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Seamus Heaney Essay

The religious and political conflict in Northern Ireland is a deep seeded, highly emotional issue. Put simplistically, it is a centuries old battle between the Native Irish Catholics and the Protestants, who are supported by the British government. Seamus Heaney, born into an Irish Catholic family, is well aware of the intricacies and emotion involved in this situation. By the nineteen sixties, through his poetry Heaney had become a well-known public figure. It was for this reason that his friends wanted Heaney to come out and show public support for the Republicans by writing for their cause. Heaney was often looked upon as a traitor for not showing allegiance to the Republicans and writing political poetry. Regardless of these pressures Heaney remained mute on these issues. He was determined to write more lasting poetry not just political poetry solely for the moment. It was not until he was introduced to P. V. Glob’s book The Bog People, written about the Pagan ritual murders of hundreds of years ago in Northern Europe, that Heaney was moved to comment on the conflict in his native Ireland. The images of Denmark’s ancient people entombed in the bog inspired Heaney to compare their plight to that of the Irish victims of violence of the time.

P. V. Glob’s book The Bog People came out in 1969. It gave intricate details of how the Danish bog had preserved people and objects for hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of years. Although Glob’s book gave a precise account of the victims in the Bog and their violent demise, it was the photos that most captivated Heaney. Heaney drew comparison between these photos and the many images of victims of the Northern Ireland conflict at the time. It was these comparisons that compelled him to write such poems as The Tollund Man, The Grauballe Man and Punishment.

Glob’s book enhanced Heaney’s fixation with the Bog. He had already shown his fascination for it with his poem Bogland. He saw the Bog as a link to the past through its ability to remember everything that happened to it. In this poem Heaney speaks fondly of the Bog, the “ground itself is kind, black butter”. He tells of its preserving power, “they’ve taken the skeleton / of the great Irish elk / out of the peat”. And when digging the peat for fuel they are also uncovering Ireland’s past, “our pioneers keep striking / inwards and downwards, / every layer they strip / seems camped on before”.

It is in The Tollund Man that Heaney intertwines P. V. Glob’s Bog People with his own Irish countrymen. He draws a parallel between the Danish ritual and sacrificial murders of centuries ago with religious and political murders of the Irish conflict. In the very first line of the poem Heaney shows his fascination with The Tollund Man. “Some day I will go to Aarhus”. This has a certain romance about it as if Heaney is so captivated by the image he must go and see it for himself. He seems compelled to go on some sort of pilgrimage or quest. It is also a romantic notion because The Tollund Man is actually housed at Silkeborg, not at Aarhus where he was found. With the line “The mild pods of his eye-lids”, we get the impression of pity on Heaney’s part. He sees The Tollund Man as a timid victim of circumstances and feels sorry for him and his plight. Heaney sees Tollund Man’s sacrifice to the earth as a ritual marriage. “I will stand a long time. / Bridegroom to the goddess”. The Bog goddess’ juices would keep him for hundreds of years to come. “Those dark juices working / Him to a saint’s kept body”, until he was found by the turf cutters. “Trove of the turfcutters’ / Honeycombed workings”.

In part two of The Tollund Man Heaney moves from the ritual sacrifice of Tollund Man to the killings in Northern Ireland. He is comparing the Boglands of Denmark with those of Ireland and gives mention to the murder of four brothers from an earlier time in Ireland. The Danish pagan sacrifices were made in the hope of good crops the following season. Heaney sees the Irish religious killings, such as those of the four brothers, as sacrifices just at a different time in history. He wishes these murders would appease a god and bring about some good.

In the third and final part of the poem Jutland (Denmark) and Ireland are bound together. “Out there in Jutland / In the old man-killing parishes”. Heaney makes the two countries as one by using the words Jutland, which is the home of the Bog people and then parish, which is a religious word and also how Ireland is divided up geographically. Here, “I will feel lost, / Unhappy and at home”. Heaney describes how he would feel in a foreign country such as Denmark. He would be lost in unfamiliar territory, but at the same time feel at home because of the similarities between the Bog of Denmark and the Bog of Ireland. Yet he would still be unhappy because the landscape is a reminder of the ancient Bog peoples killings and the murders still going on in Northern Ireland.

