Heaney was in Spain when the Ulster riots were happening. His personal discomfort paled into insignificance when compared with the events experienced by the Catholic community under fire in the Falls Road area of Belfast: I was suffering/ Only the bullying sun of Madrid.
He was spending part of each day immersed in his research, perspiring in the casserole heat, unable to escape the resultant stinks from the fishmarket/ … like the reek off a flaxdam.
Evening would bring gentler sense data: gules of wine/ A sense of children …/ Old women in black shawls near open windows; a feeling of respite above all; The air a canyon rivering in Spanish’
Discussions with visiting friends are conducted on the way home over starlit plains in the shadowy presence of the Guardia Civil whose political rôle in recent Spanish history has itself left an unsavoury smell: whose patent leather…/ Gleamed like fish-bellies in flax-poisoned waters.
One friend urges him to take a more pro-active rôle Go back … try to touch the people. A second, sounding a note of warning perhaps, conjured Lorca from his hill. (Federico Lorca was an emblematic left-wing Spanish poet and playwright killed at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War in 1938; the Guardia Civil, siding with Franco, was implicated in the death of a person seen as a dangerous dissident.)
News of developments in Ulster filtered through to him via news bulletins and visitors as uncomfortable as he for absenting themselves from where the real thing still happened.
A favoured escape for him was the Prado Palace. A series of paintings by Goya reflected the poet’s personal dismay at the atmosphere, emotions and psychology of current social disorder back home. He paints a word-picture of a scene depicting summary execution by firing-squad: the thrown-up arms/ And spasm of the rebel/… the efficient/ Rake of fusillade; in a nearby room he is faced with a nightmare sequence, Dark cyclones gathering and erupting, grafted to the (Prado) palace wall: first a classical figure engaged in the murder of his children: Saturn/ Jewelled in the blood of his own children; next the vision of Gigantic, brutal Chaos and his impact (turning his brute hips) on the world at large; finally Goya’s two berserks attempting despite their shared misery (greaved in bog and sinking) to club each other to death. That their motive should be a question of honour (and therefore vendetta) brings him back to the insane cycle of murder and revenge currently visited upon Northern Ireland.
Heaney’s final tribute to this quintessentially Spanish painter likens him to the matador sensing he is caught in a life-and-death situation needing to deply all the artistry at his disposal to avoid violent death at the hands of the deliberately goaded bull of history: He painted with his fists and elbows, flourished/ The stained cape of his heart as history charged.
Constabulary: reference to the predominantly protestant Royal Ulster Constabulary;
The Falls Road is the main road through west Belfast in Northern Ireland. Its name is synonymous with the republican communities in the city; the neighbouring Shankill Road is predominantly loyalist, separated from the Falls Road by peace lines. The road is usually referred to as the Falls Road and the general area ‘the Falls.; the ‘Battle of the Falls’ was a British Army operation during 3–5 July 1970 in an area along the Falls Road in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The operation started with a weapons search but quickly developed into rioting and gun battles between British soldiers and the Official Irish Republican Army;
the 13th, 14th and 15th of August 1969 witnessed some of the most serious rioting of the Troubles. An initially peaceful Catholic protest turned ugly resulting in attacks on the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the setting up of barricades at points where Protestant and Catholic estates divided;
escalation of the violence on the 14th led to the deployment of armour and machine guns; by the end of the day there were a number of fatal casualties on both sides; Catholic homes were torched by the Protestant crowd;
by the 15th Catholic families from mixed estates were fleeing to Catholic areas of Belfast; British troops were eventually deployed to restore order
a subsequent Tribunal of Inquiry heavily criticised the RUC (though allegedly ‘impartial’ the RUC and its affiliated B-Specials were Protestant based) for its handling of the riots and its inability to control events before the army was called in;
flax dam: an open air site in which flax flowers are deposited and where they rot as part of a process that retrieves the fibres used to make fabric, dye, paper, medicines, fishing nets, hair gels, and soap; the dams gave off particularly unpleasant odours;
gules: coined from French/ Spanish sources; reference to the ‘throat’ and in this context ‘throatfuls’ ‘gulps’, ‘mouthfuls’ of wine;
Guardia Civil: one of three police-forces in Spain; shared a military and civilian role; once regarded as heavy-handed and anti-minorities, now enjoying a much more positive reputation;
rake: to do with line of fire and width of aim; the canvas portrays a firing squad bristling with rifles trained on a group of unfortunates;
graft: originally a horticultural term indicating ‘shoot inserted into another plant’; skin is grafted over wounds; both cases point to the idea of a painting hanging on a gallery wall that has become permanently associated with it;
cyclone: the circular, spinning weather patterns that produce devastating storms;
the Prado is a renowned Art Gallery in central Madrid that exhibits amongst others:
Goya: a late 18c Spanish painter regarded both as ‘classical’ (he was a court painter) and, more recently, as the ‘Father of Modern Art’. Social and political upheaval led to a nightmare elements in his work. 85 etchings entitled Disasters of War depicted a dark, Godless landscape with no salvation. His despairing Black Paintings provided examples of frenzied violence and incoherence: in one ‘two berserks’ suggest that men will beat each other to death in perpetuity; in two others a pilgrimage procession exhibits ‘loony’ faces and Saturn devours his own children with orgiastic energy;
Saturn: a powerful god from classical mythology of whom it was prophesied that he would lose his power base at the hands of his children and who was said to have devoured them to prevent this happening;
Chaos – in one ancient Greek creation-myth, the dark, silent abyss from which all things came into existence. According to the Theogony of Hesiod, Chaos, a figure rather than a place, generated the solid mass of Earth, from which arose the starry, cloud-filled Heaven.
