The Other Side

As sectarian divisions in Northern Ireland were boiling up into major 1970s conflict Heaney takes a peek back at relationships prevailing in the Heaney neighbourhood of the 1940s.

The Other Side’ presents a guarded but benign encounter between your family and your Protestant neighbour Johnny Junkin (DOD131). Heaney’s neighbours as he explained to DOD were ‘both beside us and on the other side’, Protestants and Catholics living alongside each other, and in harmony.

Wading through vegetation on the edge of Heaney property (Thigh-deep in sedge and marigolds) the young narrator is suddenly aware of a second looming presence at the ‘frontier’ separating them (a neighbour laid his shadow on the stream). Using a religious comparison the man writes off the quality of Heaney-land, vouching ‘It’s poor as Lazarus, that ground’.

The youngster picks up the sound of him moving off (brushed away) transferring his brusqueness to nature: among the shaken leafage.

In his comfort zone on family ground (nested on moss and rushes)the boy can shrug off Junkin’s innuendo suggesting Protestant plenty and Catholic barrenness (his lea sloped/ to meet our fallow); young, perhaps, but spirited, the boy rejects what he has heard (biblical dismissal) as claptrap (fabulous), an irony that people claiming superiority might reveal: that tongue of chosen people.

Heaney paints a telling retrospective of the man’s attitude, noting in turn: his rigid Protestant posture (stand like that) that forms a mental and physical sectarian boundary of the stream (on the other side); how he vents his irritability on nature, too (swinging his blackthorn/ at the marsh weeds); the intractability of an old white-haired man who regards himself as superior (above), the privileged owner of (Protestant) promised furrows as opposed to scraggy (Catholic) acres.

The young oracle makes a long-term prophesy: no good will come to the minority Catholic community from the attitude he has witnessed: the fall-out wake of pollen drifting to our bank will bring blight not benefit: next season’s tares.

  • sedge: a grass-like plant that flourishes in wet land, around the peat bogs of Heaney’s childhood neighbourhood;
  • marigold: an ornamental daisy plant;
  • vouching: claiming as true;
  • Lazarus: raised by Jesus after four days of death; biblical miracle reported in the New Testament Gospels;
  • brushed: moved away to the light sounds of contact with vegetation;
  • lea: open area of grassy or arable land;
  • sloped: not flat;
  • fallow: prepared but not planted to restore fertility;
  • fabulous: both extraordinary and make-believe (cf. Aesop’s fables convey a moral/ lesson to be learnt;)
  • chosen people: those chosen by God in the Jewish and Christian traditions to enjoy a special relationship with Him;
  • blackthorn: walking stick fashioned from a stem of the blackthorn shrub;
  • scraggy: scrawny and untidy;
  • acres: (metonymy) farmland described in terms of its size;
  • promised: hints of the Promised Land; Old Testament land of Canaan promised by God to Abraham and his descendants (Genesis 12. vii);
  • furrows: long trench of earth made by a plough;
  • wake: trail of disturbed air (or water);
  • pollen: fine plant-produced powder carried by wind or insect bearing the male gamete intended to fertilize the female ovule;
  • tares: (biblical) invasive unproductive weed;


Heaney reveals how he and his siblings struggled gamely to master their Catholic tuition: For days we would rehearse the authoritarian sermonizing (each patriarchal dictum) of an all-male array of New and Old Testament notables (Lazarus, the Pharaoh, Solomon).

In an extended metaphor the youngster reveals that stirring stories they knew by heart (David and Goliath rolled magnificently) presented young understanding with conceptual challenges (like loads of hay too big for our small lanes) and explained their hesitancy when memory let them down (faltered on a rut).

The Protestant neighbour’s allegation that Heaney’s Catholic household ignored the teachings of the Bible (‘Your side of the house, I believe, hardly rule by the book at all’) was rich coming from a man of narrow Anglo-Scottish descent (‘kirk’): not very bright (His brain was a whitewashed kitchen), with blinkered views restricted to bible quotes (hung with texts), his mind closed: swept tidy/ as the body o’ the kirk.

