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Heaney’s “Punishment” and Ireland’s Troubles

Posted by: Joseph Kelly | July 27, 2018 | No Comment |

by Haven Hardee

Haven Hardee in west Ireland

“Punishment” by Seamus Heaney has become my favorite piece of literature that we have studied this summer. I am particularly intrigued by this poem, not because of the well-preserved bog bodies it illustrates,

Windeby "Girl"

The mummified Windeby “girl,” found in Germany in the 1952. This victim died about 2000 years ago.

but because it was one of Heaney’s first pieces of literature to comment on The Troubles. Heaney was away from all the chaos of The Troubles when they reached their peak of destruction. Although he did not have to experience the worst of The Troubles first hand, Heaney still wanted to use his talents for writing to comment on the situation that wreaked havoc on his heart as he watched his homeland become war torn. I simply could not imagine what it is would be like to watch the place I was raised become a battle ground. Out of all the conflicts that took place in Ireland since the beginning of its time, I believe The Troubles were the worst. The Irish Revolution was critical, the Irish Civil War was disturbing, but The Troubles were damning. They took place after Ireland lived in a disillusioned sense of peace for some time, and they drove neighbors to fight neighbors, forced families to betray each other, and ultimately promoted segregation that still reigns in Ireland today.

Heaney’s standpoint on the whole issue can be found in the subtleties of his poem, “Punishment.” He begins by describing a woman who was unearthed from the bogs; she had a noose around her neck, a blindfold around her eyes, and her head was shaved. For these reasons, historians believe that the woman was executed for adultery. Throughout his poem, Heaney somewhat puts himself in the audience that would have surrounded the woman during her execution; he turns the scene into a traditional scene from the Bible in which a woman was to be stoned for adultery. In the biblical scene, Jesus saves the woman by telling the spectators, “he who is without sin may cast the first stone.” Of course nobody threw a stone, and everyone realized what hypocrites they had become. Heaney places responsibility on himself in the instance of the bog woman’s death because he knows if he was in the audience during her execution he would have done nothing to save her; rather, he would have cast the stone.

This assertion is confirmed when Heaney says, “I who have stood dumb/ when your betraying sisters/ cauled in tar/ wept by the railings.” In these lines I came to realize why Heaney placed so much guilt on himself, and how he knew for a fact that he would have hypocritically cast the stone. He says “I who have stood dumb”; this line indicates that Heaney himself has stood by, watched, and did nothing as people were hypocritically abused during the rise of  The Troubles. As Dr. Kelly explained in class, Irish catholic women who dated British soldiers who were discovered by the IRA were drug from their homes, covered in tar, and tied to the railings in front of their homes so everyone could see what they had done. Heaney implies that he has seen such atrocities first hand and done nothing. However, these lines also give the reader the sense that Heaney feels quite remorseful for condoning such behavior by allowing it to continue. However, that assumption is dismissed in the following stanza when Heaney says, “who would connive/ in civilized outrage/ yet understand the exact/ and tribal, intimate revenge.” Here, Heaney subjects himself to an entirely new level of hypocrisy because he essentially agrees with the punishment rituals that the IRA was inflicting on their own people.

Heaney’s final stanza is what makes his poem so important to me; it has opened my eyes and allowed me to see just how difficult the lives of Irish men and women have become due to The Troubles. It is devastating enough that Catholics and Protestants were fighting each other, but the conflict became so intense that each side began turning on its own people as well. This caused each side to break up into smaller sects, things became so confused, and The Troubles simply became one big massacre. I got to see and experience the tension and pain The Troubles left behind when I visited Belfast and went on a walking tour with Mr. Dom. I was so shocked to see a wall (see Image 2)  that divided neighborhoods according to their religion; I simply cannot believe that history is so fresh in Ireland. I suppose my trip to Belfast was quite a wake-up call for me; I thought Ireland was a perfect place and everyone got along. As I gazed at a memorial (see Image 1) engraved with the names of thousands of men, women, and children who had been murdered during The Troubles, I knew that my assumption was terribly wrong.

I would have never been so passionate and understanding of Heaney’s poem, “Punishment,” had I not seen Belfast beforehand. Visiting Belfast showed me exactly how a nation can be divided; it showed me how much pain Ireland and its people have endured and still carry around today. Before coming to Ireland, I read and watched plenty of movies about the turmoil that took place here, but I did not truly comprehend what all that meant until I was standing in a split town. I’ve never had to experience anything like that before, and I cannot imagine what it must be like to live in a place where I could find myself in danger if I wander to the “wrong side of town.” I am outraged at the atrocities that occurred in Northern Ireland during The Troubles, however that may be because I am not affiliated nor do I believe strongly in the Protestant or Catholic side of the conflict. I am just an outsider who wants peace; I do not understand the complexities of the conflict because I am uninvolved. I suppose Heaney sympathizes with and supports the Catholic side. This is probably a product of his “raising”; he cannot help the circumstances to which he fell victim. However, I believe that men like Heaney and all of Ireland will need to unite with a common interest of peace, above all else, in order for the country to be restored and thrive again.


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