For the Commander of the Eliza
Heaney pursues the theme of Irish suffering at the hands of the British government in Whitehall, London, painting a dark picture unrelieved by any chink of light. He describes an incident that exemplifies the poem’s epigraph and illustrates the reasons why a burning sense of injustice might continue to exist within the Irish psyche over 120 years later.
The initial voice and responses are those of the commander of a British Coast-Guard vessel in the late 1840’s. Whilst the ship’s presence in the bay is routine, the presence of an Irish rowing-boat unusually far beyond the creek is sufficient to arouse suspicion. His challenge, addressed in Gaelic, is enough to halt its progress as he seeks to discover the rowers’ motive for being there guilt or bashfulness.
What he discovers, as a self-confessed ‘christian’ (O my sweet Christ) both shocks and appals him: six men piled in the row-boat, exhausted by effort and showing all the symptoms of sickness and starvation: gaping mouths … eyes bursting the sockets … six wrecks of bone and pallid tautened skin.
The search for food is their sole motive: bia, bia, bia. Their response comes in whines and snarls, half beseeching, half animal. He has heard (how could he fail to know, one asks) that there is a shortage amongst the population and can reflect on the comparative ease of his own, well-supplied crew.
His dilemma is that his better feelings and desire to help these men to save themselves and their families, are superseded by ‘diktat’ from his naval and political masters: he has no mandate to relieve distress. His refusal to help thus condemns these men to certain death; this kind of treatment will resonate across history.
Their response is desperate: they cursed and howled like dogs/ That had been kicked hard in the privates. Watched by his men, the commander interprets what he hears as violent and without hope, providing him with sufficient excuse to discard any moral scruples and turn his back. Later, to allay any conscience as regards what has occurred, he absolves himself of guilt by scrubbing away the memory of the six bad smells, those living skulls using the Church’s most powerful spiritual cleanser of evil: I exorcised my ship.
The commander’s voice is replaced by another. Heaney excoriates the British government (all the more effectively thanks to his measured tone, and head-shaking disbelief) referring to actual historical figures: the vain voice of Sir James Dombrain urging free relief/ For famine victims in the Westport Sector but receiving tart reprimand from good Whitehall.
The situation is heavy with irony: new Prime Minister Trevelyan had adopted punitive policies: Let natives prosper by their own exertions (impossible for them, of course; starvation produces no energy!); Who could not swim might go ahead and sink (inevitable from what we have just witnessed). Even the most meagre offering of food as dictated by the commander’s zeal, humanity or compassionate nature would have been too lavish for distant absentee masters.
- the epigraph drawn from The Great Hunger; Ireland 1845 – 49 by Cecil Woodham-Smith illustrates the callous responses of the British ‘occupiers’ as regards the Irish ‘occupied’;
- Routh Russell: a contemporary provider of reports on the Irish situation
- the whole period is presented an indictment of British ‘foreign’ policy ; an indictment of ‘imperialism’ whereby the better feelings, altruism and compassion of some are rendered impossible by hard-line right wingers;
- Westport: on the West coast amongst the capes and bays of County Mayo;
- 36 mostly 10 syllable lines in a single stanza; largely complex sentences with enjambed lines; all but the last 7 lines resemble the rather pedantic report of an incident written by a man trained to be short on imagination and long on policy; appropriately ungrammatical at one point (Less incidents the better rather than ‘fewer’);
- two 1st person narrators: ship’s commander and poet’s voice; the final 7 lines have this second voice commenting acerbically on known historical facts, some of them quoted;
- some vocabulary has an period flavour: bashfulness (the dignified mixture of embarrassment and shame)/ conjecturing/ mandate;
- the account is bleak; Heaney peppers his narrative with assonant echoes and effects: [ei] hailed/ Gaelic; [ɪ] spring/ drills ;[ɔː] shortage/ board; port/ exorcised/ reporting/ all; [ʌ] skulls/ bunks; [i:] relieve/ relief;
- alliteration: voiceless velar plosive [k] creek/ tacked/ crew/ stroke; voiced and voiceless sibilants [s] and [z] in tandem: rising/ capsize/ themselves/ sent; labio-dentals [f] and [v]free relief for famine victims;
- as if to confirm the prejudice of the Irish depicted as a backward people the rowers are described by the commander as little more than animals: whines/ snarls; / cursed/ howled;
- use of simile using like;
- good Whitehall: a scornful put-down;
- an oxymoron doubles as synecdoche, heavy with irony: living skulls recognises the inevitable death of the rowers themselves;