Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine. –Farewell Seamus Heaney

seamus_heaney-cropSeamus Heaney died today, burdening my thoughts with a coherent if distant misery. “Whatever you say, say nothing” is my favorite poem by Heaney, dense like musty strata in peat, a reliquary of troubled unknowns unearthed in a reading of its layers.

“Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine,” is an Irish saying that translates literally as “People live in each other’s shadows.” Meaning, we are shielded from the sun by each other, we rely on each other for shelter. People need each other. Heaney’s work resonates with this notion–although various images (peat, bogs, farms, birds, heards/herds) from various “Norths” provide the backdrop for his work, his work was fixed upon the journalists and the naturalists, the farmers and the politicians, the Prods and the Papes and all the wily Greeks whispering morse and more, aere perennius. 

I have also added videos in which Heaney and others addressed life, death and rebirth through his work. I hope it brings newcomers to rest beneath his shadow. 

Whatever you say, say nothing


I’m writing just after an encounter
With an English journalist in search of ‘views
On the Irish thing’.
I’m back in winter quarters where bad news is no longer news,
Where media-men and stringers sniff and point,
Where zoom lenses, recorders and coiled leads
Litter the hotels. The times are out of joint
But I incline as much to rosary beads
As to the jottings and analyses
Of politicians and newspapermen
Who’ve scribbled down the long campaign from gas
And protest to gelignite and sten,
Who proved upon their pulses ‘escalate’,
‘Backlash’ and ‘crack down’, ‘the provisional wing’,
‘Polarization’ and ‘long-standing hate’?
Yet I live here, I live here too, I sing,
Expertly civil tongued with civil neighbours
On the high wires of first wireless reports,
Sucking the fake taste, the stony flavours
Of those sanctioned, old, elaborate retorts:
‘Oh, it’s disgraceful, surely, I agree,’
‘Where’s it going to end?’ ‘It’s getting worse.’ ‘
They’re murderers.’ ‘Internment, understandably. .
The ‘voice of sanity’ is getting hoarse.

“I remembered her head bent towards my head,
Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives–
Never closer the whole rest of our lives.”


Men die at hand. In blasted street and home
The gelignite’s a common sound effect:
As the man said when Celtic won, ‘The Pope of Rome’s
a happy man this night.’ His flock suspect
In their deepest heart of hearts the heretic
Has come at last to heel and to the stake.
We tremble near the flames but want no truck
With the actual firing. We’re on the make
As ever. Long sucking the hind tit
Cold as a witch’s and as hard to swallow
Still leaves us fork-tongued on the border bit:
The liberal papist note sounds hollow
When amplified and mixed in with the bangs
That shake all hearts and windows day and night.
(It’s tempting here to rhyme on ‘labour pangs’
And diagnose a rebirth in our plight
But that would be to ignore other symptoms.
Last night you didn’t need a stethoscope
To hear the eructation of Orange drums
Allergic equally to Pearse and Pope.)
On all sides ‘little platoons’ are mustering-
The phrase is Cruise O’Brien’s via that great
Backlash, Burke-while I sit here with a pestering
Drouth for words at once both gaff and bait
To lure the tribal shoals to epigram
And order. I believe any of us
Could draw the line through bigotry and sham
Given the right line, aere perennius.

“Next morning I went up into the room. Snowdrops
And candles soothed the bedside; I saw him
For the first time in six weeks. Paler now,

Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple,
He lay in the four foot box as in his cot.
No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.

A four foot box, a foot for every year.”


‘Religion’s never mentioned here,’ of course.
‘You know them by their eyes,’ and hold your tongue.
‘One side’s as bad as the other,’ never worse.
Christ, it’s near time that some small leak was sprung
In the great dykes the Dutchman made
To dam the dangerous tide that followed Seamus.
Yet for all this art and sedentary trade
I am incapable. The famous
Northern reticence, the tight gag of place
And times: yes, yes. Of the ‘wee six’ I sing
Where to be saved you only must save face
And whatever you say, you say nothing.
Smoke-signals are loud-mouthed compared with us:
Manoeuvrings to find out name and school,
Subtle discrimination by addresses
With hardly an exception to the rule
That Norman, Ken and Sidney signalled Prod
And Seamus (call me Sean) was sure-fire Pape.
O land of password, handgrip, wink and nod,
Of open minds as open as a trap,
Where tongues lie coiled, as under flames lie wicks,
Where half of us, as in a wooden horse
Were cabin’d and confined like wily Greeks,
Besieged within the siege, whispering morse.

“So my friends and neighbours, let it flow:
You’ll be stood no rounds in eternity.”

Heaney’s English translation. “An bonnán buí” (Irish).


This morning from a dewy motorway
I saw the new camp for the internees:
A bomb had left a crater of fresh clay
In the roadside, and over in the trees
Machine-gun posts defined a real stockade.
There was that white mist you get on a low ground
And it was deja -vu, some film made
Of Stalag 17, a bad dream with no sound.
Is there a life before death? That’s chalked up
In Ballymurphy. Competence with pain,
Coherent miseries, a bit and sup,
We hug our little destiny again.

Poem title: “Beacons at Bealtaine”

Author: williamjtolley

IB Coordinator, IBEN Workshop Leader, Examiner, and DP/MYP Teacher | Inquiry, Mastery & Culturally Responsive-Learning Advocate

2 thoughts on “Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine. –Farewell Seamus Heaney”

  1. The history of is second to none in that it is full of chivalry, empathy and sacrifice. I am a stateless Arab and proud to have had Irish friends who opened my eyes on the distinguished Irish culture. Ahmed

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