Heaney pursues the anonymity of his parable format but let it be known via his contribution to an Irish Hospice Foundation book published a month after his death in 2013 that The Mud Vision is a poem embedded in memories of life in an older Ireland but it also gestures towards an Ireland that is still coming into being. It has its origins in certain incidents in my personal past and has its meaning in intimations of what seems to be happening in the national psyche, at present and for the future.
The circumstances and triggers that led to the poem, Heaney’s further responses, the thoughts of other commentators and press reports are fascinating. This commentary is followed by a comprehensive Background section below.
The Mud Vision is a dramatic monologue, spoken by a member of a community that has the trappings of modernity but not the spirit of it. I refer to ‘Voice’ rather than ‘Heaney’.
A committed member of the community (we… our) Voice articulates the clash between dated religious iconography and modernity – old Catholic Ireland with its emblems of devotion (statues with exposed hearts), symbols of martyrdom and humiliation (barbed-wire crowns) on view in church recesses (alcoves) set against the evidence of modernism: Nature’s wildlife (hares flitted) indifferent to the juggernauts of aviation (beneath the dozing bellies of jets); power movers and shakers (our menu-writers) and anti-establishment protestors (punks with aerosol sprays) in full swing (held their own with the best of them). Instant satellite communications (link-ups) delivered gentle comfort (wafted) into pious Catholic homes (blessings of popes), postmodern transport hubs (heliports) indulged pixie-dust (charmed circle) figures of popular culture (idols on tour) or retrieved accident victims (casualties on their stretchers).
We let it come about, Voice is reproachful, because we were lethargic (sleepwalked) caught between the anxiety of keeping up (panic) and the old established ways (formulae). We put the suitability (screen tested) of traditional practices (first native models) and outlived Irish culture (last of the mummers) to the test.
We grew apart from ourselves (watching …at a distance) – ‘ready’…’steady’ (advantaged … airy … on a springboard) but unable to take the plunge (limbering up because the man cannot dive).
Voice’s principal scene is set in the peaty humid Counties of central Ireland (foggy midlands). He dreams up a semi-religious visitation that fits neatly into the landscape (our mud vision) with the grandeur of Gothic circular stained glass but a rose window of mud born (invented itself) of the waterlogged landscape (out of the glittery damp), a delicately textured (gossamer wheel) design of repeated outgoing circles (concentric with its own hub), and sprayed earthiness (nebulous dirt) reflective of dull light (sullied yet lucent).
Deep in their psyche Irish folk have a penchant for heaven-sent miracles (sun standing still and the sun that changed colour), but Voice’s apparition came from earth (vouchsafed original clay) remodelled (transfigured) and rotating (spinning). Its showering sepia presence touched everything around it, tainting the furthest sky-scape (sunset ran murky) leaving mud streaks on glass (wiper … windscreen), impairing taste (reservoirs … silt), depositing a palpable sediment (light fuzz … hair … eyebrows).
Without a shred of surprise Voice tells how folk came to ascribe a religious significance to mud vision, applied it as a symbol of penitence (smudge on their foreheads) in their spiritual uncertainty (prepared for whatever) … how they created places of veneration (vigils) in spots where mud prevailed (around puddled gaps).
Mud ‘church’ decoration followed suit (bulrushes ousted the lilies). Lourdes-like the visitation was seen as a miracle cure for the crippled (rota of invalids came and went) with opportunities for those wanting to cash in on it (beds they could lease) by promoting a deal with clean-up opportunities (in range of the shower).
Those ‘favoured’ by the mud vision (generation who had seen a sign) were treated to its omnipresence day and night: sepia-tinted condensation (umber dew); spores produced by the dampness (mould in the verbena), first-light (woke …pillow) smells of ploughed, living earth (light furrow-breath).
General witness gossip (all about who had seen it) revealed a blend of awe and joy (fear… touched with a secret pride) that reawakened self-belief (adequate then to our lives).