holmgang (hólmganga in Old Norse and modern Icelandic, holmgång in Swedish) was a duel practiced by early medieval Scandinavians as a recognized way to settle disputes; it can be translated as “to go to (or walk on) a small island” or simply “island walk”, perhaps a reference to the duels taking place in specific watery places closely resembling an Ireland that has strong Viking connections;
34 lines in four sections (split 14/ 5/13/ 2); line length based on 10 syllables; no rhyme scheme;
11 sentence structure; the distribution of punctuation and enjambed lines provides break,s ebbs and flows in the rhythm, even occasionally a knid of musical syncopation;
evocation of heat: bullying sun; casserole heat/ sweated (physical and figurative); vocabulary of unhealthy smells; stinks; reek/ flax-poisoned; vocabulary of execution, surrender, nightmare, power and violence;
shocking juxtaposition: Jewelled in the blood of his own children;
[ai] [ʌ] [əʊ] [i:] [u:] [ɪ] [ei] [ɔː] [æ] [ɜː] [a:] [ɔɪ] [e]
13 major vowel sounds form assonant chains or clusters:
While the Constabulary covered the mob
Firing into the Falls, I was suffering
Only the bullying sun of Madrid.
Eachafternoon, in the casseroleheat
Of the flat, as I sweated my way through
The life of Joyce, stinks from the fishmarket
Rose like the reek off a flax-dam.
At night on the balcony, gules of wine,
A sense of children in their dark corners,
Old women in blackshawls near open windows,
The air a canyon rivering in Spanish.
We talked our wayhome over starlitplains
Where patent leather of the Guardia Civil
Gleamed like fish–bellies in flax-poisoned waters.
‘Go back,’ one said, ‘try to touch the people.’
Another conjured Lorca from his hill.
We sat through death counts and bullfight reports
On the television, celebrities
Arrived from where the real thing still happened.
I retreated to the cool of the Prado.
Goya’s ‘Shootings of the Third of May’
Covered a wall – the thrown-up arms
And spasm of the rebel, the helmeted
And knapsacked military, the efficient
Rake of the fusillade. In the next room
His nightmares, grafted to the palace wall –
Darkcyclones, hosting, breaking; Saturn
Jewelled in the blood of his own children,
Gigantic Chaos turning his brute hips
Over the world. Also, that holmgang
Where two berserks club each other to death
For honour’s sake, greaved in a bog, and sinking.
He painted with his fists and elbows, flourished
The stained cape of his heart as history charged.
consonant sound are assembled then either resonate on or are replaced by others: [k] and [f] in the early lines; [k] carried through between stinks and dark corners; doses of [g], then [t] in the quatrain; prominent [k] in the next 13 lines: cool to sinking;the final couplet blending labio-dental [f] and sibilants;
in DoD (p 181-2:) Heaney summarises Lorca’s ‘impulse to show solidarity with the people’ and his ‘wariness of party lines … a victim figure …poet as free spirit, committed to the cause of liberation … conceived of as the enemy’;
he later explains that he was not seeking out the Goya pictures that figure in the poem but when he saw The Shootings of the Third of May ‘It was Bloody Sunday avant la lettre’; the other canvases possessed ‘the force of terrible events’;