Keeping Going


A ‘sandwich’ of six poems dedicated to the poet’s younger brother Hugh. Whilst the top and the tail are warm, compassionate and palatable pieces, the ‘filling’ is disturbing.

HV(p164) ‘the poem is in part an investigation of the qualities that go to make up that sort of emotional stamina (remaining equable/ living in peace with his neighbours), in part an overview of the atrocious conditions which make the stoic response an heroic one’

Heaney’s views of brother Hugh were formed in childhood: In the nineteen forties, when I was the eldest child of an ever-growing family in rural Co. Derry, we crowded together in the three rooms of a traditional thatched farmstead and lived a kind of den-life (Heaney reflecting on the early period of his life in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech).

The poem begins with an episode from that ‘den-life’. Brother, Hugh, is the bagpiper in an abiding visual-clip remembered over time and distance: coming from far away. Hugh wears fancy-dress made up of household props: a whitewash brush for a sporran / Wobbling round you. (The cleansing, covering and renewing aspect of whitewash will become a leitmotif in the sequence.) Hugh carries an ‘instrument’: a kitchen chair / Upside down on your shoulder; he knows the separate parts firstly the bellows-bag: your right arm / Pretending to tuck the bag beneath your elbow. Hugh provides accompaniment, eyes bulging with the strain of blowing: Your pop-eyes and big cheeks nearly bursting/ With laughter; he utters a continuous bass hum keeping the drone going on / Interminably, between catches of breath a first insight into Hugh’s capacity for keeping going.

  • sporran: A small pouch worn around the waist so as to hang in front of the kilt as part of men’s Scottish Highland dress;
  • wobbled: slightly unbalanced;
  • pop (-eyes): staring and bulging from effort;
  • drone: the part of a bagpipe that sounds a continuous note of low pitch;
  • far away: ‘The piper coming from far away is you’ wittily de-romanticizes the two-line concluding verse paragraph of MacDiarmid’s long (657 lines), meditative mosaic on the lost art of the MacCrimmons, hereditary pipers to Macleod of Macleod on the Isle of Skye: Look! Is that only the setting sun again?/ Or a piper corning from far away? Patrick Crotty, Irish University Review Sep 22, 2009
  • far away: a more child-centred explanation is to be found in the nursery rhyme: Tom, Tom the piper’s son/ Learned to play when he was young/ And all the tune that he could play/ Was over the hills and far away.
  • This, then, is an anti-pastoral with even darker messages hidden beneath its surface realism. Hugh had a routine in which, with the aid of a whitewash brush and an upturned kitchen chair, he pretended to be playing the bagpipes; and was purposefully misperceived by his brother as a Scottish “piper coming from far away”, invading Irish soil. So turmoil threatens the family from within as well as from without. Nicholas Jenkins Walking on Air in the TLS of July 5th 1996:


Heaney focuses now on the physical whitewash brush: how it looked with its block of bristles and signs of age and use (An old blanched skirted thing); where it ‘lived’ On the back of the byre door; how it waited patiently to be put to use after the winter: biding its time for spring airs that signaled the moment to mix the liquid whitewash: lime in a work-bucket/ And a potstick to mix it in with water.

The poet introduces the first ominous note: his sense memory recalls the pungency of a mixture that brought tears to the eyes ( ) A kind of greeny burning with hellish connotations of brimstone.

Experience taught him that the carefree application of whitewash (slop … lashed on in broad swatches) brought about a mysterious transformation: the watery grey of the original coat drying out/ Whiter and whiter, all that worked like magic.

The children’s starting point in ‘history and ignorance’ generated questions about the mystery of origins: Where had we come from, what was this kingdom / We knew we’d been restored to? Early exposure to Bible messages might explain suggestions of Adam’s and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden and the restorative power of young innocence.

Heaney’s distant image of this Mossbawn foretime (Our shadows /Moved on the wall) has a sting in its tail: the farmstead’s impermeable damp-course (a tar border glittered / The full length of the house) was there to protect them from them unhealthy stink of open drains: a black divide / Like a freshly-opened, pungent, reeking trench, a metaphorical warning of social division and the nastiness of the world outside.