Surreal mud conditions skewed every aspect: meteorological phenomena (rainbow curved flood-brown); stained water courses (ran like a water-rat’s back); normal life brought to a halt (drivers … switched off to watch). Anything deemed unwelcome (we wished it away) was taken as an examination of personal conscience (we presumed it a test) and ratification of worthiness beyond question (prove us beyond expectation).
How wrong could they have been (folly)!
The mud wheel disappeared as unexpectedly as it came (one day it was gone) a brief bearer (momentary vision) of spiritual expectation (trembling corolla…balanced) replaced by the same Irish dilapidation as before (east gable … starkly a ruin again) overrun by rural flora (dandelions … on the ledges) and the thriving spores of a waterlogged climate (moss that slumbered on through its increase).
The call to bear witness to the mud miracle went viral (cameras raked the site from every angle) with self-styled experts prattling away (post factum jabber) and the whole community (all of us … crowded…tight) waiting expectantly for clarification (the big explanations). Voice shakes his head at folk’s comedic expectations (just like that).
What the community failed to grasp was that miracles and mud visitations were of the community’s own making (the vision was ours), each a one-off opportunity (our one chance) to credit them for what they were (the incomparable) and push ahead (dive to a future).
They allowed a vision of spiritual heritage (what might have been origin) to sink into press headlines (dissipated in news). To read understanding into mud suffered and washed away (clarified place) brought no benefit (retrieved neither us nor itself) beyond returning them to the secular workaday life (we survived).
If survival was the sole outcome then fine (so say that), says Voice, but let us not be surprised if missed learning opportunities (our chance to be mud-men) restoring self-belief and setting us apart (convinced and estranged) leaves us (figure in our own eyes) as backward and undeveloped as outsiders see us (the eyes of the world).
- exposed heart: the Sacred Heart symbol of boundless love is represented in many paintings
- barbed-wire crown: the original crown of thorns placed on Jesus’ head as part of the Passion was to cause him pain and mock his claim to authority; more recent martyrs were subjected to a more up-to-date version
- alcove: niche let unto a wall;
- belly: distended under-part of the fuselage:
- punk: late 1970s admirer of aggressive, anti-establishment pop music; adorned with spiked hair, zips, safety pins and plaid;
- aerosol spray: gas canister ejecting a fine spray of disinfectant, perfume or paint;
- hold one’s own: maintain a position of strength or challenge;
- the best of them: as well as anyone;
- link up: telecommunication using satellite
- waft: pass gently through the air;
- heliport: marked landing place for helicopters;
- charmed: enchanted, that work magic;
- circle: group, coterie;
- idol: superstar, celebrity;
- tour: programme of gigs;
- casualty: victim of accident
- stretcher: portable bed;
- sleepwalk: walk around whilst asleep
- formula: a procedure or pattern to follow;
- screen-test: film trial to ascertain suitability;
- native models: traditional practices
- last of the mummers: mummer – mystery play actor; Heaney revealed that his ‘Last Mummer’ of Wintering Out (1972) was an alter ego of sorts, ‘resentful and impenitent’(DOD130), the last survivor of an age-old Irish dumb mimes mystery-play tradition often performed on Christrmas Eve, a performer driven beyond ‘patience’ and ‘counsel’ by Irish subjugation in its different forms.
