Keeping Going

For Hugh

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

Background: Short of living the experience is difficult for outsiders to appreciate the perseverance, determination and tact Hugh Heaney required both during and after the ‘Troubles’ period to cope with the entrenched stances and sensitivities of families on both sides of the sectarian divide within a narrow radius, the danger of saying things unguardedly, the bitter, enduring legacy of events and his perceived need to live alongside those same people from one day to the next.

In the concluding piece Heaney, who sometimes hinted that in moving to the Irish Republic he had found a refuge from the ‘dirty glove’ of the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’, pays loving tribute to his brother Hugh who had the strength to stay put and keep things ticking over despite it all.


Heaney reflected on the early period of his life in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech: 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.

The sequence begins with an episode from that ‘den-life’, captured in the present tense as if it were happening now. Brother, Hugh, is the make-believe bagpiper in a family ‘entertainment’ of long ago (coming from far away). Hugh’s piper role requires an ill-fitting (wobbling round you) ingenious household prop (whitewash brush for a sporran).

The cleansing, refreshing aspect of new whitewash will become a motif in the sequence and contrast with the tar-lined trenches of sewage disposal from an age preceding modern developments.

Hugh’s home-made ‘bagpipe’ (kitchen chair upside down on your shoulder) has a pretend bellows-bag (your right arm tuck beneath your elbow). He mimics the piper, eyes bulging with the strain of blowing (your pop-eyes and big cheeks nearly bursting) ever on the edge of mirth (with laughter). He is showing his early ability to keep going, uttering a continuous bass hum (keeping the drone going on interminably) just grabbing mouthfuls of air (between catches of breath).

  • 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;

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:


Hugh’s entertainment prop (whitewash brush) was just an off-the-cuff farm implement with a block of bristles and signs of age and use (old blanched skirted thing) that lived out in the cowshed (on the back of the byre door). Heaney personifies waiting patiently (biding its time) to be put to use after the winter (spring airs) that signaled the moment to prepare the liquid whitewash (lime in a work-bucket) by hand (potstick to mix it in with water).

An ominous note is introduced: the pungent concoction (brought tears to the eyes) produced a skin searing heat (kind of greeny burning) with hellish connotations (brimstone).

Carefree application (slop lashed on in broad swatches) was followed by a colour transformation (watery greydrying out whiter and whiter) astonishing to the youngster’s mind (worked like magic).

To the mind and imagination of a one-day Nobel prizewinner such moments awakened questions about the mystery of origins (where had we come from), young innocence worthy of Paradise Regained in a Miltonic sense (this kingdom we knew we’d been restored to).

Heaney’s distant gaze upon this sibling-centred Mossbawn foretime (our shadows moved on the wall) sinks to the farmstead’s impermeable damp-course (tar border glittered  the full length of the house) there to isolate them (black divide) from the stink of open drains (freshly-opened, pungent, reeking trench), an emerging metaphor for the nasty future in store for Northern Irish communities.

  • blanched: whitened, made white;
  • byre: (from old English) cowshed;
  • lime: (alsoslaked 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 Englishbrynstān, 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


Two emotive scenarios: the first a general picture associated with ‘reeking trench’ – its use as an outdoor privy (piss at the gable) routinely used by successive Irish generations (where the dead will congregate) – some nicety (separate) but little dignity (women after dark hunkering there a moment before bedtime) yet to Heaney’s rueful mind the one and only moment of privacy (only time the soul was let alone) and sole respite (only time that face and body calmed), or so claimed by the Church (in the eye of heaven). 

The second within the Heaney home at Mossbawn: its sharply contrasting human and animal smells (buttermilk and urine); its herd space for hungry siblings (pantry) with cattle on the premises (housed beasts) and parental presence (listening bedroom).

Siblings of fifty years ago (foretime) at a stage in their young developments (a knowledge) that, beyond memories of wakeful disturbance (wind-heaved midnights), might otherwise have been a figment (not translate), an imagining (we still cannot be sure happened or not) …

Were it not, however, for snatches of lived reality: prominent odours of farmstead earthiness (hill-fort clay) and cow pats (cattle dung) lodged in the sense-memory – recorded events of farm maintenance (thorn tree was cut down) – pain and injury (you broke your arm) – shared superstitions and evil omens (dreadstrange bird perched for days on the byre roof,). A similar ominous bird on the byre roof  will appear in ‘The Blackbird of Glanmore’, the closing lyric of District and Circle (2006).

  • hunkering: squatting or crouching down low;
  • buttermilk: theslightly 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 Odyssey’ Patrick Crotty, IUR of Sept 22, 2009;


Heaney, later a distinguished literary scholar, dips into  Act IV, i of Shakespeare’s Macbeth in which Macbeth’s complexes, fears and demons (helpless and desperate in his nightmare) are reinforced (he meets the  hags again) for dramatic purpose (apparitions in the pot).

