Heaney sets out the tangle of contradictions and demarcations with which his brain was confronted from an early age. The poet tells Neil Corcoran just how confusing he found Mossbawn boundaries following the commentaries below.

The frontman Heaney selects for the title of his triptych is the Roman god of boundaries able to look in both directions, something Heaney feels a poet should aspire to. Perhaps also, as history has recorded, the position reached by Heaney’s earl character in the final couplet was equally a ‘terminus’ point for Irish unification.

The first two parts of the poem set out the doubleness of young Heaney’s experience, conflicting sets of evidence arranged in left-right fashion and organized within the framework of lived experience. Part III focuses on boy Heaney finding his balance.


The first piece is set in a field at Mossbawn. On regular walks around the property (Heaney uses the habitual conditional form would find) the inquisitive youngster poked around (hoked). The items he found spoke of demarcation lines: an emblem of Mother Nature’s thirst for renewal (acorn) alongside discarded evidence of deteriorating railway track that ran alongside the domain (rusted bolt).

When he looked about him he saw local industry in the shape of Clark’s linen works in Castledawson village (factory chimney) and farther afield the volcanic plug (dormant) of Slemish mountain.

Within earshot the Age of Steam re-ordered freight trucks on the railway line (an engine shunting) whilst folk still went past the farm using the transport of yore (trotting horse).

As Heaney developed and times changed, what he initially accepted as ‘that’s-how-it-is’ – the collision between traditional and modern,  man-made and organic, temporary and timeless – was bound to come under heavy scrutiny (second thoughts).

  • Terminus: Roman god of Boundaries;
  • hoke: Irish slang rummage;
  • shunt: manoeuvre trains and trucks;
  • dormant mountain: Slemish Mountain, the legendary first known Irish home of Saint Patrick, is located in County Antrim. The mountain rises about 1500 feet (437 metres) above the surrounding plain, and forms the central core of an extinct volcano. According to legend, shepherd Patrick later St Patrick worked on Slemish Mountain for about six years turning to frequent prayer for consolation in his loneliness. It was said his conversion took place on Slemish so the mountain is a spiritual landmark attracting large crowds on St Patrick’s Day (17 March) who make their way, often bare-footed, to the summit and back.
  • second thoughts: rethink, re-appraisal;


Heaney turns his attention to his training –firstly a fable he was taught (when they spoke) perhaps in a school assembly describing one of the world’s modest creatures (prudent squirrel) instinctively storing food to survive lean times and building a hoard embedded in a different rhetoric: the Catholic Church’s stentorian rejection of individual wealth (mammon of iniquity) that left Heaney with a guilty burning feeling in his pocket (coins reddened like stove-lids).

So there he was stuck, in a watery no-man’s-land between Mossbawn and the world beyond (the march drain and the march drain’s banks) struggling to evaluate what the influences in his life were contending (suffering the limit of each claim).

  • prudent: wise, far-sighted;
  • hoard: treasure stored away;
  • mammon of iniquity: wealth regarded as an evil influence or false object of worship and devotion; Heaney questions whether the Catholic Church is in an honourable position when it possesses great wealth of its own yet promotes teachings suggesting that the rich have less chance of acceding to heaven than a camel ‘through the eye of a needle’;
  • redden: glow red with heat;
  • march drain: watercourse marking a boundary between properties
  • suffer: be afflicted/ tested by;


Heaney who would become the Incertus of his earliest poetry is the young fellow striving to find his balance amidst conflicting pressures (I grew up in between). He recalls a farmyard practice (two buckets easier carried than one) that offers a means of weighing one side against the other and selecting his own preferred position.

A scale-pan metaphor serves his purpose; in one pan the orthodox view (standard iron weight) … in the other the tiny personal granule that might suffice to tip (tilt) the balance.

The sheer complexity of actual demarcations converging at Mossbawn (where I was born) conjures up the land divisions and power bases of Tudor occupation (baronies) and those of church control (parishes), leaving him faltering on the central stepping stone.

Heaney’s imagination goes into overdrive: he becomes an important historical player refighting an old battle (last earl on horseback) not prepared to budge (in midstream), still in obstinate negotiation (parleying) so he and his Northern Irish followers (in earshot of his peers) may escape the exile that will snuff out any chance of the Indigenous Irish population expelling the invader. To succeed in reordering history would meet with Milosz’ unreserved approval: ‘What is poetry, he asked, which does not save/ Nations or people?’

  • standard: set, fixed, established;
  • tilt: add from a side-angle
  • barony/ parish: land subdivisions attributable originally to the 16th Tudor conquest of Ireland; land was divided up between anglo-scottish settlers who had been ‘planted’ on the local population
  • stepping stone: raised stone enabling people to cross a stream without getting wet;
  • last earl: The Flight of the Earls took place in September 1607, when Hugh O’Neill, 2nd Earl of Tyrone, and Rory O’Donnell, 1st Earl of Tyrconnell, and about ninety followers, left Ulster in Ireland for mainland Europe.
  • parley: discussion seeking agreement between opposing sides in a dispute;
  • earshot: the range or distance within which one can be heard;
  • peer: equal in status;
  • 3 poems in couplets (4+3+4); variable line length; unrhymed;
  • I in 3 sentences; local usage ‘hoked;
  • Past tenses; habitual conditional ‘would find’;
  • Contrasts natural/ man-made favourable to nature;
  • assonant pairings and triplet: [əʊ] hoked…bolt; [ai] my eyes; [ɪə] factory chimney; [ɔː] dormant…horse…thought;
  • alliterations: velar [k]; alveolar [t/d]; nasals [m/n]’ front of mouth [w];
  • II 3 couplets in 3 sentences;
  • kindly or imperative voice according to provenance;
  • vocabulary oif demarcation: march…limit;
  • assonant pairings and chains t: [əʊ] spoke…stove; [ei] drain…claim; [i] squirrel…gifts…nativity…iniquity…lids…limit;
  • alliterations: sibilants [s/sh]; bilabial [p/b]; alveolar [t/d]; nasals [m/n]
  • III 4 couplets in 6 sentences;
  • assonances: [i:] easy…between; [ei]placed…weight…grain…stream…earshot…peers;
  • alliterative chains: velar [k/g], bi-labial [b/p], alveolar [t], nasals [m/n]

In conversation with Neil Corcoran in 1985 : SH From the beginning I was very conscious of boundaries… there was a drain or stream, the Sluggan drain, an old division that ran very close to our house. It divided the townland of Tamniarn from the townland of Anahorish and those two townlands belonged in two different parishes, Bellaghy and Newbridge, which are also in two different dioceses: the diocese of Derry ended at the Sluggan drain and the diocese of Armagh began. I was always going backwards and forwards. I went to school in Anahorish School, so I learnt the Armagh catechism; but I belonged, by birth and enrolment, to Bellaghy parish. So I didn’t go with the rest of the school to make my first communion in Newbridge. And when I was confirmed in Bellaghy, the bishop had to ask us these ritual questions and I didn’t know the Derry catechism. When we moved to the other end of the parish when I was fourteen, I still played football for Castledawson, though I was living in the Bellaghy team’s district. I seemed always to be a little displaced; being in be­tween was a kind of condition, from the start.

  • Heaney is a meticulous craftsman using combinations of vowel and consonant to form a poem that is something to be listened to.
  • 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;
  • syllables without highlight are largely the unstressed sound as in common, little [ə]

  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats, soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies; this is sonic engineering of the first order;
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;


2 thoughts on “Terminus

Join the Conversation - Leave a comment