- advantaged: in a favourable position;
- airy: both casual, unthinking and aloft;
- springboard: a flexible plank that adds impetus to a dive:
- limber up: exercise in preparation;
- midlands: Irish Midlands defined as Co Laios, Co Westmeath and Co Offaly; known for peat production
- mud vision: originally the name of an exhibit Heaney saw at the Guinness Stores Rosc exhibition in 1984 – ‘a huge circle of muddy handprints that artist Richard Long made on a high wall’
- rose-window: huge circular stained glass windows of Gothic cathedrals;
- glittery: light-reflecting;
- damp: wetness;
- gossamer: filmy cobweb substance;
- concentric: outgoing circled with the same hub;
- hub: centre point;
- nebulous: hazily cloud-like;
- sullied: soiled, tarnished, defiled;
- lucent: giving off light;
- sun standing still: something regarded as a miraculous – see Background
- sun that changed colour: something regarded as a miraculous;
- vouchsafe: kindly bestow;
- clay: fine-grained earth workable when wet;
- transfigure: transform and elevate;
- spin: rotate, revolve;
- murky: clouded, gloomy , misty;
- wiper: cleaning blade on a windscreen;
- reservoir: lake providing water supply;
- silt: sediment, fine deposit;
- fuzz: fluffy deposit;
- accrue: build up, accumulate;
- smudge: mark, patch;
- vigils: nocturnal devotions;
- puddle: rainwater pool on the ground;
- bulrush; tall water plant with velvety dark-brown cylindrical head; symbolic of faithfulness and salvation;
- oust: depose, remove from power;
- lily: fragrant trumpet-shaped flower; symbolic of purity, primary attribute of the Virgin Mary;
- rota: list, schedule;
- lease: rent by the hour;
- sign: manifestation, signal, portent;
- umber: dark yellowish-brown in colour;
- mould: furry fungal growth staining surfaces;
- verbena: ornamental garden plant; symbolic of healing and creativity;
- furrow-breath: odour of earth overturned by the plough;
- adequate: sufficient, up to, equal to;
- water-rat: semiaquatic rodent;
- hard shoulder: hardened surface alongside carriageway;
- prove: ratify, corroborate;
- folly: foolishness;
- gable: pitched end wall of a dwelling:
- corolla: whorl of petals, concentric circles;
- balance: sit without falling;
- dandelion: very common weed plant with large yellow flowers;
- moss: rootless plant growing from damp spores:
- rake: inspect, scrutinize, scour;
- expert: specialist, savant;
- post factum: after the event, in hindsight;
- jabber: prattle loudly, excitedly if not always comprehensibly;
- incomparable: without equal matchless;
- dissipate: cause to disappear;
- retrieve: bring back, recover;
- convinced: completely certain;
- estranged: set at a distance, alienated;
- 4 verses [V] (13 +18+11+17); line length 9-13 syllables; unrhymed; the narrative lends itself to rich use of enjambed lines;
- without a single label identifying place or religious practice Heaney employs a range of vocabularies contrasting what is covertly ‘old Ireland’ and modernity, old ways and new fashions, involves all the senses; introduces a colour chart of muds and sepia shades; reflects on the Catholic ‘gaze of awe’ and superstition; comments on the run down state of ‘Irish’ life;
- across the poem the standard range of alliterative chains: front of mouth [l] [w][h]; reprises of alveolar [t/d], bilabial [p/b], velar [k/g] nasals [m/n], sibilants [s/z/sh], labio-dental [f/v];
- assonant effects apply to V1; interested parties will be able to tease them out via ‘coloured hearing’ layout below; V1 [əʊ] exposed…alcoves… dozing…over…popes; [a:] hearts and barbed; [ai]wire…writers… satellite… idols… line…dive; [i] still…in…flitted…with…link…blessings… watching…distance…springboard…limbering; [e] bellies of jets… menu…held…best…blessings…heliports…their stretchers; [a:] hearts and barbed…charmed; [ei] sprays…maintained……native; [ɔː] heliports…for… tour…sleepwalked…formulae; [æ] and casualties… panic…and…last…at a distance, advantaged…as a man on a…man cannot;[i:] sleep…formulae, screen……keeps;
- 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: fourteen 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;
- DOD 286 The other poem I associate with a particular place is ‘The Mud Vision’: it’s set in the Irish midlands,
but the actual memory behind it was of thronged roads and gardens around a housing estate in County Tyrone in the late I950s, when the Virgin Mary was supposed to have appeared to a woman in Ardboe … The image that got me going was by the artist Richard Long, a huge circle of muddy handprints that he’d made on a high wall of the Hop Store
- Hinting at the motif of loss running through many parables of The Haw Lantern, in this case Ireland, lines from (Hailstones) refer to ‘the melt of the real thing / smarting into its absence’ exposing the underlife or otherlife of religious devotion, Heaney had known from childhood. They’re about the sensation of holding a ball of hailstones in your tightly closed fist. The parables point to one of the main concerns of the book: call it loss of faith – or rather loss of faiths, of all kinds. Religious faith, as in ‘The Mud Vision’ . Loss of faith, to a certain extent, in language itself, or at least doubts about the ‘real presence’ behind it, as in ‘The Riddle’. … there’s a countervailing impulse at work (an equal force), a refusal to discredit ‘the real thing’, however much it may be melting …which is why … the population of the demystified country in ‘The Mud Vision’ experience disappointment once ‘experts / begin their post-factum jabber’. What was at stake for the population in that poem was also at stake for the poet who wrote it.
