Navigating the ‘Station Island’ Collection

Contents Foreword followed by: Main Sources; the Structure of Station Island; biographical ‘events’ between 1976-1984; the collection and its moment; Heaney’s ‘book of changes’; ‘hampering stuff’; Catholic beginnings; loss of faith; breaking loose; the political dimension; ‘Troubles’ timeline; poetry and politics: retaining a neutral voice; reconciling the clash between politics and poetry; the redemptive power of Art; Irishness;   the […]


  Station Island, published by Faber and Faber in 1984, is Seamus Heaney’s seventh collection. Heaney is in his mid-forties. The totality of his collections over more than half a century since Death of a Naturalist (1966) have confirmed his place at the very top of the premier league of poets writing in English. The textual commentaries that follow seek […]

The Underground

Heaney dramatises an incident from his honeymoon, dissolving a panicky rush into a version of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Underground and Underworld merge in a fusion of reality and nightmare. A London Underground tunnel is the unifying factor: first a memory played out (then),the intimate recollection of a mad rush to get to a Promenade concert at the […]

La Toilette

The early-morning embrace of a loved one recalls unwelcome memories of Heaney’s Catholic training. The die is cast, however: Marie’s is Heaney’s new sacred body. Initial sensual contact focuses on the nightwear and body of a woman engaged at her ‘toilette’. The speaker’s voice reveals the excitement generated by the way she presents herself: bathrobe/ ungirdled, first coldness of the […]

Away from it All

The poem should be read in the context of the ‘Troubles’ in Ulster at a time of internment without trial, of the H-Blocks at Long Kesh and of hunger strikers. Heaney, a poet in the public eye, acknowledges that he has often been absent from Ulster as events unfolded; he has sympathy for ’causes’, but is unsure what stance he […]

Chekhov on Sakhalin

These instances from a political pilgrimage are dedicated to fellow Ulster man of Letters Derek Mahon (to whom Heaney’s Seeing Things collection is dedicated); amongst their numerous contacts Heaney and Mahon shared, in 1977, an Arts Council tour entitled In Their Element; The poem should be read in the context of the Troubles in Ulster at a time of internment […]

Sandstone Keepsake

The poem should be read in the context of the Troubles in Ulster at a time of internment without trial, of H-Blocks at Long Kesh and hunger strikers. Heaney is holding a stone that he once picked up on the border separating Ulster from the Irish Republic. It comes to symbolise the speaker’s inner conflict in face of the whole […]

Shelf Life

Memories are awakened by items that sit on ‘surfaces’ within Heaney’s private space; contrary tothe modern term ‘shelf-life’ that sets out the time it takes for perishables to become unfit for consumption, Heaney’s items remain timeless, have no ‘sell-by-date’. Heaney maps out his private space (in) six terse lyrics (MP p187); 1. Granite Chip The speaker once hammered a piece […]

A Migration

The title introduces an all-female family group that has moved communities for reasons of necessity. Their new accommodation, close to where the speaker lives, is down-at-heel: leaking roof ../ cracked dormer windows. The identities of those involved are clarified. Standing out in his memory is the adolescent Brigid and the life-style imposed upon her: the sharing of a crowded bed; […]

Last Look

The poet recounts the speaker’s last sighting of an old man taking his last look at the environment in which he has spent his life. Heaney’s in memoriam is addressed to the memory E.G. and though we later learn the man’s family name, no further identity is provided.   A couple out for a spin above the sea-shore come across […]

Remembering Malibu

Dedicated to Brian Moore, Belfast novelist and friend, remembered by Heaney for his ‘kindness’ and his invitation to the Heaney family to visit him and his wife at their home in Malibu around 1970. New experiences challenge old attachments, transition is in the making. The first of two ‘American’ poems and first of a series of poems of transit and […]

Making Strange

A further symptom of the poet in transition: when the New world meets the Old things collide. When professional development brings change the voice of poetry must move on. The speaker is at the interface of old and new as if separating irreconcilables: I stood between them. The living symbol of Heaney’s new world possesses a sophisticated travelled intelligence, combining […]

The Birthplace

Heaney and his wife are at Upper Bockhampton near Dorchester paying their respect to the spirit of English novelist and poet Thomas Hardy (1840-1928). The 3-poem sequence explores associations with the poet and his birthplace. Heaney recalled the experienceslipping in en passant a reference to the significance of ‘station’ in a collection that includes the word in its title:The trees […]


A further example of poet in transition: a father and his child witness a special natural phenomenon; the experience provides him with an example of ‘change’ and with it a snippet of wisdom to be stored for the future. As in silence theyapproach an emblematic Irish pump, long since disused (in the long grass)the child knows not to speak. The […]

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 […]

A Bat on the Road

  The epigraph is borrowed from James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: A batlike soul waking to consciousness of itself in darkness and secrecy and loneliness. The final nouns defining the main ingredients of bat-like existence (shortage of light/ enlightenment; drawing back from human contact; isolation even outsider status) are equally the metaphorical embodiment of the […]

A Hazel Stick for Catherine Ann

The father recalls a stick he fashioned for his young daughter. Elements that were fleeting (gone), enduring (kept), animate (salmon) and inanimate (hazel twig) turned an everyday event into something remarkable. Compared to ephemeral natural examples (the living mother-of-pearl of a salmon/ just out of the water) the emblematic stick’s colourings were more enduring; it kept salmon-silver as it matured (seasoned)Ownership of […]

