Seamus Heaney’s Reflection on The Northern Irish Troubles

Seamus Heaney
Image from the Nobel Foundation Archive

In this week’s Irish Literature class, we examined the life and work of Seamus Heaney. Arguably Ireland’s most prolific contemporary poet, Heaney addressed a range of topical themes, these include:

  • Heritage
  • Irish Identity
  • The Turbulence of the Northern Irish Troubles

Expertly interweaving these themes into his body of work; Heaney maintained a balance between his desire to write poetry of enlightenment, and his sense of obligation to represent the feelings of his community during a time of political turmoil.

This need to reflect upon the violence of The Troubles can be seen in poems such as ‘Funeral Rights’, which deals directly with the conflict in Northern Ireland. The Irish Times covers this in an interesting piece by Conor McClosky entitled ‘How Writers Sought to Make Sense of the Troubles’: In the piece McClosky discusses how Heaney made sense of the effects of The Troubles through connecting key events to the past.

The attitudes of his nationalist, Catholic community can also be felt more generally in pieces such as ‘Broagh’. Here, Heaney reflects upon the feeling of belonging as being connected to physical places. In the poem, he notes that the place-name ‘Broagh’ is intrinsically Irish; belonging to Broagh is belonging to Ireland – something which can be felt in the fact that outsiders can’t pronounce the name. The poem takes on a more ethereal, transcendent quality then his other, more political work. Yet even though it feels less politically motivated, you can still see the effect the turbulence of the political and social sphere in Northern Ireland at the time had on Heaney and his writing.

Heaney’s expressions of what it was to be Irish in a time and place where Irish identity was in question are incredibly important. All of his work can be looked at as being influenced by his environment, providing readers with nuanced expressions of Catholic life in Northern Ireland during a time of incredible turbulence.

Queering the Victorians: Christina Rosetti’s ‘Goblin Market’

Title page to Goblin Market and Other Poems by Christina Rosetti, as drawn by her brother Dante Rosetti.
An innocent sleeping position, or a lovers embrace?

“She kissed and kissed her with a hungry mouth,

Her lips began to scorch,

That juice was wormwood to her tongue

She loathed the feast”

-Christina Rosetti, ‘Goblin Market’.

Examine the above quote. What would you assume of the nature of relationship between these two women? If you imagined it to be romantic you would not be the first

While many different readings may be present in Rosetti’s Goblin market, the first impression I personally got of the poem was that Rosetti was possibly describing the temptations surrounding the then ‘taboo’ notion of homosexual desire. Other interpretations see the characters as representative of religious allegories – Rosetti was a practising Christian. This made sense, but my feeling that there must be a deeper, hidden meaning to the piece led me to question the extent of which we can apply a modern reading to a period text.

The Victorians as we know them were a rigid, ‘moral’ people – the British ‘stiff upper lip’ ideology came from them. If this was the case, how could Rosetti even think to write about sexuality, let alone ‘abominable’ homosexuality, when she lived in a world where such things must not be discussed? Surely any intimacy she described in her work had to be purely innocent, right?

Maybe not. While I don’t know everything there is to know about the Victorians just yet, I do know this: they were human. That is something that the Victorians and us have in common. My question, therefore, is this: am I looking at ‘Goblin Market’ through the bias of modern perspective, or does the fact that we live in a modern society make these possibly ‘taboo’ messages more obvious?

If you’re interested in learning more about Victorian sexuality and sexual repression, Jan Marsh wrote an interesting article on the subject for the Victoria and Albert Museum website: