The Question Raised in Heaney’s “Casualty”

Seamus Heaney’s “Casualty” is an elegy for a fisherman in loose iambic trimeter that reflects not only on the implications of tribal or societal obligations and subsequent political affiliations, but ultimately questions whether it is worth it to act on a moral imperative. The poem follows the uneventful life of an anonymous and unassuming “dole-kept breadwinner” (14) who, according to the speaker, frequents two very different kinds of “haunts.” The fisherman’s rightful place is on the water, and yet his other preferred habitation, the pub, is connected by the image of consumed liquid, although the latter will be his demise. However, nightly drinking will not kill the fisherman in a conventional way, but it will cause the fisherman to patronize a bar in a Unionist neighborhood because of the Bloody Sunday curfew, and consequently the Catholic fisherman’s moral ambiguity will contribute to his death. The speaker remembers how they would speak of the Provisionals, which as a literal definition is synonymous with the transition into the first section’s last stanza, where the most explicit connection between the two is displayed: “But my tentative art / His turned back watches too” (36-37). The speaker then correlates this arbitrary act with the turning point of his intellectual affiliation, and hence the (albeit early) turning point of the poem, when the fisherman “…was blown to bits / Out drinking in a curfew” (38-39).

Heaney divides “Casualty” into three parts, the first two having three stanzas, the last having only two, with the final being a truncated triplet. At first sight the poem’s development seems confusing, or at least non-linear, as the narrative is shifted back in time once the speaker mentions the death of the fisherman in a bombing at the end of the first section. The rhyme scheme remains relatively uneven albeit slipping into abab at certain points when Heaney wants to highlight the significance of the passage. The next two sections shift from the funerals for the Bloody Sunday victims and the fisherman’s solitary funeral, to the tranquil scene of the speaker going out to fish instead of being at his friend’s funeral. However, the speaker envisions the man coming back from the dead through the light on the “indolent” waves, and desires for the ghost to ask him again the extent of their duty to their “tribe.”

The title itself represents the anonymity of the subject of the poem, as the speaker describes the personal habits and shortfalls of a man who was not involved politically. And yet the fisherman is a victim of his own habitual need to have a pint in a pub, but only because of Bloody Sunday. The poem takes place in 1972, soon after British paratroopers opened fire on a group of protesters, killing thirteen. The speaker lets the reader assume the specifics of exactly how the fisherman is killed, except that the speaker can “see him as he turned / In that bombed offending place, / Remorse fused with terror / In his still knowable face” (64-67). The first section leads up to this moment by explaining how the man would coyly order drinks, and the relationship between him and the speaker. The first line along with the entire first stanza describes how the man “would drink by himself” (1) in a way that earned the respect of the speaker of the poem. The speaker goes so far as to say that he “loved his whole manner, / Sure-footed but too sly…” (16-17) because he could relate to that sort of attitude on a larger scale when it came to the speaker’s political leanings. 

Heaney does not chide the subject of the poem (whom Heaney revealed through an interview to be a distant relative named Louis O’Neill) because he can relate to the man’s ambivalence towards remaining steadfast in his allegiance to his tribe by only patronizing Catholic pubs. Instead, the fisherman is so accustomed to his habitual pub-going that on the night in question “He had gone miles away / For he drank like a fish / Nightly, naturally” (70-72). Heaney expands on the aforementioned cliché by posing the question of why should it matter that an innocent man was sitting in a bar frequented by Protestants. Through this Heaney implies that he objects to the extremism of the IRA Provisionals in randomly killing innocent Protestants in retaliation for Bloody Sunday. It just so happened that Louis O’Neill was a Catholic knowingly endangering himself by sitting in the wrong place at perhaps the wrong time. Heaney explicitly answers this dilemma with the question “How culpable was he / That last night when he broke / Our tribe’s complicity?” (78-80)

The figure of the dead fisherman transcends the actual person that Heaney knew when the subject directly asks the speaker if being associated with Protestants warrants death while sardonically saying he’s “…supposed to be / An educated man..” (81-82). This paradigm shift in time and space runs parallel to Heaney’s own detachment from the militant Republican cause. In 1972 Heaney left his academic position in Belfast and retreated south to a rural part of the Republic of Ireland in order to write the Glanmore sonnets and presumably get away from the heightening tensions that were brewing in Northern Ireland. Stepping away from the Troubles further alienates Heaney from his Irish predecessor, Yeats, in that the latter poet’s “Easter, 1916” romanticizes the struggle to oust England from Ireland, while Heaney’s “Casualty” takes a more complex and realistic approach. Heaney’s form in “Casualty” also serves to be antithetical to Yeats because it is in the same elegiac trimeter form as “Easter, 1916,” but with the infrequent rhyme scheme mentioned above, as opposed to Yeats’ conventional rhyming. Heaney utilizes the fisherman, a victim of the chaotic ramifications of political terror, in his poem in order to set an example of the arbitrary nature of death in the Troubles. 

The speaker in “Casualty” ultimately does not even attend his friend’s funeral, and yet imagines it while actually on the deceased’s boat. Heaney uses fishing diction in order to describe the imagined funeral procession as people “shoaling” like schools of fish by the hearse. This choice of words is an extension of the many different uses of fishing and water imagery throughout the poem, which is appropriate considering how Heaney ends the elegy by desiring the dead fisherman to “Question me again” (112). Heaney’s transition from funeral to fishing boat in the penultimate stanza is fluid because the speaker cinematically shifts from the sound of the hearse’s engine “Purring” to that of the boat. While on the water the speaker states that he “tasted freedom with him” (102). Heaney no longer feels obliged to his kin to the point of not even attending the funeral, because the procession itself turns into a partisan statement. 