A Kite for Michael and Christopher

A second poem about family lines: initially a father with his own father then this same father with his sons. The poem contains various themes: parenthood, the human condition, belief and doubt, the tethered spirit, the fate of being Irish. It is about ‘sticking together’. A generation ago All through that Sunday afternoon the kite flew,literally high in the sky, metaphorically […]

The Railway Children

This touching poem portrays a world reduced to the dimensions of a child’s imagination. The speaker is one of a group of youngsters, brothers and sisters perhaps, exploring their neighbourhood. Their play brings them to the railway line. Mounting the slopes of the cutting brings them to the same height as the overhead cables (eye-level with the white cups/ Of […]


Beauty is fragile but it has a way of surviving the imaginative strategies of an inexperienced young gardener. The piece’s launch mimics the colloquial question asked half a century ago of people whose approach to a task turned out to be short-sighted:’ What did Thought do?(A typical response might have been ‘he followed a muck-cart and thought it was a […]

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 […]


A short piece dedicated to fellow Irishman Paul Muldoon (b.1951); eminent Irish poet; Pulitzer Prizefor Poetry; T.S. Eliot Prize winner;Oxford Professor of Poetry (1999 – 2004). The bird is an innocent victim of Man’s hunting instincts. Correspondences with the victims of contemporary sectarian violence emerge strongly and the poet raises a critical finger against injustice, his compassion evident in both […]

Sheelagh na Gig

A three-poem sequence that celebrates a stone block Sheelagh na Gig, one of many, projecting from beneath the eaves of 12th century Norman/ Romanesque church at Kilpeck near the city of Hereford in England. I The positioning of the block is pinpointed. The figure crouches hunkering, high on the church-wall: We look up at her…/ under the eaves. The block […]

The Loaning

This sequence of three poems is inspired by an Ulster lane in a landscape very familiar to the poet. The poems share the sounds of nature or reflect the demeanour of rural folk in one form or another. The focus of the sequence shifts between fiction and reality: an initial surreal animation, then a scene of Ulstermen accustomed to each […]

The Sandpit

Heaney’s title refers to the piles of sand in which youngsters were delighted to play. His four-poem sequence expands the idea to reveal the impact made on the impressionable young Heaney by the post WWII construction period. The speaker, now an adult, provides retrospective insights and judgements; the child he was is omnipresent. The poem offers a further dimension: both […]

The King of the Ditchbacks

is dedicated to John Montague, man of Letters, born in New York (1929) and brought up in Ireland. Montague dedicated his poem ‘Hearth Song’ to Heaney and worked successfully with him in recording their work for Claddagh Records (1968). DOD (p495) In the final three poem sequence of Part 1 Heaney introduces the Sweeney of Sweeny Astray and Sweeney Redevivus […]

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. […]

Station Island – the Sequence I

The first piece follows the aftermath of a young man’s decision to ‘go with the spiritual flow’ and undertake the pilgrimage. A dissenting voice pressures him in vain to abandon the pilgrimage and urges him to overcome the orthodoxy of his upbringing. The early-morning Sunday sounds that summon folk to worship are sudden and urgent: A hurry of bell notes, […]

Station Island – the Sequence II

Heaney’s self-scrutiny is pursued in his encounter with the ghost of William Carleton (see below) on the road to Lough Derg. Carleton’s emphasis concerns politics and social turbulence. Pausing on the journey (parked on a high road)and savouring the sights and sounds of nature around him Heaney’s preoccupations are interrupted: something came to life in the driving mirror. The ghost […]

Station Island – the Sequence III

The pilgrim has gone to one of Station Island’s ‘beds’. His initial humble posture (I knelt)is followed by a pause: Hiatus.. This is not prayer but rather obedience of the protocols of the pilgrimage, a ‘pervasive element’ from Heaney’s Catholic upbringing. The mindset (Habit’s afterlife) has transported him back to bead clicks and the murmurs/ from inside confessionals. Textures and […]

Station Island – the Sequence IV

Heaney encounters the ghost of Terry Keenan whom he knew from childhood and who became a missionary father in the tropical rain forests. The certainty of Keenan’s religious convictions conflicts with Heaney’s lapsing/ lapsed status (the pilgrim stands with his backto the religious icons at the outset of the poem). The piece reflects upon religious certainty and the status of […]

Station Island – the Sequence V

  The poet encounters three figures who have influenced his personal development. The first is with an old man finding forward momentum difficult: his hands, like soft paws rowing, who groped for and warded off the air ahead. He is identified first by name and then by schoolmaster status: Barney … Master. Murphy’s debilitated shuffle and weakened voice are shadows of […]

Station Island – the Sequence VI

  The pilgrim achieves sexual freedom. The happening is presented as a real event and not just the fantasy of a young Catholic adolescent male indulging in a brazen carnal act on a hallowed site. The poem’s third sonnet sets out the sexually frustrated adolescence that preceded it. Twenty-five years before Heaney encountered a girl without a name, a child […]

Station Island – the Sequence VII

The pilgrim has walked down to the water-line and felt soothed by just looking at it. The clear barometer of the water has brought relief from the issues that trouble him. There he sensed a presence un-reflected in the water (because a ghost has no mass to reflect). Hearing the sound of his name was unexpected: entering into my concentration/ […]