  • blanched: whitened, made white;
  • byre: (from old English) cowshed;
  • lime: (also slaked lime:) a white alkaline substance consisting of calcium hydroxide; by adding water to quicklime traditional building methods produced plaster, mortar, and limewash or whitewash;
  • potstick: (from Middle English)  a stick for stirring the contents of a pot or pan;
  • greeny: used more often as part of a compound (greeny-blue) – slightly green, with a greenish hue;
  • brimstone: from late Old English brynstān, an alternative name for sulphur; ‘fire and brimstone’ was used to describe signs of God’s wrath in the Bible, as does a style of Christian preaching that uses vivid descriptions of judgment and eternal damnation in hell to encourage good behaviour; The first, deceptively fanciful, irruption of the terrible into the poem comes by way of the lime inhalations that made the children think of brimstone. Patrick Crotty, IUR of Sept 22, 2009
  • swatches: patches or areas of a surface showing slightly different colours;
  • trench: long, narrow man-made ditch; also, perhaps, a symbol of warfare


Heaney clarifies the significance of the ‘reeking trench’ as a remnant from the past: Piss at the gable, a place routinely used by successive Irish generations to whom privies were unknown (where the dead will congregate) offering scant dignity (the women after dark, / Hunkering there a moment before bedtime) and in Heaney’s rueful judgment the sole respite from a life of labour and hardship the only time the soul was let alone, / The only time that face and body calmed / In the eye of heaven.

This sharp contrast of smells (Buttermilk and urine) was the experience of siblings engaging on a collective journey out of ignorance living on a farmstead with its pantry ( ) housed beasts and parental presence: the listening bedroom. Fifty years later the whole foretime might prove to be apparition not certain to translate beyond / Those wind-heaved midnights we still cannot be sure / Happened or not.

Some things however are ingrained in his sense-memory: farmstead life smelled of hill-fort clay / And cattle dung; superstition and omens generated fear: When the thorn tree was cut down/ You broke your arm. I shared the dreada strange bird perched for days on the byre roof, the same ominous bird on the byre roof … will appear again in ‘The Blackbird of Glanmore’, the closing lyric of District and Circle (2006).

  • hunkering: squatting or crouching down low;
  • buttermilk: the slightly sour liquid left after butter has been churned;
  • hill-fort: fortified buildings or diggings in strategic positions;
  • thorn tree:  common name for several species of trees in tropical or temperate climates that have spiky, thorn-like leaves;
  • The dead will congregate.’ A possible echo of Odysseus’s sacrificial slaying of sheep in lines 38-42 of Book XI of the Odysse’ Patrick Crotty, IUR of Sept 22, 2009;


Heaney evokes the complexes, fears and superstition derived from that formative period, linking with Shakespeare’s Macbeth (helpless and desperate / In his nightmare) at the critical moment when he meets the / hags again in Act IV,I and sees past events resuscitated the apparitions in the pot. Heaney can identify now with his feelings of the child he was: I felt at home with that one all right.

Heaney paints the old women of his childhood as the witches of Macbeth in a vision of Hearth, / Steam and ululation, ( ) smoky hair/ Curtaining a cheek, by virtue both of their wild, unkempt appearance and their unfounded conviction that the youngster will fall into the wrong hands once he is out of reach: ‘Don’t go near bad boys/ In that college that you’re bound for. Do you hear me? / Do you hear me speaking to you? Don’t forget!’ (Ironically it will prove to be ‘first step into the life of poetry that will estrange him from primal domesticity even as it empowers him to celebrate it now’ Patrick Crotty).

The nightmare reaches a climax, both cauldron now containing a soupy mixture (the potstick quickening the gruel) and the air around it (the steam crown swirled). The whitewash bucket of the previous piece has become cauldron and the ‘brimstone’ smell of the farmstead’s lime mixture exudes sulphurous background vapours.

Against this hallucinatory backdrop Heaney’s personal experience (everything intimate) and his fear-swathed dread of omens reach a climax of intensity before dissolving dull and fatal and away, ‘fatal’ as if to suggest that an inexorable chain of events has been set in motion.

