visions of the dead, figures who include assassinated friends and Joyce himself. This section is “epical,” the “form wherein he [the poet] presents his image in mediate relation to himself and others,” as Joyce’s Stephen (in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man of 1914-15) put it. (first published in the February 1985 issue of Boston Review)
Added dimensions:
It is within the poetic rites and penitential encounters of the title sequence … that one discovers Heaney’s most sustained attempt at achieving absolution and permission as a writer. In order to resolve the competing claims of orthodoxy and individuality and to enquire into his own conduct, Heaney engages in dialogue with ‘figures from the unconscious’ ( )  the process of individuation (MPp192);
Heaney’s poetry .. is now in the process of successfully negotiating what is, for any poet, a difficult phase in a career: the transition from one mode and manners that have created a reputation, to the genuinely new and unexpected thing (NC p112;
‘Again and again Heaney pulls back from political purposes; despite its emblems of savagery Station Island lends no rhetorical comfort to Republicanism. Politic about politics, “Station Island” is less about a united Ireland than about a poet seeking religious and aesthetic unity’ Shaun O’Connell from the February 1985 issue of Boston Review;

Further unattributed reflections:
a sequence motivated by politics seeks to transcend politics;
the debate centres around living the proper life and producing significant art; the poet is for the author the pilgrimage leads rather to a renunciation of Catholic religion and values, or kind of retraction;
the notion of personal sexual love replaces the orthodox notion of divine love;
freedom from orthodoxy may be won using mentors and poetry itself;
no true pilgrimage fakes place;

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