The damp rose with the morning warmth

As little green men flash,

The neon sign that was made to destroy

Night and day,

And the red ones too

Halting fierce ambitions, to get to work

Preventing the momentum of the day,

When it’s only a 5th the way through.


For years before I had missed

Bustling church congregations, five minutes before the hour,

An old Italian truth-holder delivering to many,

Few really hear, he’s not Italian, Hungarian but

Lived there all his life and

A shimmering light whilst he honest hotel lady

Opens up, the place dusty again and the ever-tired

Prostitute shuts windows, pulls blinds, craves oblivion.


And it seems infinitely more can happen

In the heat of the morning, where

Falling leaves cement the groundwork for a while

And the place isn’t informed bout’ the

Infinite scorn of the news, for a while

And the sun rises, cash-tillers groan

Imposters impost, compost dries, giving rise to

Another day, a day of coke bottles in the wind.


Sep 20th 2013.



This is part of an essay I originally wrote back in 2011 in my first year of University. I decided to post it today because of his fairly untimely demise. I found Heaney’s work in North slightly drab to have to analyse in an academic manner, but his fluency with words was undeniable. 

I am going to attempt to do some work excavating the meaning and essence of the collected poems in ‘North’ by Seamus Heaney, first published in 1975. The poems in North explore a number of intriguing and mysterious themes such as the national and cultural past of his homeland, life, death, sex, gender, and land and blood myths, bringing about a unique vision of Ireland’s rich and bloody history. Bearing in mind the socio-political context at the time of writing, North has shown to have had a profound impact on how the troubles and violence in Ireland are observed. One way he does this is to highlight the complex relationship between the past and present, directly and indirectly. In light of his art, Heaney has been described by Malcolm Bradbury as “the poet of poets” and makes up two thirds of the sales of living poets in the UK whilst being awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1995.

In order to read the poems in their proper context, one must firstly get an overview of the history of Ireland up to 1975 to clarify and understand the complex relationship between past and present, knowledge of Heaney’s own background also being crucial as to appreciate the engagement between identity of the self and the political landscape of the time, growing up as a young boy. The earliest historical references found in North concern the Iron Age where Heaney adopts an almost Anglo-Saxon prose to describe the brutality of Viking invasion, predominantly featured in Part I in poems such as ‘The Grauballe Man’ and ‘Bog Queen’. After a long period of unrest and political turbulence concerning control of the land, the Act of Union was signed in 1800 to legally bind Britain to Ireland. The first real instances of national Republicanism followed the Great Hunger of 1845-49 leading to the creation of Sinn Fein in 1905, who ‘campaigned for an independent, united Ireland’ (BBC; 2001).

After the original IRA was formed in 1919, the era we widely denote as ‘The Troubles’  began, characterised by violence against civil rights protesters and culminating in ‘Bloody Sunday’ in 1972.  Heaney engages in a clear manner with the contemporary struggle for independence, marred by barbarism and religious fanaticism (giving the impression he is almost bemused by it) to create an analogy with the Ancient world of sacrifice and religion .

Born into a Catholic family on a farm in Northern Ireland just before WWII, Heaney’s geographical and archaeological approach to poetry is somewhat unsurprising. His father a farmer and his mother having links to the industrial revolution, rural and religious tension manifests itself in the earthy subject matter which he approaches. This is featured particularly in his early work like ‘Digging’ where he draws a comparison between his father’s farming work and his own literary achievements.  Poems such as ‘Punishment’ and ‘Bog Queen’ were almost undoubtedly inspired by the discoveries of Scandinavian and Irish bog bodies in the early 1950’s; – ‘on the gravel bottom, my brain darkening, a jar of spawn, fermenting underground’. This sentence to me depicts a unique sense of a bizarre organic restless soul who is trapped under the ground, the brooding body of the past, a vision which is encouraged by the spooky brutality of Heaney’s words.

In North, my view is that Heaney is making a stand by immortalising his words to be read not so much as a moral guideline but as an observational document to highlight the need for examination and pushing through the boundaries of history to understand our selves, writing that “the bog is a dark casket where we have found many of the clues to our past and to our cultural identity”. It is a coherent explanation of Heaney’s use of contrast between past and present. Other poems with historical references contained in subject matter are featured throughout North, half-known just from looking at the titles: ‘Act of Union’ – which compares the signing away of the Country with the violation of a female; this humanistic approach is also found in ‘Strange Fruit’, which immediately recalls the 1939 poem with the same title regarding the lynching’s of black people in the US. The violent theme of death is again featured in both poems, even with a similar turn of phrase again from Heaney: ‘Here is the girl’s head like an exhumed gourd.’ and ‘Here is your fruit, for the crows to pluck’ . Both poems seem to deal broadly with civil rights and the Callous and imprudent disposal of human lives, the corrosive effect his has on society.

