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Feeling into Words' by Patrick Heaney

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“You always start somewhere but that somewhere is never just anywhere.”(Geoffrey Bennington, 1933, 22)

With the firm belief in Shakespeare’s words, that one can “by indirections find directions out,” (Hamlet: II, I), the present dissertation will examine through the readings of Seamus Heaney’s early three collections of poems, Death of a Naturalist (1966), Door into the Dark (1969), and Wintering Out (1972), how the issues around identity formation and cultural assertion within the Irish postcolonial society demand crucial rethinking of the concepts of memory and history mediated by language. Seamus Justin Heaney was born on 13th April, 1939, County Derry, Mossbawn, Northern Ireland to Patrick Heaney and Margaret Kathleen Heaney. County Derry where he grew up was a traditionally masculinist society. Michael Parker observes that ‘taciturnity’ as expressed in ‘tight lipped silence’ was common to Catholics and Protestants of Northern Ireland. Michael Longley comments about the nature of Ulsterman who shares “down-to-earth realism, a dislike of unnecessary frills, a distrust of verbiage. He doesn’t speak for the sake of decoration, but prefers to search for the facts at the core of any matter.” (See, Michael Parker, Seamus Heaney: the Making of a Poet).

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Patrick Heaney was a Catholic farmer and dealt in cattle, while his mother, Margaret Kathleen McCann was a warm and imaginative woman who rekindled in Heaney the fondness for language and etymology. In Preoccupations Heaney recalls his first encounter with the world of words. He writes, “ May be it began early when my mother used to recite lists of affixes and suffixes, and Latin roots, with their English meanings, rhymes that formed part of her schooling in the early part of the century…(Preoccupations 45).

In an essay entitled, ‘Feeling into Words,’ Heaney expresses how with his mother’s influence he was awakened to the interest in words as ‘bearers of history and mystery.’ Heaney had always looked up to his father, Patrick Heaney as a ‘stocky’ and ‘resolute individual’ who possessed great skill in the art of ‘digging.’ As he was a staunch Catholic, brought up strictly with masculine codes it was very difficult for Patrick to communicate with his son, for verbiage would expose him to weaknesses. This sense of isolation turned grave with Heaney’s departure from the family tradition of farming and taking up University education. It was Heaney’s mother, Margaret who had always inspired religious sensibility of patience, reverence, endurance, and sacrifice in him. Irish Catholicism is centred towards feminine presence of Virgin Mary, and this is the reason why Heaney’s upbringing made him sympathetic towards women. The sacrificial nature of woman as a mother and wife are evoked in his poems like ‘The Wife’s Tale’, ‘Honeymoon Flight’, and ‘Elegy for a Still born Child.’ Heaney had attended primary school at Anahorish, from 1945-1951, located in County Derry. It served as a common ground for Catholics and Protestants students. Later he shifted to St. Coulomb’s College, Derry, in the year 1951 for his secondary education. He joined Queen’s University, Dublin, in the year 1957, and graduated in 1961.

The year 1964 was a turning point in his life as his poems ‘Scaffolding,’ ‘Digging,’ and ‘Storm on the Island,’ got published in the New Statesman. The following year Heaney met the light of his life, Marie Devlin and later on Michael, his first son was born. The same year Heaney received a letter from Charles Montieth of Faber and Faber who was so impressed with his poems that he led Heaney’s major breakthrough happen as his first collection Door into the Dark got published in the year 1966. Thereafter, poetic imagination of Heaney knew no bounds and he started producing prolifically. The year, 1969, saw the production of Heaney’s second collection, Door into the Dark.

The surface tensions and sectarian divisions that fermented into the three decades of violence and killings in Northern Ireland had their roots in social and cultural conflicts lurking in the ordinary lives before the first bullets were fired in 1969. The subsequent formation of the provisional IRA, the extremist paramilitary group, dedicated to Irish republicanism believed that political violence was necessary to achieve the goal of United Ireland. Driven by left wing ideology the conflict between the IRA and the then government unleashed an era of violence and terror in the North of Ireland commonly called as ‘Troubles.’ It had disturbed Heaney so much so that he decided to take a temporary position at University of California, Berkeley. When he came back he decided to move permanently to the South, Glanmore County, Wicklow. In the year 1988, he was honoured with the position of Professor of Poetry at Oxford and in the year he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in the year 1995 for “works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.”

In Transitions: Narratives of Modern Irish Culture (1987), Richard Kearney makes an insightful observation that cultural crisis in the twentieth century Ireland was motivated by the ideological conflict between the claims of revivalism and modernism. On ideological level, both emanated from the “prevailing sense of discontinuity, the absence of a coherent identity, the breakdown of inherited ideologies and beliefs, [and] the insecurities of fragmentation.” It is hardly surprising that the concern of contemporary Irish writers could not gloss over the issues of Identity. Identity in Postcolonial Ireland is grounded in the politics of omission, exclusion, and misrepresentation. The redefinition of identity within the paradigm of post-colonial studies demand crucial understanding of the post-colonial from the lens of Ireland rather than Ireland being viewed from the lens of the post-colonial. (See, Eoin Flannery. Ireland and Postcolonial Studies: Theory, Discourse, Utopia. UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) This enterprise requires rethinking of the concepts of irony, enculturation, and appropriation. The fundamental guiding spirit that would motivate critical understanding of Heaney’s identity politics within the framework of Irish cultural and historical studies would be ‘revisionism.’

Heaney who is generally seen as preoccupied with the past attempts to dismantle the fixation to the narratives derived from memory and history by attempting to revise the default accounts that defines what does it mean to be an ‘Irish.’ Heaney undertakes the project of revisionism using ‘memory’ and ‘history’ as weapons of mediation to deconstruct the monolithic narrative that warrants Ireland’s exclusion from the paradigm of representation. The act of deconstruction entails teasing out of “strains, fractures, aporias, and antinomies that have been attenuated by the narrative sweep.”

For Heaney, homogenisation of the Irish with Scotts and Britons forms the first hurdle towards realisation of the ‘lost native identity.’ The retrieval of the ‘lost identity’ through memory and history evokes the processes of deterritorialisation of Irish identity from the labyrinth of the past and subsequent reterritorialisation with enactment of representation with difference. Heaney’s relationship with the coloniser is well defined within the matrix of deterritorialisation followed by reterritorialisation. . According to David Lloyd, Seamus Heaney saw deterritorialisation as an act on the part of the colonisers that impacted the national consciousness by way of acculturation.

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