Wednesday, April 1, 2009


This piece first appeared in The Boston Irish Reporter, Volume 20, Number 4 (April 2009), pp. 16, 19.

Published in his landmark volume North (1975), Seamus Heaney’s poem “Funeral Rites” endures as a richly evocative contemplation of the sectarian violence that came to define life in his native Northern Ireland for the better part of three decades beginning in 1969. Included in part I of the volume, the poem is one of a series of poems mostly inspired by Heaney’s discovery of P. V. Glob’s book The Bog People (coincidentally published in English translation in 1969), a fascinating anthropological study of bodies buried in the bogs of northern Europe during the Iron Age and only recently unearthed, remarkably preserved, after several millennia.

Reflecting in his essay “Feeling Into Words” (1974) on Glob’s conclusion that many of these bodies “were ritual sacrifices to the Mother Goddess, the goddess of the ground who needed new bridegrooms each winter to bed with her in her sacred place, in the bog, to ensure the renewal and fertility of the territory in the spring,” Heaney recognized that “the religious intensity of the violence” in Northern Ireland needs to be understood not just in terms of the traditional social, economic, and political Catholic-Protestant sectarian divide in that province. Rather, it must be considered in terms of a truly archetypal “struggle between the cults and devotees of a god and a goddess”—the emblematically male crown of England, and Ireland conventionally feminized as “Mother Ireland, Kathleen Ni Houlihan, the poor old woman, the Shan Van Vocht, whatever . . .”

Heaney’s first foray into the rich territory opened up by Glob’s book was “The Tollund Man” (published in his volume Wintering Out in 1972), which begins with the poet promising himself that he will go on pilgrimage to see in person the most famous of the bog bodies:

Some day I will go to Aarhus
To see his peat-brown head,
The mild pods of his eye-lids,
His pointed skin cap.

The Danish city of Aarhus sounding as a homonym for “our house,” Heaney concludes the poem on a note of cold comfort indeed:

Out there in Jutland
In the old man-killing parishes
I will feel lost,
Unhappy and at home.

“Funeral Rites” thus represents a further example of what Heaney described as his poet’s “search for images and symbols adequate to our predicament”—a search that he framed by way of touchstones lifted from William Shakespeare (Sonnet 65) and W. B. Yeats (“Meditations in Time of Civil War”): “The question, as ever, is ‘How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea?’ And my answer is, ‘by offering befitting emblems of adversity.’”

Comprising three sections, each one in turn comprising eight, seven, and five slim unrhymed quatrains, the poem actually sits on the page as a visual emblem of Heaney’s overall poetic enterprise, which he described metaphorically in “Digging,” the opening poem of his first volume, Death of a Naturalist (1966):

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

Coaxing the reader’s eye to scroll deeper and deeper down the page (“down and down / For the good turf”), “Funeral Rites” also takes the reader into darker and darker thematic ground belied by the relative innocence of the opening section, which begins innocuously enough: “I shouldered a kind of manhood / stepping in to lift the coffins / of dead relations.” For even while describing the common rite of passage into Irish male adulthood which involves attending wakes and serving as pall bearer at funerals, Heaney employs diction (“soapstone,” “igloo,” “glacier”) that resonates with a far-northern “word-hoard” (as he puts it in the title poem of North) that evokes not only Glob’s Scandinavian world but also the history and the legacy of the brutal Viking invasions of Ireland which began in the late 8th century and continued until the Battle of Clontarf in 1014:

Dear soapstone masks,
kissing their igloo brows
had to suffice

before the nails were sunk
and the black glacier
of each funeral
pushed away.

The auspiciousness of his word-choices notwithstanding, the second section of the poem actually goes back even further historically than the Viking invasions in search of “befitting emblems of adversity” as the local funerals become more numerous and their causes more nefarious with the explosion of sectarian violence in the North in the 1970s:

Now as news comes in
of each neighbourly murder
we pine for ceremony,
customary rhythms:

the temperate footsteps
of a cort├Ęge, winding past
each blinded home.

As telling as John Milton’s oxymoron “darkness visible” (describing Hell in Paradise Lost), that self-contradicting phrase “neighbourly murder” leads by way of the words “ceremony” and “customary” to an allusion to Yeats’s great poem “A Prayer for My Daughter” (1919), in which the poet asks: “How but in custom and in ceremony / Are innocence and beauty born?” The custom and the ceremony that Heaney imagines in his time and place involves the “black glacier” of the funeral, now transformed into “a serpent,” being steered south of the border through “the Gap of the North” (the Moyry Pass, the route running out of south Armagh toward Dundalk) and on to “the great chambers of Boyne”—the series of 5000-year-old passage graves (most famously Newgrange, Knowth, and Dowth) that dot the Boyne Valley in counties Louth and Meath. Invoking for the alert reader both the Battle of Moyry Pass (1600) and the Battle of the Boyne (1690), the very course of the imagined funeral procession is marked by milestones of Ireland’s violent history that must be laid to rest.

In the third section of “Funeral Rites,” the insidious serpent of violence sealed inside the passage grave by a massive stone, Heaney imagines the procession returning to Northern Ireland “past Carling and Strang fjords” (placenames reflecting the Viking legacy in Ireland), “the cud of memory / allayed for once, arbitration / of the feud placated.” Then, imagining the spirits dwelling with equanimity in that Irish burial mound, Heaney finally—directly licensed by the Nordic resonance of Glob’s book—inserts into his poem the spirit of Gunnar, a hero from the Icelandic Volsunga Saga, “who lay beautiful / inside his burial mound, / though dead by violence // and unavenged”: though slain by the mother of his enemy Atli, in Heaney’s interpretation Gunnar yet rests in peace because the cycle of violence ends with his death. Obviously, Heaney’s art of digging in this poem leads to parable-like implications regarding reconciliation and forgiveness between the “cults and devotees” in Northern Ireland.

And that is why I thought of that poem in all its richness and density when I recently viewed a very short film (8 minutes, 58 seconds) titled Forgiveness, scripted by Jamie O’Neill, best-known as the author of that remarkable novel of the Great War and the Easter Rising, At Swim, Two Boys (2001). The film links three historical figures: British-born diehard Irish nationalist Erskine Childers, executed by an Irish Free State firing squad in 1922; his son Erskine, who served briefly (1973-74) as President of the Republic of Ireland; and Kevin O’Higgins, Minister of Justice in the Free State and one of the men who had signed the execution order for the elder Childers. Not wanting to play “spoiler,” I will mention only that the film is premised on the anecdote that Childers requested of his 16-year-old son that he seek out and shake the hand of every man who had signed his death warrant. While the film speaks to a different time and place than Heaney’s poem, it nonetheless shares the poem’s concluding vision of hopefulness. Understated rhetorically and directed and acted with elegant simplicity, Forgiveness can be viewed for free on Jamie O’Neill’s website.

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