Heaney addresses his own personal relationship with the past predominantly in part II of North. In a stark change of tone, Heaney brings the text into a more modern era with a direct use of the English language to approach more personal and contemporary topics. As a wider reference to the Troubles in Ireland, we can point to ‘Orange Drums, Tyrone, 1966’, which is perhaps a reflection of an Orange Order parade, the largest old protestant organisation (BBC; 2001) in Northern Ireland. The drums in the poem resonate as ancient Nationalist carnival, yet pervading undertones of darkness and violence; ‘It is the drums preside, like giant tumours… the goatskin’s sometimes plastered with his blood. The air is pounding like a stethoscope’ – showing an internal religious conflict, a constant problem. Heaney is also citing Irish poet W.B. Keats with his references to the ‘Orangemen’ recalling Yeats’ own memories of that period, whose work is shadowed to some extent by Heaney’s. Continuing on the theme of the passing of time in ‘Fosterage: For Michael Mclaverty’, Heaney writes his formative years by referencing his former teacher and perhaps how he feels fostered by this Father figure, who Heaney could relate to unlike his farmer father. He is acknowledging the effect his own past has had on shaping the person he has become, perhaps best described in the line ‘he discerned the lineaments of patience everywhere and fostered me and sent me out, with words imposing on my tongue like obels’.

The final poem in North, ‘Exposure’ leaves Heaney and the reading pondering the possibilities of the future; ‘Escaped from the massacre, taking protective covering, from bole and bark, feeling every wind that blows’,  mans vulnerability is exposed and explored in the book and we know it is closing time. It is clear we need to learn from our past, no matter how bloody or unpleasant it appears. Truth and learning is key. Perhaps Heaney is unsympathetic to the idea of mythologizing violence of the past simply because he see’s parallels of it with the modern day and vehemently rejects the idea of the contemporary troubles being distorted, mythologised or trivialised in the future, a message heavily implied and reiterated throughout the relationships between past and present explored by Heaney in North. Give this book to young poets as a piece of archaeology itself, one which set the framework for a large amount of modern day Irish political writing.

They came to their houses with pick axes

And you looked on with pride

I saw them waving their signs, hooting horns

And knew I’d won


This time round

But wasn’t always like this

Once was proposed to you a bomb,

And you took it as your call


More of an insider calling

Because that day you didn’t hear

Reasonable protest, legitimate concerns,

Shrugged off like a boring week


And in the quest to fill every page

Entered my vision field, cut you made

Today, so I could win again

Hearing you made it into fertile lands


And you make me have to admit

You labour all my senses.

Find me an occupation

And move him out that big house

A real hurdle to clear this time

New laugh for a fresh faced crowd


I can’t put up with what others put up with

But ignore my pain

So find me someone to be

I can talk to them normally again


Find me an occupation

A useful claim on my body

That asks not too much of my head,

So the others I can somehow study


And late at night do you think I could do cards?

Like I did with that drunk driver

Get into household objects, make Polaroid’s

Or go with the grain, every common striver


I sometimes remember what school was like

When I see some kid’s young face

The path of most resistance

In this long and churlish race


Find me a job, concrete life

So I’m kept up at night, not keeping

When I’m in a cloud, I can only remain silent

A sleepy felt prick, hardly feeling


If we screw up yesterday’s newspapers

Can’t we screw up yesterday’s news?

Find me an occupation

‘Cos that’s a simple cruise


And you must feel that sense of duty

Perverting the room and the streets

For a cure we walk off with boys

And top ourselves up with sweets.

If you see me get up and stand by the morning window

I am remembering the accents of one-sided phone calls

And afternoons with mother

And what I was doing on this day, or that day

The details of an old house, an old friend

And how soon it would take for life to resume.


In those moments, you may take me

For I am on autopilot

Tying to think of some metaphor for

Watery lips, cucumber smile

Secret reflections, unspoken connections

And whether dreams satisfy

The real needs of my heart.


Or whether that was all just fodder,

Fodder for some listless afternoon

Or another short poem

With places and cathedral backrooms

Where men turn their wants

Into allegorical nursery-rhymes.


They don’t want to realise how soon

Life will resume

At best they know it’s like a

Half-forgotten old holiday trip

With some quirks, some follies

And their dreams can only be – lost to the world.

They cleared out my house,

Or place of living

Because I tempted the mould


And the swarm

Came and landed

Conjoining the pavements which


The rain washed away,

The sweat of the day,

More bad news,


Which faded none through our restless clocks

I come, the wine is gushing

And man, has she grown up to discover


A cluster of holes

Up in my head

As tree’s and worms breed


My bed creaks

My bones speak aloud

We’ll gather in packs


Remove your fashion and style and

I won’t remember you if

You sit there in the corner, alone


Isn’t that what you want?

Isn’t that what you want?

To start poking at my holes.

The room was full of Christians

Colliding in grace

I said ‘at least you do it for the love of it’

And in the way that it does

Their hair matted, lips pouted, middle-lives

Slightly higher black population

Because it’s good and proper

To ignore your tumours.


What is time if not for wasting?

And what are words if not for creating?

Such faith is like a fingernail

Just attached to the skin

Matter, benign, growing on the spinal cord

When you go to bed tonight

Close the curtain full

To cancel the divine light.


There’ll be one less Christian in the room

Upon waking up.