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Casualty By Seamus Heaney – A Reflective Poem About The “Troubles”

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This week, I am sharing the Irish poem Casualty By Seamus Heaney. It’s a piece that reflects a critical period in Irish history and showcases Heaney’s incredible skill in capturing the human element within larger political and social upheavals. 

This poem delves into the tragic consequences of the Northern Ireland conflict, particularly focusing on the personal story of a fisherman, a victim of the violence. Heaney masterfully intertwines themes of personal loss, political conflict, and the complexities of identity and belonging in the context of The Troubles. 

Here's the image I created, inspired by Seamus Heaney's "Casualty." It depicts a serene and somber Irish coastal landscape at dusk, capturing the reflective and tranquil atmosphere that aligns with the themes of the poem.

Under the hush of a twilight sky, a lone fisherman stands by the whispering sea – a silent tribute to the poignant echoes of Seamus Heaney’s ‘Casualty.’ A moment of reflection where the sea meets the soul.

  1. Personal Connection: The poem is believed to be about a real person, a friend of Heaney’s who was killed during The Troubles. This personal angle adds depth and poignancy to the narrative.
  2. The Troubles: The backdrop of the poem is The Troubles in Northern Ireland, a period of sectarian violence and political conflict that lasted from the late 1960s to 1998.
  3. Themes of Conflict and Division: Heaney explores themes of conflict, both personal and political, and the divisions within society. The poem reflects on the cost of these divisions, particularly on ordinary lives.
  4. Symbolism and Imagery: Heaney uses rich symbolism and imagery, particularly related to fishing and the sea, to convey deeper meanings about freedom, choice, and the nature of the conflict.
  5. Structure and Style: The poem’s structure and Heaney’s signature style – his use of language, rhythm, and local dialect – contribute significantly to its power and emotional impact.

Now let’s get to this powerful poem; for more top Heaney poems, go here.

It is a considerably long poem, but I do believe that the poem’s length allows Heaney to delve deeply into the complexities of the individual’s experience amidst the broader backdrop of The Troubles in Northern Ireland. Enjoy this piece of Irish history. 

Casualty

 
I   
 
He would drink by himself   
And raise a weathered thumb   
Towards the high shelf,   
Calling another rum   
And blackcurrant, without   
Having to raise his voice,   
Or order a quick stout   
By a lifting of the eyes   
And a discreet dumb-show   
Of pulling off the top;   
At closing time would go   
In waders and peaked cap   
Into the showery dark,   
dole-kept breadwinner   
But a natural for work.   
I loved his whole manner,   
Sure-footed but too sly,   
His deadpan sidling tact,   
His fisherman’s quick eye   
And turned observant back.   
 
Incomprehensible   
To him, my other life.   
Sometimes, on the high stool,   
Too busy with his knife   
At a tobacco plug   
And not meeting my eye,   
In the pause after a slug   
He mentioned poetry.   
We would be on our own   
And, always politic   
And shy of condescension,   
I would manage by some trick   
To switch the talk to eels   
Or lore of the horse and cart   
Or the Provisionals.   
 
But my tentative art   
His turned back watches too:   
He was blown to bits   
Out drinking in a curfew   
Others obeyed, three nights   
After they shot dead   
The thirteen men in Derry.   
PARAS THIRTEEN, the walls said,   
BOGSIDE NIL. That Wednesday   
Everyone held   
His breath and trembled.   
 
 
                   II   
 
It was a day of cold   
Raw silence, wind-blown   
surplice and soutane:   
Rained-on, flower-laden   
Coffin after coffin   
Seemed to float from the door   
Of the packed cathedral   
Like blossoms on slow water.   
The common funeral   
Unrolled its swaddling band,   
Lapping, tightening   
Till we were braced and bound   
Like brothers in a ring.   
 
But he would not be held   
At home by his own crowd   
Whatever threats were phoned,   
Whatever black flags waved.   
I see him as he turned   
In that bombed offending place,   
Remorse fused with terror   
In his still knowable face,   
His cornered outfaced stare   
Blinding in the flash.   
 
He had gone miles away   
For he drank like a fish   
Nightly, naturally   
Swimming towards the lure   
Of warm lit-up places,   
The blurred mesh and murmur   
Drifting among glasses   
In the gregarious smoke.   
How culpable was he   
That last night when he broke   
Our tribe’s complicity?   
‘Now, you’re supposed to be   
An educated man,’   
I hear him say. ‘Puzzle me   
The right answer to that one.’
 
 
                   III   
 
I missed his funeral,   
Those quiet walkers   
And sideways talkers   
Shoaling out of his lane   
To the respectable   
Purring of the hearse…   
They move in equal pace   
With the habitual   
Slow consolation   
Of a dawdling engine,   
The line lifted, hand   
Over fist, cold sunshine   
On the water, the land   
Banked under fog: that morning   
I was taken in his boat,   
The Screw purling, turning   
Indolent fathoms white,   
I tasted freedom with him.   
To get out early, haul   
Steadily off the bottom,   
Dispraise the catch, and smile   
As you find a rhythm   
Working you, slow mile by mile,   
Into your proper haunt   
Somewhere, well out, beyond…   
 
Dawn-sniffing revenant,   
Plodder through midnight rain,   
Question me again.
 
 

In conclusion, Seamus Heaney’s ‘Casualty’ is a profound reflection on the personal impacts of The Troubles in Ireland. Through his poignant imagery and masterful storytelling, Heaney commemorates a friend’s life and delves into the broader themes of conflict, freedom, and the cost of political turmoil. This poem stands as a testament to the enduring power of personal narratives in understanding our collective history. What did you think about the poem Casualty By Seamus Heaney?

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