For Tom Flanagan

Heaney met Tom Flanagan and was inspired by his Ireland-centred thinking at Berkeley. He explains the dedication: ‘It was Tom’s poem because I lifted the conclusion of it from his book on the Irish novelists (The Irish Novelists 1800-1850). The epigraph to that book juxtaposes MacMorris’s question in Henry V ( ) with Bloom’s answer in Ulysses … (Bloom’s reply) seemed to cut through a lot of the Identity crisis stuff that surrounded us in the early seventies so I stole it for the end of the poem’ (DOD143).

The title introduces national stereotypes and the piece will pull the rug from under their feet.


The speaker identifies closely (Our) with the guttural muse of throaty Irish Gaelic, taken over long ago by the alliterative tradition (alliterative’, suggests MP(p98) because the earliest metres of English poetry, in Anglo-Saxon and Middle English, were alliterative in form).

The linguistic take-over of Gaelic, initiated by the invaders who established the Elizabethan Plantations of the 16th and 17th centuries, is portrayed as an animal act of rape (bulled) leading incrementally to the atrophy of the sound organ that produced Gaelic’s familiar ring: her uvula grows vestigial, forgotten, as redundant as the body’s coccyx or a discarded Irish Catholic emblem (a Brigid’s cross/ yellowing in some outhouse) and confirming Ireland’s absorption into an unwelcome structure ruled from Westminster: custom, that most/ sovereign mistress’,/beds us down into/ the British isles.

  • guttural: literally ‘pertaining to the throat so referring to sounds issued from the very rear of the mouth;
  • muse: source of creative inspiration; one of nine mythological goddesses protecting the arts and sciences;
  • bulled: raped by a stronger force;
  • alliterative: reference to words beginning with the same letter; in the context of the poem Heaney links alliteration to non–Gaelic borrowings;
  • uvula: fleshy part of the soft palate that hangs down into the throat;
  • vestigial: the surviving trace of something once much greater;
  • coccyx: bone at the base of the spine once part of a longer structure;
  • Brigid’s cross: a legendary rush cross named after the Irish patroness traditionally displayed on the last day of January to ward off evil, fire and hunger; Heaney suggests the tradition is in decline;
  • outhouse: a structure separate from the main house;
  • custom: habitual practice;
  • sovereign: supreme, ruling; Heaney is perhaps recalling Othello I.iii, where the Duke calls opinion ‘a sovereign mistress of effects’, and Othello begins his reply, ‘The tyrant custom … / Hath made the flinty and steel couch of war / My thrice driven bed of down’;
  • The first section of ‘Traditions’ ( ) adapts Shakespeare to create a linguistic-sexual metaphor for Ireland’s traumatic colonial history, a history whose crucial moment – the ‘Eizabethan conquest and the Plantation of Ulster – occurred during Shakespeare’s lifetime’ (NC40);


Heaney piles irony upon irony as he shuttles between word-borrowings: ironic, any suggestion that English is spoken as a heart-warming Irish duty: We are to be proud/ of our Elizabethan English; ironic, any notion that the English shortened word (‘varsity’), that applies to only a tiny percentage of the population, amounts to grass-root stuff with us; ironic, usages that smack of master-servant relationships (we ‘deem’ or we ‘allow’/ when we suppose). The Ulster dialect does include an English lexis (some cherished archaisms/ are correct Shakespearean) and words of Scottish etymology (Not to speak of the furled /consonants of lowlanders) but these are ‘bits and bobs’ languages that refuse to go away: shuttling obstinately/ between bawn and mossland.

  • beds: connotations of place, agriculture, intimacy and altering to fit;
  • varsity’: shortened variant of ‘university’;
  • grass root stuff: grass roots seen as something at its most fundamental level ;
  • deem: judge, originally ‘pronounce a judgment’ as well as ‘form an opinion’;
  • suppose: assume, hypothesize;
  • archaism: obsolete word or expression;
  • furled: rolled up, folded up;
  • lowlander: person from the low-lying areas of Scotland;
  • shuttling: moving back and to;
  • bawn: from Irish bábhún (“walled enclosure”) a building used to shelter cattle; defensive wall  once used to protect livestock during an attack;
  • The second section then ironically notes some of the contemporary results of this ‘bulling’: the persistence, in the English spoken in Northern Ireland, of some ‘correct Shakespearean’ forms, and the currency of terms introduced by the Scots and English planters (‘bawn’, an English colonist’s fortified farm­ house, and ‘mossland’, the Scots word for ‘bogland’)’ (NC40);
  • Ulster dialect retains ‘strikingly Elizabethan’ words and turns-of-phrase, but Heaney again shows his ambivalent attitude towards these ‘cherished archaisms’, his English inheritance. ‘Cor­rect Shakespearean’ they may be, but they remind him of defeat, like the name of his birthplace, which brings together Moss from the Scots of the Planters, and baum, an English colonist’s fortified farmsteads’ (MP98);


To settle the issue the poet turns to characters from fiction, one from the hand of an English dramatist and the second by an Irish author writing (like himself) in English.

As if to demonstrate that English writers did not have a clue about Irish identity Heaney implies that Shakespeare echoed the views of Elizabethan invaders on Irish soil, for example, Edmund Spenser. Shakespeare’s sole, frivolous stage Irishman MacMorris (first heard of in London around 1600) gallivanting/ round the Globe, who commented disparagingly to cast and audience (whinged to courtier and groundling), perpetuated bigoted rumours (heard tell) that the Irish were backward (as going very bare/ of learning), were uncontrollable (wild hares) and gaunt with starvation (anatomies of death) needed to be reminded who he was ‘What ish my nation?

