Seamus Heaney’s Reflection on The Northern Irish Troubles

Seamus Heaney
Image from the Nobel Foundation Archive
https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/1995/heaney/facts/

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’: https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/how-writers-sought-to-make-sense-of-the-troubles-1.2889316. 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.