HV (p167) refers to ‘Shakespearean blood-murder spurred on by superstition’

  • Macbeth: Shakespearian tragic (anti-)hero;
  • hags: (from Middle English) witches, ugly old women;
  • as characters in Macbeth 4.1, the Witches produce a series of ominous visions for Macbeth that herald his downfall. The meeting ends with the apparition of Banquo and his royal descendants. The Witches then vanish;
  • ululation: howls or wails as an expression of strong emotion, typically grief;
  • quickening: showing signs of life , bringing to the boil, thickening;
  • gruel: a thin liquid food of oatmeal or other meal boiled in milk or water.
  • -swathed: wrapped
  • fatal: ‘decreed by fate’, ‘ordained by fate’ alongside ‘attended by death’


Skilful use of film-making techniques provides a dramatized account of the sectarian murder of a man on his way to work. Shakespeare’s witches’ cauldron reflected perturbing forecasts of death; Heaney presents his disturbing visual of death-on-the-streets in strife-torn Northern Ireland.

The poet’s ‘camera’ zooms in on a whitewashed house wall bearing the graphic clues of atrocity: Grey matter like gruel flecked with blood, brain tissue left In spatters on the whitewash; a clean spot in silhouette Where his head had been; dark patches of liquid sucked in by the plaster: stains subsumed / In the parched wall.

The victim is following his ordinary daily routine That morning like any other morning; his paramilitary Part-time reservist role is not evident; the only ‘weapon’ he is toting is his lunch-box.

The incidental music changes mood as the camera refocuses, now in slow-motion mode: A car came slow down Castle Street, made the halt, / Crossed the Diamond, slowed again and stopped. The waiting man is not alarmed by a car Level with him, just noting that it was not his lift to work, just an ordinary face.

When sickening realization dawns on him (a gun in his own face) his relaxed posture left him unable to react: His right leg was hooked back, his sole and heel /Against the wall, his right knee propped up steady. No stay of execution, no shot is heard; only the man’s physical movement is recorded: he just pushed with all his might /Against himself.

His lifeless body collapses into the open drain identified in the second piece, past the symbolic damp-course that protects residents from the ‘reeking trench’ of sectarian division in the street: fell past the tarred strip, / Feeding the gutter with his copious blood.

HV(p166)’The victim’s spilled blood is represented by the poet as a Virgilian libation that will ‘feed’ ‘other murdered ghosts’.

  • Patrick Crotty suggests that ‘copious‘ asserts the richness of life even at the moment of its wasting, and also registers the shocking bodily consequences of the shooting. (There may be an echo here of Lady Macbeth’s ‘Who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?'(Act V, Scene I) (IUR of Sept 22, 2009);
  • subsumed: Modern Latin derivation sub (under) + sumere (to take); included in or absorbed by something else;
  • Bellaghy: a small town near to where Heaney was brought up and where brother Hugh remained throughout and after the Troubles. Bellaghy was the town where thirty six-year-old David McQuillan was shot by the IRA on 15 March 1977 as he waited for a lift to work;
  • reservist: the British Army in Northern Ireland used reservists alongside serving soldiers; army-trained Reservists worked as soldiers in their spare time and received Army pay for the time they put in; as Protestants and part of what was regarded by many Republicans as an army of occupation they were targeted by the Irish Republican Army;
  • Castle Street/ Diamond: towns like Castledawson, Bellaghy and Magherafelt typically featured both Main Street and Diamond. Locals often referred to the open area in the middle of the town as the Diamond (typically used for car parking and often more of a triangle than a diamond);
  • the quickened, nourishing gruel at the end of the fourth section is transformed into an image of murder most malign, the spilled brains of a victim of a paramilitary attack… To powerful effect, the grisly physicality of the immediate aftermath of the killing is presented before the victim is introduced or the event itself described. Patrick Crotty, IUR of Sept 22, 2009;
  • The dread that has hovered round the edges of the poem almost from the beginning now takes up a central position in the narrative. (ibid)
  • the account of the killing that follows is almost mathematical in its factualness, if somewhat flavoured by dialect in ‘made the halt’. Arguably the most important word in ‘Keeping Going’ is the adjective used of the killer’s face as seen by his victim in the instant before death (ordinary) … Through the victim’s recognition of the ordinariness of his killer the poem itself recognizes that the ordinariness it has rejoiced in from the beginning can be the context of grotesque inter-communal hatred: the adjective marks a moment of realization as grave and dismaying as those recorded at two of the most famous points in Heaney’s poetry in the 1970s, the ‘lost,/Unhappy and at home’ climax of ‘The Tollund Man’ and the ‘neighbourly murder’ oxymoron of ‘Funeral Rites’. (ibid) (also the ‘amorous’ killing in Mycene Lookout);