It takes a Jew fictionalized by an Irish novelist to nail Irish identity. James Joyce’s wandering Bloom it is who so much later (around 1919) provides Heaney with the dignified, resolute response as to where he belongs: ‘Ireland,’ said Bloom ,/ ‘I was born here. Ireland.’

The final quatrain pays tribute to James Joyce, who played such a vital role in establishing the modern Irish literary tradition, and in giving its writers ‘a mounting confidence in the validity and importance ‘ of their ground, their culture, their English.

  • MacMorris: Irish character appearing in Shakespeare’s Henry V;
  • gallivanting: go from place to place in search in frivolous pleasure;
  • Globe: London theatre in Southwark erected in 1599; site of the first public performance of a number of Shakespeare’s plays;
  • whinged: complained irritably, peevishly;
  • groundling: theatre-goer sitting in the pit close to the stage;
  • going … bare: having only very basic education; backward;
  • anatomies of death: drawn from Edmund Spenser’s State of Ireland (see ‘Bog Oak’);
  • ish: written to mimic MacMorris’ slurred Irish speech;
  • Bloom: central character of Ireland’s great modern epic (written, of course, in English), James Joyce’s Ulysses;
  • Heaney follows the fate of a virtually disappeared tongue commemorated in (a) poign­ant, glancing, allegorical elegy. (NC40)
  • In conversation with DOD , Heaney spoke very warmly about Tom Flanagan both as a staunch supporter of himself and his family at Berkeley and as a scholar who pushed his thinking away from that of a graduate in English towards much more Ireland centred considerations; he commented on ‘Tom’s brilliantly sardonic hibernocentric thinking’ (DOD143);
  • A densely packed poem … adapts Shakespeare to create a linguistic-sexual metaphor (beds) for Ireland’s traumatic colonial history. The simple assertive dignity of his declaration – emphasized by Heaney’s giving it two verbs of articulation, ‘replied’ and ‘said’­ is a criticism of the national stereotypes exhibited in the poem … ‘Traditions’ reveals itself, then, peculiarly alert to the ways in which a spoken tongue might be the medium of a history and a politics: and the word ‘ear’ is consequently also prominent in Wintering Out, as the poet describes himself listening in to the language of his original place’ (NC40);
  • ‘Bulled’ certainly suggests a ‘forced mating’ but, according to The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, can also mean ‘deceived’ or ‘cheated out of’ something. As a result of acts of violence and deceit over the centuries, the Irish lost their language and identity, along with their territory. The Gaelic tongue languished like ‘a Brigid’s Cross/ yellowing in some outhouse’, and until this century survived principally in the West, and in fragments such as family names and place­ names’ (MP98);
  • For Heaney, the poet remains a diviner, a kind of Magus ‘summoning and meshing … the subconscious and semantic energies of words’, and by drawing upon the Gaelic place-names which encircled his Mossbawn home, he attempts to re-connect the ‘energies of generation coursing through Man, land and language, to restore continuity while acknowledging change.(ibid)
  • (i) 3 quatrains in a single sentence; no formal rhyme scheme;
  • variable line length (4-8 syllables); balance between enjambment and punctuation establishes breath groups for oral delivery;
  • pronouns of common Irish ground: ‘our’, ‘us’;
  • Irish female in forced political marriage/ abused: ‘bulled’, ‘beds … into’;
  • juxtaposition of politics and language inheritance: ‘guttural’/ ‘alliterative’ (vowel/ consonant)
  • oxymoronic: ‘grows … forgotten’;
  • similes: decline of mouth delivery organs (‘uvula’) reflected in loss of tradition: language/ Catholic religious practices:
  • vocabulary of ageing: ‘vestigial’, ‘yellowing’;
  • anonymous ‘some’ ;
  • quotation confirms time of earliest anglo-scottish invasions of Ireland;
  • (ii) 3 quatrains in 2 sentences; unrhymed; line length 4-8 syllables; balance between enjambment and punctuation establishes breath groups for oral delivery;
  • vocabulary of forced obligation: ‘are to’, ‘deem’, ‘allow’;
  • pronoun of shared ground/ history: ‘we’, ‘us’;
  • irony: ‘proud’, ‘cherished’;
  • proper nouns define historical moment of anglo-scottish imperial and linguistic invasion: ‘Elizabethan’ (Shakesperean), ‘lowlander’;
  • vocabulary of (unchallenged ) common practice: ‘grass-roots stuff’, ‘suppose … correct’;
  • examples from different provenances: ‘deem’, ‘allow’; ‘bawn’, ‘mossland’;
  • what will be left of Irish language: ‘gleanings’, ’leavings’, ‘archive’;
  • (iii) 3 quatrains in 3 sentences; some loose rhyme;
  • variable line length (5-8 syllables);balance between enjambment and punctuation establishes breath groups for oral delivery;
  • paradox: nationality judged by the only fictional Irishman in Shakespeare and a fictional Jew;
  • disparaging Shakesperean judgment (imperialist): ‘heard tell’; ‘bare of learning’;
  • similes reflecting on backwardness, manners, physicality;
  • quotation: ‘ish’ close to I…rish;
  • character comparison: ’gallivanting’; ‘wandering’; ‘whinged’, ‘sensibly’;
  • 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 lines of (i), for example, bring together a cluster of plosives: alveolar [t] [d], velar [g] 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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