‘The Strand at Lough Beg’ first appeared in Seamus Heaney’s Field Work in 1979. Within the poem, Heaney delves into themes of violence, family, and nature. His tone is serious, solemn, and caring as he speaks about Colum’s dark final moments and the proper burial and respect he’d like to give him in the setting of Lough Beg. The mood is dark but becomes more hopeful towards the end of the poem.
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Heaney takes the reader through the frightening last moments of Colum McCartney’s life with as much detail as possible. He also speaks about Colum’s passivity, good nature, hard-working attitude, and innocence in the conflict at large. His death remained something of a mystery to Heaney. He was only aware of a few details about where his cousin was killed and there are many unanswered questions that he airs in the text.
Despite their family not fighting on either side of the conflict, they’ve been caught up in it. In the second half of the poem, there’s a greater focus on the strand at Lough Beg. Humankind and our connection to the natural world are emphasized and the violence that we’re capable of, condemned. Heaney crafts a beautiful ending to this piece that sees his cousin respectfully and carefully returned to the earth. There is peace at the end of what was a violent death.
You can read the full poem here and more Seamus Heaney poems here.
‘The Strand at Lough Beg’ by Seamus Heaney is a three-stanza poem that is separated into one set of sixteen lines, one set of twelve, and a concluding set of sixteen. The lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern, but there are a few examples of rhyme within the text. For instance, the endings of lines fourteen and sixteen of the first stanza with “knew” and “yew” or the words “round” and “ground” in lines ten and twelve of the second stanza.
Before beginning, it is important to consider the dedication an epigraph at the beginning of ‘The Strand at Lough Beg’. Heaney dedicated this particular piece to “Colum McCartney,” his cousin. He was murdered in the summer of 1975 in a random act of violence between Catholics and Protestants. The “you” referenced in the lines of ‘The Strand at Lough Beg’ is Heaney’s cousin. The poem details the time right before the man’s death when he was about to depart on a journey to Newtownhamilton as well as Heaney’s reaction to the news.
The epigraph comes right after the dedication and is made up of a quote from the first canto of Dante Alighieri’s Purgatorio, the first book of The Divine Comedy. The quote is clearly applicable to Heaney’s own work and reads:
All round this little island, on the strand
Far down below there, where the breakers strive
Grow the tall rushes from the oozy sand.
Heaney makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘The Strand at Lough Beg’. These include alliteration, enjambment, simile, and caesura. The first, alliteration, is seen several times throughout the poem. For instance, “snapping and squealing” in line eight of the first stanza and “where we work our way” in line four of the third stanza.
Caesura occurs when a line is split in half, sometimes with punctuation, sometimes not. The use of punctuation in these moments creates a very intentional pause in the text. A reader should consider how the pause influences the rhythm of one’s reading and how it might proceed an important turn or transition in the text. Take a look at line nine of the first stanza as an example. It reads: “What blazed ahead of you? A faked road block?”
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transition between lines seven and eight of the first stanza and eight and nine of the second.
A simile is a comparison between two unlike things that uses the words “like” or “as”. A poet uses this kind of figurative language to say that one thing is similar to another, not like metaphor, that it “is” another. There is one example in line five and six of the third stanza “Like a dull blade with its edge / Honed bright”. Here, the speaker is comparing Lough Beg and its landscape to a knife.
In the first lines of ‘The Strand at Lough Beg’ the speaker, who is very likely Seamus Heaney himself, jumps right into describing the actions of his cousin, Colum McCartney. All that’s clear at this point is that the man is “Leaving” one place behind and journeying onto another. The “glow of filling stations” is receding into the distance, as is the light from a few street lamps. The man is driving up “the hills toward Newtownhamilton” in County Armagh, Northern Ireland.
One of the landmarks that Heaney gives the reader to mark his cousin’s drive is the Fews Forest, a large conifer plantation. It’s night while this journey is taking place and the darkness of the sky and the forest are juxtaposed with the meager light of the filling stations and street lamps. He’s leaving what light there is behind and moving into the darkness. The symbolism present here cannot be ignored.
Heaney depicts the landscape in the next lines, relating it to the flight of “Sweeney,” a hero from Middle Irish writings. By mentioning Sweeney in relation to McCartney, Heaney is suggesting the two are similar. McCartney’s fate, which is soon to fall upon him, is not a good one. He is a martyr in the same sense as the now mythologized character is. There is a terrifying image in the next lines of “bloodied heads” and “dogs’ eyes in a demon pack”. These followed Sweeney in a similar way to how McCartney’s fate follows him.