In the concluding piece Heaney, who sometimes hinted that in moving to the Irish Republic he had cravenly fled the heat of the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’, pays loving tribute to his brother Hugh who stayed on and kept going despite everything.

Heaney’s setting remains at the scene of the murder in Bellaghy, fast-forwarding in time to pick out his brother Hugh now in middle age. He salutes the man’s staying-power, a strength he personally did not possess and his stoicism on the front line: My dear brother, you have good stamina./ You stay on where it happens.

Hugh’s conveyance is in keeping with his trade: Your big tractor / Pulls up at the Diamond; his sociable nature is non-sectarian: you wave at people, / You shout and laugh above the revs; his attitude to life reconciles past and present: you keep / Old roads open by driving on the new ones.

The poet recalls the children’s game that Hugh invented in the ‘den life’ of Mossbawn (You called the piper’s sporrans whitewash brushes / And then dressed up and marched us through the kitchen); now, suddenly and strikingly, he outlines the limits of positive influence and the stoicism vital to coping with what comes after you cannot make the dead walk or right wrong. (Stoicism will be the key ingredient in the achievement of what might seem an impossible dream: social, political and sectarian reconciliation and reintegration after more than twenty five years of disruption.)

To the stresses of farming plus the social situation must be added his brother’s epilepsy: I see you at the end of your tether sometimes,/ In the milking parlour, holding yourself up/ Between two cows until your turn goes past.

Recovery returns Hugh Heaney to his inexorable routine (the smell of dung again), Is that all there is? Heaney questions the value of existence (presented in a form that mimics the religious Gloria): is this all? As it was/ In the beginning, is now and shall be?

When he re-awakens (rubbing your eyes), what sets Hugh back on the rails is sight of that extraordinary-ordinary old brush/ Up on the byre door, emblem of family solidarity, of idyllic childhood and Irish ruralism, of cleansing and renewal, in short the spur to keeping going.

  • revs: revolutions of an engine per minute;
  • tether: a rope or chain tied to an animal so as to restrict its movement; figuratively the limit of one’s patience or endurance;
  • milking-parlour: a more modern form of ‘byre’, reference to the room in which cows were milked;
  • Unlike the poet, the “dear brother” has stayed “on where it happens”, in a green Eden that is ambivalently re-imagined here as a world of closeness and physical exhaustion, superstition and assaults. “I see you at the end of your tether sometimes”, Heaney writes: coming to in the smell of dung again ‘And wondering, is this all? As it was In the beginning, is now and shall be?’ Nicholas Jenkins Walking on Air in the TLS of July 5th 1996:
  • You have good stamina”, he tells Hugh admiringly, but “you cannot make the dead walk or right wrong” – implying that poetry might find its own symbolic solutions to these tasks. Certainly, even when they were together in the “foretime” of childhood, relations between the brothers were not without intimations of competitiveness and conflict. (ibid)
  • The closing section returns to the chair and whitewash brush memory of the opening. The time that has elapsed between the incident and its commemoration has seen Hugh grow up and take over the running of the farm and also seen the byre become mechanized and acquire the additional name of milking parlour. Some things, however, have not changed–the indoor presence of cows is still attended by the smell of dung. The odour of which the protagonist becomes aware as he recovers from his ‘turn’ links back to the UDR man’s bloody gutter, the urinated-on environs of the gable and the figurative reeking trench of the end of the second section … ll are reminders of the inescapably physical basis of consciousness, and hence of the certainty that poet, brother, and reader can keep going only until such time as they die. Patrick Crotty, IUR of Sept 22, 2009
  • The adaptation of the Gloria Patri (‘And wondering, is this all? As it was/In the beginning, is now and shall be?’), though presented in question form, serves to answer the query of the second section (‘Where had we come from, what was this kingdom/We knew we’d been restored to?’). The ‘beginning’ is now the awakening of consciousness in the siblings rather than the biblically imagined moment of creation, and the ‘kingdom’ only the earthly and transient one of childhood. There is no faith in transcendence or afterlife here and the slightly melancholy irony of the sacred language communicates a stubbornly secular vision. Stubbornly but not noisily: the lack of assertiveness in the presentation of an agnostic outlook is in keeping with the general tact of the narrative, as seen for example in the glancing quality of the allusion to Hugh’s indisposition (ibid);