  • rehearse: repeat until known by heart;
  • patriarchal: male head of family or tribe; biblical reference to fathers of the human race especially Abraham;
  • dictum: formal pronouncement that takes on the power of a command;
  • Pharaoh: absolute leader in ancient Egypt;
  • Solomon: son of David in ancient Israel; noted for wide judgments but autocratic and unpopular;
  • David and Goliath: David’s victory over the Philistine giant confirmed him as the true king of Israel (Old Testament Book of Samuel);
  • rolled: ( linked to idiomatic ‘roll off the tongue’) describing automatic responses resulting from habitual repetition:
  • faltered: became hesitant when memory let them down;
  • rut: track made by cart wheels that produces potholes;
  • rule by the book: follow the rules;
  • whitewash: an early form of wall paint; figurative use suggests concealment of incriminating facts;
  • body o’the kirk: (Scottish origin) church; ‘body’ can be read as the central architectural mass of the building and the spiritual organization it represents;


Having excoriated Junkin’s assertive narrow-mindedness in II Heaney portrays the shyer, more vulnerable side of the Protestant’s nature; his occasional (‘sometimes’) calls provided welcome distraction to a youngster bored with home devotions: when the rosary was dragging/ mournfully on in the kitchen. Junkin’s footfall gave his identity away (we would hear his step round the gable).

At such moments the old man paused, out of respect for their devotions: not until after the litany/ would the knock come to the door; his identity would be confirmed by his casual whistle ( ) on the doorstep and his cheery, neighbourly Ulsterisms: ‘A right-looking night,’ … ‘I was dandering by and says I, I might as well call.’

The youngster quits the family devotions in favour of good neighbourliness and crosses the boundary of the first poem: now I stand behind him/ In the dark yard, in the moan of prayers. The awkward silence between them is filled with signs of the man’s self-consciousness (He puts a hand in a pocket/ or taps a little tune with the blackthorn/ shyly) reaching the level of embarrassment he might feel faced with the sounds of passion or emotion: lovemaking or a stranger’s weeping.

A youngster’s dilemma: return to family pieties without saying a word (silently … slip away) or make contact (or go up and touch his shoulder), choose bland ‘common ground’ issues to talk about: the weather/ or the price of grass-seed? … and by ‘sowing the seeds’ initiate a reconciliation process.

  • rosary: a string of beads that keeps a count of separate devotions/ prayers;
  • dragging: connotations of protracted length, tediousness;
  • gable: the wall at the end of a ridged roof;
  • litany: schedule of appeals and prayers in a church service led by the clergy with responses from the congregation;
  • casual: friendly and relaxed;
  • strike up: (of music or conversation) begin;
  • right-looking: (South Derry usage) fine, promising well;
  • dandering by: (South Derry usage) strolling by;
  • moan: long, low sound suggesting some form of suffering;
  • party to: witnessing;
  • slip away: disappear quietly, without fuss;
  • the place-name poems at the beginning, the new title poem, Servant Boy’, ‘The Other Side’ in its final shape – were written that Autumn and winter after I came back (from Berkeley in 1971) (DOD121-2);
  • I would have thought that family and friends should have been completely at home with much of the book. It even has a poem about our late neighbour Johnny Junkin, the man who’d originally observed that the ground in one particular field of ours was ‘as poor as Lazarus’(DOD121-2);
  • Discussing the Heaney family’s sense of neighbourliness that transcended sectarian considerations Heaney commented: ‘my father had a kind of trans-sectarian licence to roam, through being in the cattle trade. Then too there were old friend­ships going back between neighbours’ families for generations. And, if I may say so, there was a kind of natural grace in the Heaney and McCann connections. Our house was happily open and, until our last Protestant neighbour Billy Steele died, the visiting continued without prejudice … The Steeles and Junkins and McIntyres and Mulhollands – who were both beside us and on the other side – these were well-disposed and capable people. They had more than enough inner freedom and confidence to retain friendships and dignity, no matter what kind of overall tension and hurt everybody had to endure(DOD128);
  • In order to understand Heaney’s work at this stage in his career and since, it is essential to try to define his complex and ambivalent attitudes towards Catholicism and Christianity… if Christianity and Christian allusion did indeed possess neither relevance nor moral force, why would it feature in such major poems as ‘The Last Mummer’, ‘Gifts of Rain’, ‘The Other Side’, ‘A Northern Hoard’, ‘The Tollund Man’, ‘Summer Home’, “Limbo’, ‘Bye Child’ and ‘Westering’?’ (MP114);
  • ‘The Other Side’ hesitates before the fact of recalcitrance. The frail possibility of connection between Catholic and Protestant neighbours, mined in any case by silences and embarrassments, is intruded upon by the mutual exclusiveness of their religious languages: the mournful litany of the Catholic rosary, and the Protestant’s Old Testament arro­gance … Those ‘tares’ are also, ironically, biblical, deriving from the parable of the sower in Matthew x III, where they are set deliberately among wheat by an ‘enemy’ … ‘The Other Side’ offers, in its third part, an image of rapprochement mutually desired, tentatively and tactfully entertained, as Pro­testant respectfully pauses before the ritual of the Catholic neighbour; and as Catholic poet, who has accorded him this primacy of approach this willingness to cross to his other side figures a possible communication, imagining himself into the consciousness of the ‘other’, and imagining it good-willed’ (NC48-9);
  • The possibility of rapprochement is the subject of ‘The Other Side’, a poem which does not duck the difficulties of improving cross-community links, but rather faces them squarely with wry good humour. It begins and ends with encounters between Heaney and a Protestant neighbour, and illustrates how centuries of conflict and distrust cannot be easily brushed aside. Much of the poem’s strength stems from Heaney’s successful characterisation of the Protestant farmer, who is treated throughout with a warm and not unsympathetic irony’ (MP101-103);
  • (Protestantism’s) ‘rural representative ( ) comes across as a fascinating phenom­enon, enduring and, in a way, endearing. Admittedly the neighbour affects a certain arrogance and self-righteousness … so sparse is his intellectual furnishing that it is difficult for poet or reader to take offence’(ibid);
  • (i)7 triplets in 2 sentences; variable line length (4-10 syllables); unrhymed ( some final assonances);