Within line nine Heaney asks a series of questions. He expresses the fact that he doesn’t know exactly what happened next. “What,” he inquires of his cousin, “blazed ahead of you?”Because of the facts of this man’s death, the reader is missing just as much information as Heaney is. Some information came to light, but not everything a concerned family member might want to know.
In the next lines of ‘The Strand at Lough Beg,’ the speaker gets into a bit of the detail of what might’ve happened to McCartney. He might’ve been stopped on the road and heard the “sudden break” and seen “heads hooded and the cold-nosed gun”. But Heaney doesn’t know. This is all speculation. The alliteration in these lines is powerful. The double “h” in “heads hooded” starts a rhythm that’s continued in the use of consonance and the repetition of the “d” sound.
Alternatively, Heaney poses, maybe he was driving and he saw “tailing headlights” that suddenly pulled out into the road and “flagged” him down. These are frightening scenes, made more so by their mystery and how they are set in the middle of the night. In the fourteenth line, Heaney alludes to McCartney being lost and disorientated. Maybe he was somewhere he wasn’t known or where he’d never been. This makes his death all the more moving as a reader has to contend with the image of a lost, lonely man facing his end alone.
Next, within line fifteen, Heaney moves away from what’s mysterious and into what’s known. The cousin, and Heaney himself, knew “The lowland clays and waters of Lough Beg, / Church Island’s spire”. Lough Beg is a small lake in Northern Ireland and Church Island an island on the lake where visitors can see the ruins of an old church. The familiarity of this place, and the way it is juxtaposed against the horror of the man’s nighttime death, is striking. Its very different nature, or what should be its different nature, is emphasized through “its soft treeline of yew”.
The second stanza is shorter at only twelve lines. Here, the speaker describes what it’s like around Lough Beg. “There,” he said, “you used to hear shots fired behind the house”. The sounds would echo out before it was time to get up and remind McCartney of the ever-present violence in Northern Ireland at that time. Heaney describes McCartney passively. He was scared to “find spent cartridges” and to know for sure what was going on around the strand. His passivity is emphasized through the seventh line of this stanza.
The cartridges, when he did find them, were “Acrid, brassy, genital, ejected”. These words allude to poignant and potent violence.
The rest of this stanza helps the reader understand how McCartney, his family, that was so Heaney’s family, were people who “fought shy”. They might’ve talked conspiratorially and held strong opinions about what’s going on in the world, but they would not “seize the day” or get up and fight. McCartney’s and Heaney’s family members are described as “herders,” or people who take care of livestock, as well as “scullions” or servants who worked at menial tasks in the kitchen.
Clearly, Heaney did not see himself as originating from violent people. They are “Slow arbitrators of the burial ground”. A reader should be reminded throughout the second half of the second stanza that McCartney had done nothing wrong. He was not fighting on either side of the conflict and shouldn’t have been attacked.
The third stanza is sixteen lines, like the first, and begins with a lovely description of Lough Beg. In these lines, Heaney describes how the cattle grazed in amongst a thick and deep layer of mist. The scene is peaceful and alludes to a time in which violence did not control everyone’s choices. The “b” consonant sound is repeated in the third line with the word “unbewildered”. Heaney speaks about the cows and how they consider the world. They are not “bewildered” by what’s happened, suggesting that Heaney is.
The cows look up to “where we work our way through squeaking sedge”. He recalls how they’d walk through the grasses in the early morning and the water/dew would squeak under their feet.
Heaney uses a simile to compare Lough Beg to a knife. It is “like a dull blade with its edge / Honed bright”. It “shines under the haze” of the morning. The lake is a strip of brightness in amongst the mist.
In the final lines, the speaker narrates what happens moment by moment. He hears McCartney stop walking behind him. It’s the silence of his “sweeping…feet” that draws Heaney’s attention. When he looks behind, he sees the man “With blood and roadside muck in” his hair and eyes. He’s imagining his cousin’s death and the way that he would’ve liked to in those moments have cared for his body.
Heaney weaves the man’s death in with the grasses of Lough Beg and creates for him a worthy place of rest. In these lines, the reality is blurred with a fantasy. Heaney has already stated that he wasn’t with McCartney when he died, and doesn’t know exactly what happened. These lines are likely a fabrication meant to eulogize the man and rewrite the final moments of his life.
Heaney describes how he’d clean the body with moss and lift McCartney so that he was lying flat “With rushes” around him. Lastly, with the bright “green” imagery continuing, Heaney describes braiding McCartney a cloak, or “scapular” to wear over his shroud.