- NC 152’The Mud Vision’, the strongest and strangest poem in The Haw Lantern. English conceptual artist Richard Long’s ‘ huge display of concentric circles high on a whitewashed wall, each circle made up of hand prints and each hand print made with mud’ supplied Heaney with the means for his own construction of a remarkable and inclusive phantasmagoria, in which the inhabitants of an anonymous country are the witnesses of the paradoxical vision of the poem’s title.
- NC 153 As the poem advances, the ambiguous vision is alternately honoured and wished away, rendered the object of religious veneration and resented; but it is always, nevertheless, in a way entirely in tune with this The Haw Lantern’s consistent imagery of scrutiny, ‘presumed … a test / that would prove us beyond expectation’ … The poem is an allegory of optimisms and pessimisms, expectations and betrayals, moods of hope and despair, emotions of guilt and survival in modern Ireland whether recalling the dashed hopes… of the revolutionary nationalisrn which created the Irish Free State in the 1920s or the 1960s’ Civil Rights movement in the North, there seemed the genuine stirrings of new possibilities and alignments, all too soon to be bitterly disappointed.”
- NC 154 Heaney says that the poem grew out of the mix in his mind of a fascination with Long’s artwork and a musing on ‘de Valera’s dream of transforming the local customs and folk Catholicism of rural Ireland in the middle of the twentieth century into something more self-conscious and purposeful, his dream of founding a culturally distinct and spiritually resistant Irish republic, a dream which has been gradually abandoned without ever being replaced by any alternative vision of the future, certainly not by anything as ardent or self-born.’ This is fascinating as an index of Heaney’s political emotions and admiration of de Valera, but also as a revelation of the obliquity with which, eventually, such straightforward and powerful feeling is displaced or deflected into a hauntingly unspecific and ramifying poetic allegory.
- Part of the Taoiseach’s Eamon de Valera 1943 St Patrick’s Day broadcast imagines a vision of an ideal Ireland: .The Ireland that we dreamed of would be the home of a people who valued material wealth only as a basis for right living, of a people who, satisfied with frugal comfort, devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit – a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contest of athletic youths and the laughter of happy maidens, whose fire sides would be forums for the wisdom of serene old age. The home, in short, of a people living the life that God desires that me should live…
- NC 155 … if ‘The Mud Vision’ cautiously celebrates the bitter knowledge of endurance and survival, it also apportions the sting of rebuke. Survival is made to seem a minimal achievement compared to the alternative promise held out by the disappeared vision … the rebuke is, however, self-directed too, since the poet is prominently included in the poem’s first person plural; the condemnation of satire is relieved by the self-recrimination of confession.
- How many features of the creator of the original ‘Mud Vision’ might apply to the poet himself?
Richard Long’s practice involves walking great distances in the wilderness, then pausing to make works referencing natural and cosmic phenomena experienced along the way. He uses walking, therefore, as both medium and measure, and his works act as a direct response to the world in which he lives. This way of working offers the potential to make sculpture anywhere and at any time, free from the constraints that can otherwise arise with producing art. Long leaves a mark or arrangement within an ever-shifting elemental terrain that exerts its own laws of regulation over the end result. This is his way of expressing ideas about time and space, and what it means to be human when removed from the cacophony of contemporary life.