  • balance between enjambment and punctuation establishes breath groups for oral delivery;
  • personal pronouns of division: ’I’, ‘our’/ ‘his’; literal and metaphorical distance: ‘the other side’;’

  • vocabulary of imposition: ‘shadow’, ‘vouched’, ‘dismissal’;

  • high-ground/ superiority (land/religious beliefs): ‘lea sloped’, ‘fallow’; ‘chosen’, ‘on the hill’, ‘scraggy’; child’s dismissal of any grounds for superiority: ‘fabulous’;

  • habit (‘When … ‘then’) via verb tense (possible dual intent of Protestant heel-digging): ‘would stand’;’

  • New Testament references/ Biblical vocabulary: ‘Lazarus’; ‘promised’;

  • final irony hardly the thoughts of a youngster;

  • (ii) 4 triplets in 2 sentences; unrhymed;

  • line length v6-8 syllables; balance between enjambment and punctuation establishes breath groups for oral delivery;
  • rote learning/ Catholic training: ‘rehearsed’ until ‘rolled’ (off the tongue);

  • Biblical patriarchal figures;

  • metaphor: big notions/ ‘loads of hay’/ young minds/ ‘small lanes’;

  • Protestant conviction compared to minimalist decoration: ‘whitewashed kitchen’ without hope of modification; deemed anglo-scottish derivation: ‘kirk’;

  • (iii)6 triplets + 1 line in 5 sentences; unrhymed;

  • line length 6-11 syllables; balance between enjambment and punctuation establishes breath groups for oral delivery;
  • vocabulary of home worship:’ rosary’, ’litany’; tedious to this child ‘dragging mournfully on’, ‘moan of prayers’;

  • would’: repeated if occasional action;;

  • concessive ‘though’ suggests a considerateness not evident in the man’s usual comments;

  • reasons for visit passed off as random: ‘casual whistle’, ‘dandering by’;

  • use of local language: ’right-looking’;

  • man out of his comfort zone: ‘as if’;

  • direct (‘I wonder’) internal monologue;

  • final question goes unanswered;

  • 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: fifteen 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 of (i), for example, bring together sibilant sounds [s][z] alongside bilabial nasal [m], alveolar plosive [d] and velar [g];
  • 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.

One thought on “The Other Side

  1. Given the context, I’d argue the Lazarus reference is invoking the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16 and not the resurrected Lazarus.

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