As an Irish writer, Heaney feels that it is his duty to write about the Irish troubles, and it is a recurring theme in many of his poems. At times he writes of incidents occurring in his own life that has relevance to the situation, at times of it directly. Using a variety of references, he brings the reader alert to his belief that whatever the reasons, the results are suffered by everyone—fear, deaths, and untold suffering. His poems are an effort to bring this view centre stage, alert people to day-to-day happenings, events that would otherwise go unheard.
Heaney describes the effects of the troubles in poems like From the Frontier of Writing and The Ministry of Fear. The former describes the Dantesque hell faced by the people each time they are stopped at a roadblock—the fear and paralysis that shoots through them—and the feeling when finally they are let go, “arraigned yet free”. In The Ministry of Fear he talks of the inherent separation of Catholics and Protestants— “Catholics, in general, don’t speak / As well as students from Protestant schools”. Even when stopped by the police for a routine check, his Catholic name would attract attention. Incidents like this make living in Ireland a daily nightmare.
Mourning the Dead
In poems such as Funeral Rites he talks of the many that have been killed; almost everyone he knows has someone to mourn. He describes the symbolic cortege, “winding past / each blinded home”, struck by tragedy and sorrow. The numbers are chilling, and drives home Heaney’s point—the conflict is a lose-lose situation.
Casualty is a poem that speaks of the futility of the killings— referring to civilians killed by the IRA. The “casualty” in this poem is Heaney’s friend, killed in a curfew, and the poet asks “how culpable was he?” There are other poems he writes, remembering friends who have lost their lives, many of them in ‘Field Work’.
Searching for a Solution
In light of these conflicts, Heaney attempted to uncover a solution, believing that his role as a writer prompted him to attempt a solution. In his bog poems, and certain others, he advocates a return to the roots of the past. In The Tollund Man he searches for a symbol—one that will unite the people and magically overcome the conflict. These poems thus, have as an underlying theme a wish to resolve the problems of conflict-ridden Ulster.
It’s Not All Bad
The entire picture isn’t bleak however, as Heaney points out in The Other Side and An Ulster Twilight. In these poems he writes of unexpected acts of kindness by Protestant neighbours to Catholics in the area—sterling examples of compassion and beauty that stand out amidst the terrible, hate-filled encounters.
These are examples of where those from “the other side”, despite their affiliations, reached out and displayed humanity to a person who, after all despite their religion, was just another human being.
Heaney, as an Irish poet, has used the troubles as a context to many of his poems, either directly or indirectly. However, his greatness as a poet lies in showing tiny portraits of Irish life, which portray these conflicts as real, and gives both sides to the account. He brings out the human side to it, which makes him one of the most important Irish poets in recent times.