The sequence as a whole: broader lines of enquiry:

  • The sequence broaches the question of reliable memory at the frontier between real and imagined;
  • whitewash applied liberally is watery grey in colour, later the colour of gruel and finally the colour of brain tissue;
  • the family house had a damp-course of tar protecting it from the stink of the world outside; the theme of ‘division’ with its nasty political connotations will echo through the poem
  • not for the first time in his work Heaney questions what is real in his memory and what is imagined. His memory of a foretime of early life ‘togetherness’ is a confusion of sights, sounds, smells and emotions to the point of uncertainty;
  • Patrick Crotty sees one of the most striking features of ‘Keeping Going’ as its success in linking

( ) recurring themes and elements so that they appear to be aspects of each other rather than disparate topics:. He enumerates them:  (1) the intimate, almost private salute to a member of the author’s family circle; (2) the meditation on the relationship between childhood and adulthood and on the role of memory in sustaining that relationship; (3) the celebration of the quiet, desperate tenacity that carried ordinary Northern Irish people through the worst years of the Troubles; (4) the exercise in colloquialism so insistent as to merit the term ‘experimental’; (5) the reflection on the seductiveness and limitations of poetry itself; (6) as a more or less covert commentary on the demand for fortitude and renewal (psychological and formal) his calling places upon a writer who considers himself to be only as good as his next poem. (Irish University Review of September 22, 2009)

  • he remarks on ‘the poem’s dependence upon ordinary language, the sort of words and phrases Hugh and his unnamed brothers and sisters might be expected to use. This is a matter not merely of diction but of figuration.’ (ibid)
  • The structure works by juxtaposing a small number of key ‘objects’, its shifts from one situation or time to another motivated by the associations of those objects in the lives of the dedicatee/protagonist and his siblings’ (ibid) ;
  • The sense of smell serves as the conduit of the inescapable throughout ‘Keeping Going’. The annually renewed whiteness of the walls highlights by contrast the blackness of the tar border that runs ‘the full length of the house’ and glitters like a ‘freshly opened, pungent, reeking trench’…  the third section opens with the reek of the freshly pissed-on tar border at the gable. The ‘foretime’ remembered by the siblings is exposed in all directions and dimensions, spatially open to the heavens that share rather than compromise the privacy of the urinating women, and temporally open both to the past and the future.

The smell of ‘hill-fort clay’ that clings to the recollected scene pushes the reader’s consciousness into the dark backward abysm of historical time in a way that recalls a typical manoeuvre of the poems near the beginning of the Wintering Out volume of 1972. (ibid)

