Sweaney Peregraine

Paul Muldoon

  • Station Island by Seamus Heaney
    Faber, 123 pp, £5.95, October 1984, ISBN 0 571 13301 0
  • Sweeney Astray: A Version by Seamus Heaney
    Faber, 85 pp, £6.95, October 1984, ISBN 0 571 13360 6
  • Rich by Craig Raine
    Faber, 109 pp, £5.95, September 1984, ISBN 0 571 13215 4

The title-sequence of Seamus Heaney’s sixth collection finds him on Station Island, Lough Derg, more commonly known as St Patrick’s Purgatory. It’s the setting for a pilgrimage undertaken by thousands of Irish men and women each year. For three days they fast and pray, deprive themselves of sleep, and walk barefoot round the station ‘beds’ – circles of rough stones said to be the remains of monastic huts. A place, then, strongly associated in the Irish mind with self-denial, contemplation, spiritual renewal; a place, too, that has attracted writers like Sean O’Faolain, Denis Devlin, William Carleton and Patrick Kavanagh; a place where the individual might decently ruminate on his relationship with society.

This setting affords Seamus Heaney a remarkable opportunity, of which he takes remarkable advantage, to ruminate, not only on his very special relationship with a society which has taken him to its heart, but on religion, sex and the dead. The sequence takes the form of a series of meetings with ‘familiar ghosts’. There’s Simon Sweeney, ‘an old Sabbath-breaker’ who urges him to ‘Stay clear of all processions!’ Heaney is nonetheless drawn into the trail of pilgrims for the island. On the way he meets the shade of Carleton:

‘We are earthworms of the earth, and all that
has gone through us is what will be our trace.’

Later on, on Station Island itself, Kavanagh addresses him as follows:

                     ‘Sure I might have known
once I had made the pad, you’d be after me
sooner or later. Forty-two years on
and you’ve got no farther! But after that again,
where else would you go? Iceland, maybe? Maybe the Dordogne?’
And then the parting shot. ‘In my own day
the odd one came here on the hunt for women.’

Not to be outdone by Kavanagh’s friendliness of tone and generosity of spirit, Joyce recommends:

‘You lose more of yourself than you redeem
doing the decent thing. Keep at a tangent.
When they make the circle wide, it’s time to swim
out on your own and fill the element
with signatures on your own frequency,
echo soundings, searches, probes, allurements,
elver-gleams in the dark of the whole sea.’

If these meetings with writers seem a touch self-regarding (the ‘self’ being that of the 45-year-old, smiling public man who virtually admonishes Carleton for not recognising him – ‘then with a look that said, who is this cub anyhow,’ and ‘whoever you are, wherever you come out of’), Heaney is by and large attractively open, self-doubting, sometimes self-critical, as when his cousin Colum McCartney rebukes him:

‘The Protestant who shot me through the head
I accuse directly, but indirectly, you
who now atone perhaps upon this bed
for the way you whitewashed ugliness and drew
the lovely blinds of the Purgatorio
and saccharined my death with morning dew.’

Section VII of ‘Station Island’ is indeed a great deal less saccharined in its portrayal of a sectarian murder than ‘The Strand at Lough Beg’ (Field Work). Here Heaney dramatises a confrontation between a murdered shopkeeper and himself:

‘Forgive the way I have lived indifferent –
forgive my timid circumspect involvement,’

I surprised myself by saying. ‘Forgive
my eye,’ he said, ‘all that’s above my head.’
And then a stun of pain seemed to go through him
and he trembled like a heatwave and faded.

Throughout this sequence Seamus Heaney is resolutely questing and questioning, constantly refining and redefining. He is, for example, now more likely to question the received opinions and stock responses of Irish Catholicism and Irish Nationalism, though the drift of the most intensely lyrical passage of ‘Station Island’ would seem to suggest that the fatalism of both have marked him indelibly:

‘I hate how quick I was to know my place.
I hate where I was born, hate everything
That made me biddable and unforthcoming,’
I mouthed at my half-composed face
In the shaving-mirror, like somebody
Drunk in the bathroom during a party,
Lulled and repelled by his own reflection.
As if the cairnstone could defy the cairn.
As if the eddy could reform the pool.
As if a stone swirled under a cascade,
Eroded and eroding in its bed,
Could grind itself down to a different core.
Then I thought of the tribe whose dances never fail
For they keep dancing till they sight the deer.

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