North, by Seamus Heaney


Published in 1975, this is an impressionistic portrait of an Ireland as remote from us today as if Heaney were talking about the time of St Patrick.  His depiction of a land “shackled in rosary beads” tells of long ago, when the clergy held sway, before the rise and fall of the Celtic tiger, with its fantasy economics, easy credit, and the covering of that damp land in houses, many of which remain unfinished.

The dour poems in the first part show us rural Ireland and the winteriness of its “unrelenting soil”, its many, many, old bones: a land of ritual and drudgery.  Its inhabitants are so close to the earth that they are symbolised by bog people, who merge with it.  This Ireland is not green, but grey.

These poems are accomplished, if not always accessible, but the tone is monotonous.  Heaney sounds like a man who, sitting in his Dublin study, is happier mythologizing a hard rural existence, one of tediousness punctuated by occasional violence, than living it.  To be fair he does get out of Ireland on occasion.  In one poem he finds himself in Devon, looking at a dead mole.  He is not a naturally cheerful man, one suspects.

The title poem is about pillaging Vikings, and you get the impression that Heaney has a long memory that holds its grudges tight.  Puzzling is a reference to Frank Sinatra in a poem about the Vikings, but it may be a reference to the emigration from Ireland to America over the centuries:

Come fly with me,
come sniff the wind
with the expertise
of the Vikings –

The major theme, other than the Irish landscape and Greek myths (and the Vikings), is England, and the shorter, more personal, second part of the book appears to address the turmoil in Northern Ireland which, in 1975, seemed as if it would never end.  Even here, however, while the poems seem clearer than in the first part, ably rehearsing old resentments, they are still oblique comments on the wider situation.  Heaney made his views clear by moving to the Republic in 1972; one might wish for similar forthrightness in his writing rather than the chippiness present here.

An exception to the miserabilist slant of the collection is the first poem, which recalls his childhood in Northern Ireland.  Tellingly called ‘Sunlight’, it talks of baking, and has the magical lines

and the sun stood
like a griddle cooling
against the wall
of each long afternoon.

Unfortunately by the time you reach the end of this short book, such an elegiac and affectionate image is submerged under the relentless drabness, and you wonder why Heaney stopped at Dublin, and didn’t just move to New York and have done with it.

First posted on Goodreads website 10 January 2013


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