Bruce Stewart, Remarks on Heaney’s Bog Poems considered as a contribution to Famine Literature (extract from unpub. essay of 2021)


The nationalist discourse around the Irish Famine receive an enormous boost with the publication of Seamus Heaney’s “Bog Poems” in the late 1960s and early 1970s, appearing at a time of reinflamed passions around the Northern “Troubles”—passions from which the poet literally absented himself in moving the south of Ireland. Those poems—appearing in two consecutive collections—largely revolved around the discovering of petrified corpses in a Danish bog which seemed to be the perfect counterpart of similar human remains extracted from Irish bogs at different times in the 19th and 20th centuries. The bogs of Ireland—named from the Gaelic word bóg, meaning ‘soft’—occupy one-fifth of the surface of the island and have played a significant role in the history of the country as being unamenable to military occupation and generally a blight on the colonial landscape until their utility in producing peat on an industrial scale rendered them serviceable to the modern Irish state—by now all but depleted by Bord na Móna, the State company charged with its exploitation. Irish critics have long recognised that bogs have a tropical or symbolic significance far beyond their physical character and extent. In Anglo-Irish literature they stand for the resistance of the country to normal economic development and,  by implication, the backwardness and recalcitrance of the inhabitants. In post-colonial criticism they are often seen as the place where the English hid the bodies of their colonial victims although the the majority of know burials were victims of IRA assassinations. In fact the actual provenance of the few bodies recovered by archaeologists from their acidic mass have been victims of accidents such as drunken straying from the unlit path, rather than military or political killings. Bog-butter and the enormous skeletal remains of ancient Irish elks are respectively the most familiar and the most sensational discoveries to have been made there. No hidden treasure, great vellum codices, or murdered populations have been found. Indeed, the Irish bogs are essentially empty and—pace the poet—quite shallow beds of sphagnum rather than ‘bottomless’ wells filled by Atlantic ‘seepage’ from the coasts of the island as he tells in “Bogland”.

We have no prairies
To slice a big sun at evening—
Our pioneers keep striking
Inwards and downwards,
Every layer they strip
Seems camped on before.
The bogholes might be Atlantic seepage.
The wet centre is bottomless.[1]

