The Old Team

Heaney considered himself a ‘Castledawson boy’ – the village was close to his home at Mossbawn, his mother hailed from there and his maternal grandparents lived at 5 New Row. The soccer pitch on Bridge Street overlooked by Christ Church is still part of the Castledawson village landscape. Both figure in a sonnet inspired by an archive photograph of the local football side that pictured his grandfather as a young man.

The sonnet elegises not just grandad McCann. It focuses poignantly on that whole cohort of young men who turned out on Saturday afternoons in all weathers, indeed, on a whole mid Ulster era with its class structure from the local landowner down to those spent a lifetime tied to a modest living many of them in his service.

The poem’s stark final image reminds that nothing is forever but that human presence can be recorded in the eternal present of a postcard or a poem.

The eye scanning an original photograph sees: a time of day (dusk); a big, big sky (scope of air); sports’ changing facilities (railed pavilion) of standard model (formal); a lack of sharpness (blurring in the sepia); a pre WWI period (Edwardian) remembered for its good times (always summery Ulster); a reminder of British Empire abroad and at home (India or England).

Evocative, too, of state control: armed forces where men ‘fell in’ (any old parade ground), stylish period figures accustomed to obey (moustachioed tenantry), in uniform be it soccer or military (togged out), obedient of photographer’s instruction (pose with folded arms), lean and fit (musclebound), proud (staunch) and fighting to win whatever the odds (forever up against it).

Heaney hails the local boys (Moyola Park FC! Sons of Castledawson!)  celebrating the trades they stood for – railwaymen or linen workers (stokers and scutchers!).  And there central to his attention, the poet’s dearly remembered ancestor (Grandfather McCann!).

He regrets the things that are no longer (grown historical) since Grandad’s time (in your absence): the deeply-shared sense of camaraderie (team spirit); the lord’s estate (walled parkland) now part golf-course; William Clark & Sons (linen mill) no longer quite what it was; the football matches, too, sparsely attended (lightly clapped), boringly physical (dull-thumping games).

Finally for whom the bell tolls – the perpetual graveyard-bound Christ Church funeral corteges (steady coffins at eye-level).

  • dusk: the dark end of twilight;
  • scope: sweep, expanse;
  • rail: fence;
  • pavilion: building in which players changed and took refreshment;
  • formal: detached, for a specific purpose
  • blur: fuzzy, out of focus;
  • sepia: reddish, creamy brown tint associated with monochrome photographs;
  • Edwardian: reference to Edward VII and the style of the first decade of the 20th century;
  • parade ground: where troops gathered and officers barked out commands;
  • tenantry: those who worked on an estate; connotations of indentured servitude;
  • togged out: wearing kit specific to an activity;
  • staunch: stalwart, committed, devoted;
  • up against it: in a tough position;
  • stoker: who tends to the furnace of a steam train;
  • scutcher: whose job is to dress retted flax by beating it
  • walled parkland: adjacent Moyola Park was the erstwhile country seat of the Chichester-Clark family: James Chichester-Clark (d.2002), Baron Moyola, was the penultimate Prime Minister of Northern Ireland and eighth leader of the Ulster Unionist Party between 1969 and March 1971;
  • linen mill: William Clark & Sons;
  • clapped: applauded;
  • dull-thumping: compound with myriad suggestion … boring, physically bruising, dull thud of ground contact;
  • steady: multiple use properly balanced on shoulders, passing at a solemn pace; in continuous supply;


  • sonnet (8+6) in 11 sentences; loose rhyme scheme abab etc;
  • line length 8-12 syllables;
  • sentence structure follows initial eye movement from big, eternal sky to initial local features, to wider time and Commonwealth associations, back to apostrophes of surprise recognitions, to changes wrought by time and finally reminder of human mortality;
  • assonant effects: [əʊ] scope…old…moustachioed…posed…folded…Moyola; [ei] railed…always……against… games…sail; [ɔː] formal…always…Edwardian…or…all…staunch…forever; [ʌ] summery…Ulster… moustachioed … musclebound…up…sons …scutchers…dull thumping…football; [i] spirit…linen mill…historical;
  • 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];
  • vocabulary identifying Castledawson industry and trades;
  • 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;

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