Heaney has chanced upon a passage decribing the system within Ancient Rome that regarded outsiders/ vanquished races as second class and subservient but who, with exposure to what was civilizedly Roman and the right attitude, might be permitted freedom status. Heaney unites title, epigraph and narrative to introduce the transformation that liberated him from previous control: the undergraduate period that allowed him to cast aside both Protestant Unionist domination that usurped his sense of Irishness and the Catholic markings of tribe, caste and conditioning that dominated his upbringing. First the Orange Unionist sway to which the mild mid-Ulster Hibernian tradition exposed the Catholic minority (subjugated yearly under arches); then his personal search for academic corroboration (manumitted by parchments and degrees); […]

Singing School

A sequence of 6 poems grouped under a title borrowed from WB Yeats’ Sailing to Byzantium: ‘Nor is there singing school but studying/ Monuments of its own magnificence’. The 2 epigraphs compare contrasting roots: the first is from Wordsworth, reflecting on his gentle apolitical, ‘English’, Church-of England childhood; the second from WB Yeats reflecting much more aggressively his ‘politicised’ Irish Protestant childhood; The sequence of 6 poems explores some of the conditioning cultural circumstances of SH’s own biography (NC79); 1 The Ministry of Fear 2 A Constable Calls 3 Orange Drums 4 Summer 1969 5 Fosterage 6 Exposure

1 The Ministry of Fear

dedicated to Seamus Deane. Heaney identifies two systems that brought their repressive regimes to bear on him as an individual with a mind of his own. Such was the trepidation that their rules of conduct generated that in the poem he reprises the notion of incarceration in The Unknown Legislator’s Dream. Though the piece is bedded in Heaney’s real-life experiences in Ireland the title alludes to the bureaucracies of oppressive states in post WWII Eastern Europe. Sandwiched between them is a short account of Heaney’s red-blooded male frustrations! The initial interjection (well) announces that Heaney is poised to speak – of events from his personal biography – his important places borrowed from Patrick Kavanagh’s Epic of 1938. His first ‘monument’ […]

2 A Constable Calls

The poem is a tour de force – a simple and hugely atmospheric vignette depicting an incident in the life of a minority Catholic farming family in a Protestant-ruled province called Northern Ireland. What we know about the principal actors renders it unmistakably autobiographical – fly-on-the-wall boy Heaney senses his father might be attempting to deceive authority but gives him the benefit of the doubt. Heaney provides the ingredients of a compelling psychological drama: an atmosphere of threat; an attentive youngster; an interrogation; a father’s lie; a moral dilemma that tests the innocence of the listening boy; the threat receding. The ‘poet-film-director’ employs all the zooms, pans and slow-motions of cinematic technique. The boy’s eye is the camera, his ear […]

3 Orange Drums

Heaney paints a caricature in words of a figure prominent in a Protestant Unionist parade. The poet’s distaste for the tone and tenor of the event and for what its emblematic drummer stands for is immediately obvious. The lambeg drummer at the resembles an overpowering fusion, his size and mass doubled by the bulk and weight of his drum and evident in the lexis of obesity (balloons…belly … weighs … buckles). The sound he produces is part of the whole (lodging thunder), a bullying unsavoury emanation (grossly) from his groin area. He cuts a paradoxical figure – what boosts his psychology (raised up) is more than his physical frame can cope with (buckles under). As if each arm has a […]

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 […]

5 Fosterage

For Michael McLaverty In Ancient Ireland young aspirants were fostered to other members of the clan for their education. Heaney recounts his earliest encounter with the Headmaster, coincidentally one of Ireland’s finest short-story writers, who took him on as a trainee teacher. Michael McLaverty fitted the ‘fosterage’ bill perfectly via the experience he offered a modest ‘rookie’ searching for both poetic voice and career. A quotation from Wallace Stevens extolling the use of description in creative writing (Heaney will follow his tip in this very piece), a timing (Heaney was 23 and recently graduated with a First Class degree in English from Queen’s University Belfast – newly cubbed in language), a meeting place in the smart administrative centre of the […]

6 Exposure

Exposure  is deliberately placed as the collection’s coda for reasons of emphasis, impact and confessional self-revelation. Heaney takes stock of changes to his personal circumstances, his role and function as poet and public voice, the immediate world around him and current events. The poem is all about whether he has stepped up to the mark or fallen short. In conversation with Henri Cole in Harvard University’s Paris review no 75. Heaney explained the emotional build-up expressed in his closing poem:  … leaving the north didn’t break my heart. The solitude was salubrious. Anxiety, after all, can coexist with determination. The anxiety in a poem like “Exposure” is about whether the work that comes out of this move is going to […]


Countdown to extremes of violence prior to the troubled period 1969 – 75. The following time-line seeks to set out some key dates before concentrating on the period during which North was taking shape. Whilst far from comprehensive it gives an idea of the tensions and fear that might exist on a day-to-day basis punctuated by the incidents listed below. 1801:Act of Union – Ireland and Britain formally united; 1905:Creation of Sinn Fein – a political party with the aim of freeing Ireland from British rule; 1913: Creation of Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) – formed of Protestants who opposed Irish Home Rule; 1916:Easter Uprising Irish Catholics proclaim an Irish Republic in Dublin, brutally suppressed by the British army. The Easter […]