The Impact of Ireland on Heaney

Northern Ireland is administrative division of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, situated in the northeastern portion of the island of Ireland. The remaining portion of the island is part of the Republic of Ireland. The capital of Northern Ireland is Belfast. Northern Ireland’s population is deeply divided along religious and political lines. The schism between the Protestant majority and the Catholic minority extends deep into Northern Ireland’s past and has strongly influenced the region’s culture, settlement patterns, and politics.

The first invasion of Ireland from Britain occurred in 1169, when French-speaking Anglo-Norman lords from Wales intervened in alliance with some Gaelic lords in the southeast of Ireland. After that the English presence never really disappeared from Ireland. However, for 400 years, as the English sought to govern Ireland from Dublin, Ulster remained the most independent and Gaelic region of the country, isolated as it was by watery, wooded, and mountainous terrain. The conflict between the Catholics and the Protestants is there since 16th century.
By the 17th century, Protestant British settlers had subjugated the region’s Catholic, Gaelic inhabitants. The whole of Ireland was part of the United Kingdom until 1920, when the island was divided. Of the original 32 counties of Ireland, the 6 north-easterly counties became a British province officially known as Northern Ireland. The remaining 26 counties became independent in 1922 as the Irish Free State (later Eire, and subsequently the Republic of Ireland). Since then, most of the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland has identified with independent Ireland, and most of the Protestant majority with Britain. Catholics seeking integration with Ireland are often referred to as republicans or nationalists, while Protestants who want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom are often called unionists or loyalists.
From 1921 to 1972 Northern Ireland had its own regional parliament that exercised considerable authority over local affairs. The Protestant, unionist majority dominated the parliament, which made the government unpopular with the Catholic, nationalist minority. Northern Ireland experienced a nearly continuous period of violent conflict between these two groups from the late 1960s through the mid-1990s. The violence extended beyond Ireland, as republican paramilitary groups—in particular the Irish Republican Army (IRA)—also struck targets in London and elsewhere in England. The clashes, bombings, and assassinations in this period were often referred to as “the troubles.” In 1972 the British government shut down Northern Ireland’s regional parliament and governed the region directly from London. A 1998 accord known as the Good Friday Agreement restored some powers to a new provincial government.
The Protestant community often refers to Northern Ireland as Ulster. Catholics seldom use this name. For most Catholics the term Ulster is used only to refer to the historic Irish province of Ulster, which consisted of the current six counties and three other counties that are now in the Republic of Ireland. Catholics tend to refer to the territory as “the north of Ireland,” and those of strongly nationalist views also use the term “the six counties.”
Catholics and Protestants once lived side by side in the blue-collar neighborhoods of Belfast, but after spates of sectarian violence in the mid-19th century the city developed a tight ethnic segregation in housing patterns.
The main defining components of ethnicity in Northern Ireland are religious and political affiliation. Is general, Catholics/nationalists regard themselves as Irish, and Protestants/unionists regard themselves as British.
The Catholic-Protestant segregation extends to Northern Irish society in general. Urban residential neighbourhoods are highly segregated. Relative social status is less skewed, but Protestants hold higher-status jobs more frequently and Catholics are somewhat more likely to be unskilled or unemployed.
The economy suffered considerably as a result of the post-1969 political violence. Since the 1950s Northern Ireland has been the poorest region of the United Kingdom.
Northern Ireland is subject to British common law. The top legal officers are the lord chancellor, the attorney general, and the solicitor general. These positions are political appointments made by the British Parliament. Since 1972 a director of public prosecutions for Northern Ireland has been responsible for bringing criminal prosecutions, while civil cases are dealt with by the crown solicitor for Northern Ireland.
Political affiliation in Northern Ireland largely divides along religious lines. The major Protestant political party is the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), which is dedicated to maintaining the union between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. The largest Catholic party is the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), which is progressive on most social issues, has fraternal links with the British Labour Party, and aspires toward the long-term goal of uniting Ireland by winning the consent of the majority of people in Northern Ireland.
Prior to the mid-19th century, conflicts between the region’s ethnic groups were essentially local feuds.
The British government considered the “Irish question” to be deferred until the end of the World War I, but in 1916 the Easter Rebellion in Dublin brought it back to the forefront. The British government, however, in the hope of preventing a sympathetic rise in violent Irish militarism, made an attempt to implement Irish home rule.
The early 1970s were the bloodiest period in Northern Ireland’s sectarian violence, with a peak of 467 violent deaths in 1972. That year saw two of the most notorious incidents of the troubles. In January a regiment of British troops shot and killed 13 apparently unarmed demonstrators who had been taking part in a civil rights march in Londonderry/Derry. The shooting came to be known as Bloody Sunday, and it inspired numerous reprisal bombings. On a single July day, which in turn came to be known as Bloody Friday, the IRA detonated more than 20 bombs in Belfast, killing 9 civilians and injuring more than 100 others.
Long-standing tensions between Northern Ireland and Great Britain escalated into violence when British soldiers became a permanent presence in Northern Ireland in 1969. This 1972 incident followed the killing of 13 civilians by British troops. This article from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch describes the emotionally charged accusations made by both sides after the retaliatory bombing of the British Embassy in Dublin.
The intensity of the conflict diminished somewhat in the late 1970s, but bombings continued and the number of violent deaths remained at around 100 per year, with many times that number of injuries. A stalemate appeared to have been reached between the security forces and the rival paramilitary forces, while at the same time the division between the communities of Northern Ireland remained as sharp as ever.