Unlike The Tollund Man, The Grauballe Man does not draw such direct comparison between The Bog People and the violence in Ireland. In relation to The Grauballe Man, Heaney has taken particular care to describe in detail exactly what has so captured his imagination. Using simile, “His instep has shrunk / cold as a swan’s foot / or a wet swamp root” , and metaphor “his spine an eel arrested / under a glisten of mud” to convey to the reader the picture of The Grauballe Man as he sees him. Heaney translates to the reader the pity he feels for The Grauballe Man with such lines as, “seems to weep / the black river of himself ”. The poem is enveloping, with intimate descriptions capturing the imagination and then suddenly these words “the vent / of his slashed throat” jar the senses back to the present. It is a stark reminder of the violence that brought this victim to his resting-place. These lines also reiterate what fascinates Heaney about the Bog people, their connection with the violence on Heaney’s doorstep in Ireland.

Heaney ponders what dreadful events must have transpired to bring The Grauballe Mans demise, “The cured wound / opens inwards to a dark / elderberry place”. With these lines Heaney also asks questions of the ancient Pagans and the Irish at his time of writing. What pushes people to commit such murders? Did Grauballe Man’s death benefit the people of his time and will the deaths in Ireland advance anyone’s cause? Or will the victims of the Irish conflict, like Grauballe Man and Tollund Man, be consigned to the bog and to history? Heaney’s sympathy is further expressed as the poem continues, “bruised like a forceps baby”, and his infatuation is exemplified in the lines “but now he lies / perfected in my memory”. Heaney, throughout the poem shows his affinity to and feelings for, the victim. Although it is in the concluding lines “each hooded victim, / slashed and dumped” that Heaney reminds the reader of the horror of Grauballe Mans death. These lines also bring to light the vivid realities of what is taking place in Ireland at the time this poem was written.

Punishment, as in The Tollund Man and The Grauballe Man, brings to light Heaney’s affection for the Bog people. The images of these victims draws Heaney in to what must have taken place at the time of their death. “I can feel the tug / of the halter at the nape / of her neck, the wind / on her naked front”. The lines “and your / tar-black face was beautiful. / My poor scapegoat, / I almost love you” show how infatuated Heaney is with Windeby Girl. In using the metaphor “would have cast, I know, / the stones of silence”, Heaney reveals his own reluctance to speak out about the violence in Ireland. “I who have stood dumb / when your betraying sisters, / cauled in tar, / wept by the railings”. These lines reiterate Heaney’s hesitancy to become involved publicly in the Northern Ireland conflict. They compare Windeby Girl with the young girls of Ireland in the 1970’s, being covered in tar and tied to the front railings of their house. This was punishment for Catholic Irish girls who consorted with British troops, although Windeby Girl’s punishment for adultery was death. Even though Heaney expresses his attachment to and affection for Windeby Girl, and would be outwardly shocked by the tarring of the Irish girls, “would connive / in civilized outrage”, he shows how deep the feelings run in Ireland with the words “yet understand the exact / and tribal, intimate revenge”. This to shows a glimpse of Heaney’s dark side and his understanding of the depth of emotions and passion involved in the Irish conflict.

Glob’s book The Bog People enabled Heaney to look at the violence in Northern Ireland from a different perspective. By giving a comparison between these ancient sacrificial murders and the killings and violence in Northern Ireland, Heaney could bring the issues of the day to light. Through this method he could avoid making political statements or lecturing to his readers about how he saw the situation. Heaney himself could stand aside from these volatile issues and give a broader, less tainted view of the events that were unfolding. This would enable his poetry to open people’s minds to these events, rather than force the issue onto the public. Heaney had been put under immense pressure to speak out for the Republican cause. Therefore writing these poems, The Tollund Man, The Grauballe Man and Punishment brought with it a great sense of relief and a cathartic effect. In conveying the story of the Irish conflict in such an articulate and compelling manner, Heaney was far more likely to elicit sympathy for the plight of the Irish. Just as the images of Tollund Man, Grauballe Man and Windeby Girl were able to evoke feelings of compassion from Heaney, so would his poems evoke these feelings in his readers. Heaney’s poems give a dignity to these ancient people who were sacrificed for the benefit of their society, and may help the many victims of the Irish conflict be afforded a similar stature.

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