Seamus Heaney

On the sad occasion of Seamus Heaney’s funeral, poet Paul Muldoon described him as a person who had that “ability to make each of us feel connected not only to him but to one another.”

Anyone who has enjoyed Heaney’s poetry will know the truth of that statement. Heaney’s poetry explored his own thoughts and interpretations on his surroundings and experiences in such a way that was at once individual and reflective of his own identity but that also resonated with the emotions of any reader who may have at one time considered their own self-hood.

In his poem ‘Death of a Naturalist’ the nostalgic tone that describes the account of a boy collecting frog spawn captures the curiosity and obsession that children have with nature – the descriptions detailed and excited as only a child’s can be – and how that same curiosity can turn a child’s imagination to fear. 

“…The great slime kings

were gathered there for vengeance and I knew

That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.”

His poetry on the bogs are some of my favourite. The bog always seemed such a mysterious and magical place when I visited it as a child. The bog holes with their dank, black water held the kind of dangerous mystery that entices and frightens simultaneously. I imagined all that had sank and been sunk into those brown waters to never be seen again and it was not surprising that when it came to writing, Dawn Solstice, the bog would feature prominently in the story along with the discovery of a bog body.

Heaney’s Tollund Man (1972) draws out that part of me that wants to marvel, observe and think on all those things that I imagined as a child could be below the surface of those black pools of bog water.

“Some day I’ll go to Aarhus

To see his peat-brown head,

The mild pods of his eyelids,

His pointed skin cap.”

Heaney who was born in Derry and studied at Queen’s, Belfast until 1961 said in a later interview that his intention with the poems was to ‘draw a parallel’ between the historical Iron Age and the current state (1970s) of Irish Republicanism. These themes are most clear in Bogland.

From a political standpoint the poem could be said to have a mournful tone. You get the sense that Ireland’s history is torn open, wounded and that wound keeps opening.

“…Our unfenced country

is bog that keeps crusting

Between the sights of the sun.”

And again that sense of regret mixed with pride:

“They’ll never dig coal here,


Only the waterlogged trunks

Of great firs soft as pulp.

Our pioneers keep striking

Inwards and downwards,


Every layer they strip

Seems camped on before.

Heaney wanted to draw comparisons between goddess Earth, the seasons, the idea of sacrifice and Irish Republicanism. At the time he was accused of using mythological iconography to aestheticise violence and then of not setting out his opinion clearly enough on Irish Republicanism. Later he says that he is unsure if he deceived the reader and himself into believing that the poems were truly political in nature and on reflection he seems unsure.

There are similar themes explored in my novel, Dawn Solstice. Throughout the novel there are frequent references to the boglands of Ireland and the bogs are used as a direct link to the past/history. When writing the novel, I was aware of the use of mythological references that would serve as an echo to Ireland’s past when placed alongside the IRA gun running storyline. My aim was to give an historical depth to a contemporary novel, and to provide a ‘cross section’ cut of Irish culture within a historical context. I feel this is what Heaney’s bog poems also do and therefore I can see why one looking for a definite political position within them might fail to find it.

In an interview given to Henri Cole in the Paris Review, Heaney, who was then 55 years old described how when creating ‘Squarings’ he had the “definite desire to write a kind of collection that cannot immediately be ensnared in what they call the ‘cultural debate’. This has become one of the binds as well as one of the bonuses for poets in Ireland. Every poem is either enlisted or unmasked for its clandestine political affiliations.”

I think this reveals Heaney’s true motive when writing and that was investigating the meaning of self-identity rather than of political argument. His poetry sometimes utilizes the bog as a metaphor for Ireland’s Troubles but was driven by Heaney’s own experiences, fascination with the bog people and formative years.

“Ideally our work is directed towards some just, disinterested point of reception. A locus of justice, a kind of listening post and final appeal court. I regard many of the things I know and have to tell about as deriving from my Catholic minority background in Northern Ireland, but I don’t regard that as a circumstance that determines my audience or my posture.” Seamus Heaney. Paris Review.

Twitter: @LivKiernan

On facebook: Olivia Kiernan, Author


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