After 1998, the main sticking point remained the unwillingness of the IRA to decommission (surrender) its weapons and the unwillingness of many unionists to settle for less than this. The British government transferred power to the new provincial government in December 1999. However, the impasse over IRA disarmament repeatedly interrupted work of the provincial assembly and pushed the peace process to the brink of collapse. By September 2001 the British government had suspended operation of the assembly on three occasions and still this problem is prevailing in the Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland has experienced a literary renaissance since the early 1970s that has drawn energy and public attention both from the protracted troubles and from the worldwide distinction achieved by the region’s most distinguished writer, Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney. Heaney was born in a small agricultural town 48 km northeast of Belfast in Northern Ireland. In 1957 he went to Belfast to study literature at Queen’s University, where he returned as a lecturer in 1965. Troubled by the continuing violence between the Roman Catholics and Protestants, Heaney moved to the Republic of Ireland in 1972. He taught at Carysfort College in Dublin from 1975 to 1980. Later, he taught at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts; and at the University of Oxford, in England. Heaney’s poetry, beginning with Death of a Naturalist (1966), is rooted in the physical, rural surroundings of his childhood in Northern Ireland. Heaney’s poems are often short, punctuated by the intensity of his language. His powerful words contrast sharply with the silence of the people he describes. Heaney’s poems first came to public attention in the mid-1960s when he was active as one of a group of poets who were subsequently recognized as constituting something of a “Northern School” within Irish writing. Although Heaney is stylistically and temperamentally different from such writers as Michael Longley and Derek Mahon (his contemporaries), and Paul Muldoon, Medbh McGuckian and Ciaran Carson (members of a younger Northern Irish generation), he does share with all of them the fate of having been born into a society deeply divided along religious and political lines, one which was doomed moreover to suffer a quarter-century of violence, polarization and inner distrust. This had the effect not only of darkening the mood of Heaney’s work in the 1970s, but also of giving him a deep preoccupation with the question of poetry’s responsibilities and prerogatives in the world, since poetry is poised between a need for creative freedom within itself and a pressure to express the sense of social obligation felt by the poet as citizen. The essays in Heaney’s three main prose collections, but especially those in The Government of the Tongue (1988) and The Redress of Poetry (1995), bear witness to the seriousness which this question assumed for him as he was coming into his own as a writer. His other books of poetry include Door into the Dark (1969); Wintering Out (1972); North (1975); The Haw Lantern (1987), which contains a sequence of elegies in sonnet form for his mother’s death; Seeing Things (1991), which includes elegies for his father; The Spirit Level (1996), a study in spiritual balance; and Electric Light (2001), which contains elegies to departed friends and poems about places. Opened Ground: Selected Poems 1966-1996 was published in 1998.
No doubt, Heaney wants to be aloof from political and sectarian conflicts of his country but still then he is unable to ignore it. In this way he cannot remain unconcerned with politics. He cannot bear the violence and cruelty from which his people have been suffering for centuries. He, actually, wants to share their hopes, worries and frustrations. In this way ‘Ireland’ is strongly reflected in his poetry. His poetry is deeply influenced by the effects of political, social and sectarian disorder around him.
Sometimes he considers Ireland as a bog country because there seems to be no escape from sacrifices. People, willingly or unwillingly, have to give sacrifices. In his poem, The Toome Road Heaney discusses the threat of state terrorism. The poem shows a sense of state of war in which human freedom has been blocked and the individual feels oppressed. As Heaney says:
How long were they approaching down my roads
As if they owned them?
As a very young child, he watched American soldiers on military exercises in the local fields, in preparation for the Normandy invasion of 1944. They were stationed at an aerodrome which had been built a mile or so from his home and once again Heaney has taken this image of himself as a consciousness poised between ‘history and ignorance’ as representative of the nature of his poetic life and development. Again in the poem, Tollund Man, Heaney compares the sacrifice of Tollund Man with the sacrifices of Irish people. He discusses not only the political disorder but also the sectarian conflicts by recalling the death of four Catholics at the hands of Protestants as he says:
Tell-tale skin and teeth
Flecking the sleepers
Of four young brothers, trailed
For miles along the lines.
In his poem, ‘A Constable Calls’, Heaney points out the unknown fear and panic Irish families suffer at the inquiry visits of official inspectors or constables. The state of war and effects of political ‘troubles’ are explicitly shown in this poem. The lines, ‘Its fat black handlegrips’, ‘The pedal treads hanging relieved/Of the boot of the law’ symbolically show not only the authority of the officials but also its non-acceptability.
The poem ‘Casting and Gathering’ is also an attempt to encourage the sacrificing Irish people as he thinks that oppressors and oppressed are interlinked with each other hence parts of one process. The story of continuous disturbance and conflicts is superbly portrayed in this poem and the justification is clearly visible in the lines,
I love hushed air. I trust constrariness.
Years and years go past and I do not move
For I see that when one man casts, the other gathers
And then vice versa, without changing sides.
It is a highly symbolic poem symbolising the two opposing forces working everywhere. One is correlated with the other making a reciprocal bond. Perhaps he means to say that as sowing of the seeds is necessary or harvesting the crops similarly the sacrifices of people are necessary for their independence. So Heaney’s poetry replete with the themes and references based upon his own observations, sufferings, childhood experiences and situation prevailing around him. He cannot keep himself detached from all this. Therefore a powerful impact of Irish’ background is there behind his work though he tries to deny it.
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