An Ulster Twilight

A poet in his mid-forties revisits the lost domain of childhood at a festive time of year and confirms that the mystery of Christmas supersedes political boundaries.

The speaker pictures the disorderly workshop of a local carpenter and its disparate contents: spare bulb … scatter of nails; wood sorted into lengths and sizes (shelved timber); light reflected on tools (glinting chisels); the accommodation is modestly built of corrugated iron.

The carpenter concentrates on the task of smoothing the timber: Eric Dawson stoops to his plane. Time to complete his job is pressing: five o’clock on a Christmas Eve. The process is re-played before the watcher’s eyes: Carpenter’s pencil next followed by a series of tools and a final finishing touch: A rub with a rag of linseed oil.

Unbeknowns to Heaney at the time his Christmas present was being fashioned, not in Santa’s workshop in the far North, but within a stone’s throw of his home: A mile away it was taking shape/ The hulk of a toy battleship. The seasonable weather added to the late afternoon silence: waterbuckets iced and frost/ Hardened the quiet on roof and post.

Heaney reflects on time elapsed (by now he is himself forty years or so older, the carpenter therefore in his mid-fifties). He echoes his father’s version of the Father Christmas myth: That night I strained to hear the bell/ Of the sleigh of the mind. His excitement prevented sleep and he was aware, without comprehending its significance, of the arrival at his home of a stranger bearing a package: heard him pedal/ into our lane, steady his Raleigh bicycle.

The man was careful not to spoil the Santa myth, pausing to make sure/ The house was quiet, then with an apology for cutting it fine passing his package to Heaney’s expectant, peering mother.

The scene is crystal-clear to Heaney: Like shadows on your workshop wall. His sense-memory breathes in the resinous smell of wood shavings under the bench, feels the touch and temperature of heavy cold steel monkey-wrench/ In my soft hand (unused to hard manual labour). Now as if addressing the man on the bicycle he can still see your wavering tail-light fade.

Were Heaney and Eric Dawson ever to meet again In an Ulster twilight their conversation would inevitably revert to this Christmas happening, a speech all toys and carpentry.

The episode’s Christmas message proved stronger than evidence of fundamental differences between them: the Heaneys were Catholic, the Dawsons Protestant, the father a policeman: Your father’s uniform and gun.

Though never mentioned at the time, Heaney is relieved to have ‘got it off his chest’ in this poem: now that I have said it out -/ Maybe none the worse for that.

  • timber: the word preferred by carpenters and builders to mean ‘wood’ that has been prepared for use;
  • chisel: a tool with a sharp cutting edge, its handle of metal or wood so that hammer force can be applied if required;
  • plane: a box-shaped tool containing a wide cutting edge used to smooth, flatten and level lengths of timber;
  • carpenter’s pencil: different from the round version with pointed ‘lead’ used by schoolchildren, the carpenter’s pencil was broader so that the marks it made did not leave dents in the wood;
  • spoke-shave: a twin handled tool with a cutting edge in the centre was drawn towards the carpenter; it was used to shape wooden rods and shafts, for example the spokes of a wheel or a chair-leg;
  • fretsaw: a saw used for intricate woodwork whose narrow blade can cope with tight curves and delicate patterns;
  • auger: a hand-operated tool to drill holes in wood; its twin handles are turned laboriously by the carpenter; replaced nowadays by electrically-driven alternatives;
  • rasp: a long steel bar with teeth and handle used for shaping wood; the coarsest of the file family;
  • awl: a long pointed metal spike used to make a hole or scratch a mark on a length of timber;
  • linseed oil: a golden coloured liquid obtained from flax; the oil dries and can be used as a wood stain and preservative;
  • sleigh: an open horse-(reindeer-) drawn vehicle with metal runners for use in ice and snow; associated with Father Christmas;
  • Raleigh: a leading bicycle manufacturer, one of the oldest in the world, founded in the 1920’s and still in business;
  • whitewash: a low-cost type of paint made from slaked lime and chalk, much less commonly used now than in the 1940’s;
  • wood shavings: pieces removed from a length of timber by many of the tools mentioned above, especially planes; to be seen lying around the floors of carpenters’ workshops
  • monkey-wrench: an adjustable metal wrench generally used by tradesmen for heavier tasks; a word attested in the 19th century, derivation uncertain;
  • tail-light: in darkness bicycles are required by Law to carry both a front light and a red rear-light (here ‘tail’);
  • Heaney revealed to DODthat in this piece ‘the toy battleship that I’m to get for Christmas is being made by the local carpenter … On Christmas Eve my father would tell us (Father Christmas is) on his way now, coming round Slieve Gallon and if you listen hard you’ll maybe hear the sleigh bells’ (p255).
  • Heaney recalls by name a local carpenter much in demand before Christmas time and is familiar with his workshop;he recounts an episode that might have scuppered the childhood myth of Father Christmas;
  • the sectarian dimension: the poet eventually realised a harrowing truth via his contacts with the carpenter: Your father’s uniform and gun; as Heaney grewhe would become aware of the Protestant Royal Ulster Constabulary’s reputation in the Catholic community;
  • ultimately, Heaney who deplored violence from any quarter and would not be drawn into ‘taking sides’ retained a spirit of reconciliation;political differences at the time did not interfere with the commission;
  • nine quatrains; line length between 4 and 10 syllables; rhyme scheme aa/bb (tight, loose or assonant);
  • six-sentence construct; considered use of enjambed lines provides ebb and flow in delivery;
  • initial canvas is as down-to-earth as the carpenter’s premises;
  • the physical distance between maker and recipient is coloured by Christmas; the central section combines time-passing and make-believe (‘sleigh of the mind’) and the clandestine nature of the delivery is witnessed; direct speech added;
  • vocabulary of the second half provides texture, smell and a visual, film-like departure;
  • 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:

  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies: Q1 features voiced and voiceless plosives: bi-labials [p] [b]; alveolars [t] [d]; velars [k] [g]; Q2 pairs voiceless labio-dental fricative [f] and voiced labio-dental fricative [v] alongside [p] and alveolar trill [r]; Q3 features fricative variations [s] and voiceless post-alveolar fricative [ʃ] (‘ship’) interwoven with voiceless velar plosive [k]; Q4 makes frequent use of bi-labial nasal [m] and alveolar nasal [n], adding alveolar approximant [l], the latter carried into Q5 that also features voiced velar plosive [g] and a pair of voiceless velar plosive [k]; Q6 pairs voiceless bi-labial plosive [p] and voiceless post-alveolar fricative [ʃ] as in ‘shadows’ then voiceless velar plosive [k]; Q7 interweaves [s] [ʃ] [tʃ] (‘wrench‘) with alveolar plosives [t] [d] plus [w] that will echo into Q8 alongside nasals [m] [n] and a pair of voiceless bi-labial plosives [p]; Q9 merges a selection of previous consonant sounds;

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