  • NC suggests: ‘Keeping Going’ dedicated to Heaney’s brother Hugh, who suffers from epilepsy contains elements of terror and foreboding, and allies them, in its third section, with Macbeth’s encounter with the witches in Shakespeare’s play; a kind of ‘translation’, we might say, of the emotions of the poet’s childhood into the heightened term of the literary representa­tion of such things which he discovered subsequently, but also a recollection of the process in which actual emotion prepares one for the emotions of literature (‘I felt at home with that one all right’, the poem says of the scene in Macbeth). (p189)
  • (1) 8 lines in a single sentence; slightly irregular line length based on 10 syllables but copious use of enjambed lines creates a slow continuo much like the bagpipe’s drone note; unrhymed;
  • everyday language usage appropriate to age-group;
  • Celtic wind instrument vocabulary; visual then sound effects;
  • (2)extended sonnet-like form; volta after line 9 moves the piece from objective to reflection, from farmstead to community, from everyday unthreatened to ominous;
  • six-sentence construct; line length based on 10 syllables’ enjambed lines support mid line punctuation to create rhythmic flow;
  • all sense involved in the narrative: now energetic, now reflective; smells introduce unpleasantness; vocabulary of liquidity
  • personification: the brush wears a skirt and bides its time;
  • use of simile;
  • (3) sonnet form in 7 sentences; lines based on 10 syllables; unrhymed; staccato beginning with successive full stops; the second half with successive enjambed lines much smoother in delivery;
  • darkness reflected in the choice of vocabulary; superlative of ‘only’; deliberate juxtaposition of pleasant and unpleasant ‘Buttermilk and urine’; lexis that reflects confusion and superstition;
  • transfer of epithet: bedrooms do not listen, parents do;
  • (4) twelve lines composed in 5 sentences; based on 10 syllables; unrhymed;
  • use of direct speech and interrogatives;
  • vocabulary reflecting mental confusion within an unreal swirling atmosphere; ominous warnings of one kind and another;
  • cinematic use of light effects;
  • (5)sixteen lines constructed in 5 sentences, each based on 10 syllables; unrhymed;
  • the balance between punctuated and enjambed lines reflects the unhasty ordinariness of the build-up; increased use of commas in the final sentence separates the contortions of the shot man;
  • everyday language with very local colour except for the Latinism ‘subsumed’ chosen by an etymologist/poet to suggest the thirstiness of wall plaster;
  • unusual use of concessive clause ‘although’;
  • a living ‘gutter’ requires food;
  • an unfolding dramatic, cinematographic scene reminiscent of ‘A Constable Calls ‘ in North;
  • (6) sixteen lines constructed in eight sentences: based on 10 syllables; unrhymed
  • Judicious balance between punctuation and enjambment: initial flurry of shortish sentences lengthens into the cadence;
  • everday language reflecting ordinary life; old and new metaphor (no roads actually under construction); contrast new, unchanged: ‘milking-parlour’, ‘smell of dung’; reworking of Catholic prayer, here without religious intent and more a reflection of things unchanged; euphemistic reference to epilepsy: ‘turn’; figurative use of ‘tether’;


  • 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:

  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies:
  • the first piece in ‘Keeping Going’, for example, begins with a blend of bilabial sounds: plosive [p] and [b] and continuant[w] then introducing sibilant [s] and alveolar fricatives [tʃ] and [dʒ];
  • it is well worth teasing out the sound clusters for yourself to admire the poet’s sonic engineering:
  • Consonants (with their phonetic symbols) can be classed according to where in the mouth they occur
  • Front-of-mouth sounds voiceless bi-labial plosive [p] voiced bi-labial plosive [b]; voiceless labio-dental fricative [f] voiced labio-dental fricative [v]; bi-labial nasal [m]; bilabial continuant [w]
  • Behind-the-teeth sounds: voiceless alveolar plosive [t] voiced alveolar plosive [d]; voiceless alveolar fricative as in church match [tʃ]; voiced alveolar fricative as in judge age [dʒ]; voiceless dental fricative [θ] as in thin path; voiced dental fricative as in this other [ð]; voiceless alveolar fricative [s] voiced alveolar fricative [z]; continuant [h] alveolar nasal [n] alveolar approximant [l]; alveolar trill [r]; dental ‘y’ [j] as in yet
  • Rear-of-mouth sounds: voiceless velar plosive [k] voiced velar plosive [g]; voiceless post-alveolar fricative [ʃ] as in ship sure, voiced post- alveolar fricative [ʒ] as in pleasure; palatal nasal [ŋ] as in ring/ anger.