Heaney suggests he knows just how Macbeth felt (at home with that one all right) staging a domestic Mossbawn alternative (hearth, steam and ululation) with his own ‘hag’ – an ‘anonymous’ maternal figure (smoky hair curtaining a cheek) warning him against falling into the wrong hands (‘Don’t go near bad boys’) once he is out of her protective reach (that college that you’re bound for) … to the point of dramatic obsession (‘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 Heaney from primal domesticity even as it empowers him to celebrate it now’ Patrick Crotty).

His hybrid visions draw to their close – the cauldron with its soupy mixture (potstick quickening the gruel) and the air around it (steam crown swirled);  Heaney completes his atmospheric staging of both personal and Macbethian emotions (everything intimate and fear-swathed) – the lighting flares (brighten) before dimming to blackout (dull and away) … in the case of both protagonists triggering an inexorable chain of events (fatal) albeit with different outcomes!

  • Macbeth: Shakespearian tragic anti-hero;
  • hags: (from Middle English) witches, ugly old women;
  • as characters in Macbeth1, 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.
  • ‘college you’re bound for’: Heaney’s Secondary Education was spent as a boarder at the exclusive St. Columb’s College in Derry; he rubbed shoulders with many young men destined to become Northern Irish celebrities, not least himself;
  • -swathed: wrapped;
  • fatal: ‘decreed by fate’, ‘ordained by fate’ and in Macbeth’s case ‘attended by death’


If Macbeth’s witches’ cauldron reflected disturbing visions forecasting death, Heaney presents in all its gruesome detail a disturbing visual of death-on-the-streets in strife-torn Bellaghy.

Hugh Heaney continued to live and work on the family’s Wood Farm very close to Bellaghy village. At the peak of the Troubles the IRA had a very active unit of predominantly local men in the surrounding area and paramilitaries claimed responsibility for the assassination of a Protestant going about his daily business.

The poet’s ‘eye-camera’ zooms in on a wall bearing the graphic evidence 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 the man’s life-juices sucked in by the plaster (stains subsumed in the parched wall). 

The target was engaged in his ordinary daily routine (that morning like any other morning) his Protestant military support role (part-time reservist) not evident in his dress … merely a man on his way to work (toting his lunch-box).

The mood music changes to an ominous continuo as the camera moves into slow-motion mode: a vehicle entered the scene (car came slow down Castle Street), paused briefly (made the halt), seemed prepared to move on (crossed the Diamond) then came to a halt (slowed again and stopped). The waiting man was not alarmed by the vehicle across the road (level with him) since it was not his work transport (not his lift).

The sickening realization of imminent danger (ordinary facea gun in his own face) transfixed the victim in relaxation mode (right leg hooked back sole and heel against the wall  right knee propped up steady) … No stay of execution, no shot heard … just the man’s physical convulsion as he was hit (pushed with all his might against himself).

His body fell past the symbolic damp-course (tarred strip) into the open drain now separating residents from the ‘reeking trench’ of sectarian blood-letting in the street (feeding the gutter with his copious blood).

  • 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 Reservistsworked 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 asthe 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);


Time to pay tribute to his sibling Hugh (my dear brother) now in middle age, saluting the man’s staying-power (you have good stamina), his unbroken presence on the Bellaghy front line (you stay on where it happens).

Still an active farmer, visiting town (your big tractor pulls up at the Diamond), his nature non-sectarian and warm (you wave at people shout and laugh above the revs), his attitude to life reconciliatory (you keep old roads open by driving on the new ones).

Those were the days. The poet’s mind returns to the children’s game that underlined a brother’s contagious good humour (you called the piper’s sporrans whitewash brushes dressed up and marched us through the kitchen) and stoical acceptance of a history set in stone (you cannot make the dead walk or right wrong).

Heaney factors in his brother’s epilepsy (at the end of your tether sometimes in the milking parlour) balancing the need to milk his cattle (holding yourself between two cows) and his symptoms (until your turn goes past).

No respite – Hugh’s recovery only returns him to the next task of ‘mucking out’ (the smell of dung again).

Do the questions (the poet Heaney wonders) that Hugh might raise about the quality of his existence (is this all?) have answers driven by Catholic doctrine  (As it was in the beginning, is now and shall be?)

Or nothing to do with religion at all … when Hugh  re-awakens from his fit (rubbing your eyes) the first thing he sees is an object he has always known (old brush up on the byre door) – emblem of family solidarity, of happy childhood, of mid-Ulster security, of cleansing and renewal –  in short all that spurs him into 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;
  • as it was … etc : reference to the ‘Glory be to the Father’ prayer;

Comments and lines of enquiry:

  • 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 … 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 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 linkingrecurring 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 9 linesmoves 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 reflects 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/ ang

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