In reality there were no ‘pioneers’, no ‘camped on before’ and no ‘wet centre’—although the removal of top layers for turf and peat has been carried on both traditionally (and now industrially) for long ages. [2] All of those notions of ethnic repository and tribal palimpsest serve to embody the land as a cultural museum—likewise the main thrust of Gaelic-language revivalism which takes Irish place-names as signs of a lost mythological landscape. [3] This is an inspiring idea yet, in the era of the Northern Irish Troubles, it struck some readers as deeply problematic when Heaney drew parallels between the Danish ‘bog-people’ with their neck-halters and other signs of brutal execution and the modern victims of IRA killings—especially young women disciplined for consorting with enemy soldiers. (The British Army had arrived to protect Catholic-Nationalist communities against Protestant-Loyalist gangs but soon became the targets in an anti-colonial war themselves.) In “Punishment”, he wrote first-person stanza that encapsulates the ambivalence of the university-educated Catholic to the activities of the IRA Volunteers: ‘I who have stood dumb / when your betraying sisters, / cauled in tar, wept by the railings, // who would connive / in civilised outrage / yet understand the exact / and tribal, intimate revenge.’ [4] In the light of this it might be supposed that he thought tar-and-feathering love-struck Belfast girls in the spirit of ‘tribal ... revenge’ was the right reaction while with-holding punishment is little more than a liberal farce (‘connive ... outrage’). The ensuing debate among the several audiences of the poem comprised the most tiring chapter of modern Irish intellectual life and left everyone standing exactly where they had been in the first place—on one side or the other of the fraught issue of physical-force Republicanism.
In the most extended poem by Heaney’s great precursor in the ranks of rural Irish poets, Patrick Kavanagh,[5] there is a pointed allusion to the Famine as “The Great Hunger” in the title while the poem itself transposes the idea of bodily starvation (famine) into the key of psycho-sexual deprivation (enforced celibacy)—this being the fate of many Irish countrymen in the Free State and the early decades of the Irish Republic. Out of the ferment of the War of Independence there had emerged a government which very largely surrendered social control to the Catholic clergy and introduced a wide range of anti-modernist practices and laws in that spirit which were tantamount to the operations of an exclusively Catholic state which more ressembled Fascist continental states at times than its liberal British neighbour. Indeed, the point was not to ressemble Britain. Today, the resultant ethos of Catholic Puritanism has been swept aside by successive referenda and acts of the Dáil (Parliament) thus render divorce, contraception, gay marriage and—most recently—abortion available under the aegis of the state. It was not formerly so and Kavanagh’s poem tells the story of a small-farmer living with his pious mother (the actual proprietor of the family holding) and suffering the slow extinction of his sexual desires in a serious of more-or-less graphic episodes where the resort to masturbation at the the cottage fireside is the only glimmer of sexual satisfaction available to him. “The Great Hunger” was published as a pamphlet in 1942 and soon became a classic. In 1983 it was adapted for the stage by Tom Murphy for the Abbey’s Peacock Theatre and toured London and New York to great acclaim. In 1987, the popularity of that play with the Irish bourgeoisie received a satirical check from the Irish poet Paul Durcan under the title, “What will be wear to the Famine, Darling?” By that date, evidently, it was considered no shame to laugh at the once-sacrosanct subject.[6]
Ardent exponents of the Famine-genocide may continue to resist yet the tragic national past tends to recede from collective memory when the social and political objectives which it has so often been invoked to support been delivered in altered times. This is not to say that theory of cultural amnesia becomes untenable and the discernible absence of official Famine Commemoration in Ireland up to recent times suggests just such a historical pattern. For obvious reasons, post-Independence novelists have tended to down-play historical grievances, though historical fiction per se—particularly in the form of multi-generational family chronicles—continue to be written. A pertinent example might be Eilís Dillon’s Across the Bitter Sea (1973), a multi-generational novel of Irish-American emigration and an international best-seller. But even with these there is a distinctive element of growing cultural liberalism as the characters meet and absorb the standards of more advance civic societies in the wider Anglophonic world. Ireland looks small and backward in the rear-view mirror and attempts to return there for sentimental reasons often result in reject and flight back to the more modern and anonymous society where an individualistic sense of moral and intellectual freedom is built in at the civic level.  From George Moore’s “The Exile” (1903) to Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn (2009), this is the dominant pattern: it seems that Ireland, like Eden, has a exit gate through which one passes never to return—or, if returning, to find that the remembered Ireland isn’t there at all and only one from which it seemed necessary to flee again.
Of this pattern the somewhat dissident novels of Kate O’Brien is a prime example, reflecting the fact that she herself proceeded to Manchester as a journalist at 20 after her Irish university degree, travelled in Europe and ended in Kent, near London while winning recognition as the prime Irish Catholic novelist of her day and a sophisticated author on the British literary scene. Much of her writing is precisely about escaping Irish provincialism, including flight from the hetero-normatic laws of parochial Irish society in a country which embrace the family as the ‘fundamental social unit’ in its 1937 Constitution (Art. 41). It should be said here that Patrick Kavanagh developed a paradoxical theory according to which parochialism is superior to provincialism as embodying authentic values based on communal experience—but this is hardly a solution to the problem of tradition versus modernity in an Irish national context. Indeed, it was of more use to the conservatives than the progressive in the decades that followed.



1. Heaney, Door into the Dark (London: Faber & Faber 1969).
2.The chief source of inspiration was the Tollund Man by Besides this, Heaney showed familiarity with Lloyd Praeger’s class study of the Irish landscape in The Way that I Went (Dublin: Hodges & Figgis 1947) which includes a chapter-section called ‘The Secrets of Bogs’.
3.The practice of identifying places with and by their Gaelic names and the stories connected with them is known as dinnsenchas—roughly, the lore of place-names. It is worth quoting Kevin Whelan’s use of the word palimpsest in his brilliant chronotopical exploration of “The Dead”: ‘The city [Dublin] itself was a palimpsest, a multilogue of competing versions of history and culture.’ (Whelan, Op. cit., p.87.) 
4. Heaney, “Punishment”, in North (London: Faber & Faber 1972), p.38. Heaney visited the scenes of the Tollund Man and Grabaulle Man discoveries respectively in Silkeborg and Grauballe, both in Denmark, but the chief source of his information appears to have been P.V. Glob, The Bog People: Iron-Age Man Preserved [orig. Mosefolket 1965], translated from Danish by Rupert Bruce-Mitford (London: Faber & Faber 1969).
5. Heaney’s rural origins in a Co. Derry farmhouse gave way to a teaching career with posts at foremost American universities the Nobel Prize in . Kavanagh was indeed a ploughboy and self-educated in letters but those who met him knew him to be ‘a deeply serious man with an intellect which was humorous and agile, as well as being profoundly and apparently incorruptible’. (See Brian Inglis, Downstart, London: Chatto & Windus 1990, pp.186.)
6. See Diarmaid Ferriter’s article in The Irish Times (11 Jan. 2015) – online at n/no-shame-in-laughing-at-famine-satire-1.2060698.

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