From Sculpture magazine – Ina Cole
- The Irish Hospice Foundation asked Seamus Heaney, Colum McCann, Moya Doherty and Chris Hadfield, among a host of others, to contribute to its book, ‘The Gathering Reflections on Ireland’ published Sept 28th 2013, a month after his death. Heaney’s contribution reflecting on what it was to be Irish or attached to Ireland was published in The Irish Times of May 23, 2020 .
Two experiences from my teenage years get worked into the story obliquely. Fundamental to the whole conception is the memory of the countryside in mid-Ulster in the 1950s – or the Catholic part of it at any rate – being brought alive by reports that the Virgin Mary had appeared to a woman in Ardboe in Co Tyrone, on the shores of Lough Neagh. For a whole summer the byroads around the place and the back garden of the woman’s house were crowded with people excited by the prospect of the apparition happening again. Busloads came from as far away as Cork, young women entered convents, vendors of religious objects set up on the roadside. There was a surge of excitement, a big emotional wave and at the same time an opposite but not equal scepticism – an attitude approved by the clergy … The second experience happened earlier. During a local dramatic society’s production of a play that told the story of another apparition of the Virgin, this time to the three children at Fatima, a lighting effect occurred that was sudden, brilliant and unforgettable. Melodramatic too, representing the sun changing colour, as it was supposed to have changed at Fatima.
In the fiction of the poem, the person who speaks belongs to a community like those around Ardboe and Fatima: religious, rural, superstitious, bewildered by the strangeness of their vision but, at the deepest level, at home with it.
You could say they are people in whom the battle for the modern Irish soul is being fought. To quote something I once wrote about them in another context: ‘They have been sprung from the world of the awestruck gaze, where there was belief in miracle, the sun standing still and the sun changing colour . . . They have entered the world of media-speak and post-modernity. They’ve been displaced from a culture not unlike that of de Valera’s Ireland – frugal, nativist and inward looking, but still tuned to a supernatural dimension; and they find themselves in a universe that is global, desacralised, consumerist ;
The poem ends with an intimation that there has been a loss of faith – not necessarily religious faith, more the people’s faith in themselves. Disappointment is general. Heretofore they had belief and a unique revelation; now they are left with the trappings of modernity in a world they understand but are no longer at home with. Alienated from what has been brought upon them, they “crowd in for the big explanations”, rather like the Irish population in the wake of the Celtic Tiger, listening, bewildered, to experts. Economists. Regulators. Apologisers. Apologists.
- The Ardboe ‘miracle’ article in the Tyrone Times:
On a late August evening in 1954, Teresa Grimes was in her home overlooking the Annaghmore drain when she experienced a vision of the ‘Mother of God’ standing in a bush at the bottom of the garden. The vision was confirmed by several other local women. The news of the event spread quickly through the community and crowds were soon flocking to the drain, praying and singing hymns.
The stance taken by the local clergy, however, was lukewarm. The curate Fr McKeever reminded the parishioners that the Virgin Mary could be worshipped just as effectively in the local church. But a sense of occasion and natural curiosity continued to bring people to Annavore in their droves.The drama that was acted out in and around the little fields surrounding the estate came to a climax on the night of December 8, 1954, the feast of the Immaculate Conception. The crowds that came arrived mainly by bicycle, bus and car. Sixty-two buses were hired to convey people from Ballymena and Belfast and traffic jams were reported on both the Coagh and Magherafelt roads. A plane was apparently chartered to bring Tyrone emigrants home from Scotland. The crowd gathered to hear a special message from the Virgin as promised by Rankin and Hanna. At about 1am it started to rain incessantly and the visionaries fainted. The crowd held its breath but the long awaited message never materialised and the faithful slowly dispersed. Dawn brought muddy fields and trampled gardens, the aftermath of the invasion, and Annavore as a spectacle was finished.