Linen Town

High Street, Belfast, 1786

A pen and ink study on tinted paper of Ye High Streete Belfast Anno Dom 1786 features the old Market House in front of which an insurrectionist would be hanged twelve years after; behind the vignette of bustling, fashionable Belfast life a clock is ticking: the political execution will change everything.

Heaney uses a depiction announcing the political turbulence leading to the Act of Union of 1801 as a stark appeal to avoid yet another period of strife. His sense, however, that circumstances make recurring violence inevitable in Irish history will prove true: between the submission of the Wintering Out manuscript to Faber for consideration the events of Bloody Friday and Bloody Sunday will once again have turned the Ulster world on its head.

Initially the print provides a still picture. The poet’s eye scans the scene recording detail: the time (It’s twenty to four; the nature of the building (the public clock); the mounted cloaked rider heard crossing the street (Clops off into an entry) ostensibly on a business mission perhaps from the Linen Hall / Or Cornmarket.

This space in front of a building brings the scene to life (civic print unfrozen) winding forward ominously to record the consequences of the 1798 rebellion against British Rule in Ireland (In twelve years’ time/ They hanged young McCracken), an act of brutal revenge meted out by the Protestant Ascendancy which dominated the Irish Parliament in Dublin.

Heaney imagines the scene’s well-to-do Belfasters (lownecked belle and tricorned fop) pleasuring unconcernedly (Still flourish undisturbed), as yet unaffected by the fall-out of a political hanging: the swinging tongue of his body.

The scene draws him and his compatriots in: (Pen and ink, water tint /Fence and fetch us in) to look around at bracketed tavern signs, the edged gloom of arcades.

Heaney’s purpose emerges: an urgent appeal to join together in reversing the downward spiral of events: by taking a walk in the short time left before a dark future prevails (one of the last afternoons / Of reasonable light), by reminding themselves of their common ground (Smell the tidal Lagan) by making a last effort before time runs out: Take a last turn/ In the tang of possibility.

Heaney stops at the last moment of openness before some irrevocable new step decisively changes the political scene’ (HV123);

  • cloaked: dressed in a period sleeveless over-garment that hangs from the shoulders;
  • clop: sound of horses’ hoofs on hard surfaces;
  • Linen Hall: once at the heart of the Linen Quarter , an area of Belfast south of City Hall, so called because of the great many linen manufacturers who made their homes in the area and influenced the development of Belfast, a city once referred to, it is said, as the ‘Linenopolis’. The White Linen Hall was in its time an important international linen exchange , now a Library;
  • Cornmarket: area close to the Linen hall;
  • civic print: images commissioned by the City Council;
  • unfrozen: transformed from a still to a moving picture;
  • McCracken(Henry Joy): Belfast born into a prosperous linen manufacturing family, of Scottish Presbyterian descent; interested in Irish culture; became a radical politician founding the United Irishmen; embroiled in the 1798 rebellion he was defeated whilst attacking Antrim, court-marshalled and hanged on Corn Market (land donated to the City by his grandfather);
  • lownecked belle: fashionable woman wearing a décolleté dress with revealing neckline;
  • tricorn: period style of three-cornered hat;
  • fop: fashionable man-about-town, dandy;
  • take a turn: go for a stroll with nothing particular in mind;
  • tang: keen smell;
  • The historical and political themes in Wintering Out are carried, in a number of poems in Part One, by particular imagined or recalled human figures : Henry Joy McCracken, executed after the 1798 rebellion, alluded to in ‘Linen Town’ … In both parts of the book, many of the evoked figures suffer some kind of human diminishment: isolation, repression, disenchant­ment, exploitation or betrayal’ (NC30);
  • 7 triplets in 6 sentences; unrhymed; line length 5-8 syllables;
  • balance between enjambed lines and punctuation establishes the breath groups for oral delivery;
  • interesting use of verb tenses: observing the aquatint in present tense; reported execution uses past ‘hanged’ in preference to a future or conditional;
  • adding sound (‘clops’) to visual aquatint detail prepares the ground of the picture coming to life (‘unfrozen’);
  • anonymous people with understandable behaviour: he chatting her up (‘swinging tongue’); neat turn of phrase: the adjective applies both to the tongue and the man’s body movement;
  • cunning use of apostrophe (‘fop’s’) maintains focus on the human neck: hanged man’s, the ‘lownecked belle’, the fop’s
  • vocabulary of an artistic technique since superseded;
  • repetition of time introduces the notion that the stability of Belfast will never be quite the same;
  • injunction: ‘smell … take’; smell and taste data: ‘tang of possibility’;
  • 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: twelve 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 lines, for example, bring together a cluster of plosives: alveolar[t] [d], velar [k], bilabial [p]] interspersed with alveolar [l];
  • 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.

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