The speaker of the poem desires to get away from the political violence that’s tearing his countrymen apart. At his closing remarks, Heaney makes a sudden shift from speaking of the fisherman in the third person into the second person, so as to bring the subject nearer home and show the conjoining of their ambivalence. The speaker imagines the now “revenant” fisherman in his “proper haunt / Somewhere, well out, beyond” (108-109). Heaney questions the worth in pursuing a categorical imperative if the end result will so often become extremist. Thus, Heaney departs from Yeats’ romanticized battle against the English through the arbitrary death portrayed in “Casualty.”

13 unarmed protestors were murdered by British paratroopers on 30 January 1972. The British government would not admit Bloody Sunday as unlawful until 2010.

13 unarmed protestors were murdered by British paratroopers on 30 January 1972. The British government would not admit Bloody Sunday as unlawful until 2010.

Inanimate Control

as you leak long and slow

worrying about rupture

all hunched over wincing

drunk off pain

you take a break from monotony

it’s raining outside right now

but that doesn’t matter what matters

is pain staring back at you thru a mirror

the absence of soul and meaning

knowing that if you could see forever

that there would be an infinite number of you

although artificial

as the cold fluid supposedly water touches

your fingers suddenly stopping somehow automatically

when you should stop feeling

if only you’d stop feeling

Plongeur

These fingers have grasped ceramic and glass,

turning and scrubbing dishes and instruments

of consumption. These hands have been immersed

in hot and murky fetid water, working and toiling

until the night has worn down to the final minutes

when hours of work must be finished.

The grime and grease of more than thousands

of leftovers stained on dishes must be obliterated.

These callouses break and reform through bleach and detergent,

these fingers have grasped plates, bowls, glasses, mugs, pots, pans, and every kind of utensil

imagined, cast away food half eaten, not eaten, thrown away food dumped in plastic

bags mixed with poison, for those just one step below to dig through and savor.

These hands have contemplated searching for sustenance, and so the mind

wanders, spine slumped over, the dish washing machine compact and half-working.

These fingers have ended nights with desire for a cold clean glass,

while the hand rests upon a common grail and ponders whose hands it has passed

through and ponders more the covenant between each proletariat.

That each and every person mind their own, and drink and sometimes moan,

but never belabor too much the plight of pointless labor.

Unspoken Consolation

This dog is a reincarnation of a reincarnation

of Allen Ginsberg because he’s mystical

and gives me queer looks.

He loves to smell piss and shit, and he’s beautiful

and black and white and if dogs were poets he’d be

the masterful, subversive beta-male.

Ginsberg stares at me thru big brown eyes while wagging

his tail, thinking about absolution.

Now he’s licking his penis and grunting.

Now a cat is sitting on my lap staring at the wall,

since he’s a reincarnation of a reincarnation

of William S. Burroughs, he’s crying on the inside

about murder, but not really feeling guilty. The animals have seen

it all before, but not for forever.

projects projecting

sitting on a metal bench with hands clenched
without anything inside on the speeding SEPTA
train Broad street line traveling north destination
Dauphin Susquehanna Station there’s something about the old pale man
shaking his cane across from me mumbling about the weather
reciting incantations in order to halt the impending snowstorm
my stomach is an empty shell
my head a cauldron
my chest deflated
“this journey can only end badly” I think
the disembodied female voice names my stop
I get out and even the station is falling apart puddles of rusty water
decaying walls slowly dying trudging humans inanimate death
everywhere and above ground
is no better I’m not used to this land
I walk up Broad two blocks while chewing gum and looking back
trying to find the skyline it’s not the same
I’m in a different world North Philly I’m fine with being
the only white person around got nothing to hide not even my skin
once I get to Cumberland I make a right and pass the auto body shop
filled with broken cars and only two men fixing them they look at me vacantly
most are abandoned get ready for everything abandoned
razor-wire on all fences dark red row-houses not homes
dark red decaying spaces
the corner of 13th street is oppressive w/ 4 story toppling warehouses empty
like everything else
a man walks toward me diagonally with a trash bag
now I’m afraid I’m not used to human contact
he stares and somehow sees me thru the wasteland
a man picking up bottles there are too many to pick up
too many punctured mattresses and plastic bags in vacant lots
piles and mounds of trash where does it come from there are so little humans
only trash
I only look back for so long now I’m underneath an overpass it’s dark and the hill is ominous
the bridge is green and I can’t hear any traffic there’s ice and black snow from weeks ago
all around and it’s nowhere else in the city only here with all the trash
how long is this gray wall
more abandoned lots and vacant buildings why am I here I should turn back I will turn back I’m lost
no I can only go ahead
tall boarded up buildings but now in different colors it’s beautiful a cat leaps down
the steep front stoop and stairs and comes toward me it’s pure white and it’s an omen it disappears underneath
another block I look down the street it’s taped off
there is a big dark stain in the asphalt only 20 feet away
nothing else
I walk faster a parked car there’s parked cars around now I walk and now I hear people
I’m happy to hear people but when I look
they see me as something else and I don’t want to intrude I’m sorry
I’ll just keep my head down
I see the high rises many stories tall brown and uniform there are two of them
parallel buildings I know exactly what they are at first sight
the projects projecting oppression
looming over me now but also over everyone else living here on every other day
I’m afraid but I don’t show it
I wish I could peer into this desolate landscape

but I can feel the stares

I want to hide my skin so I just keep walking eyes down seeing broken

pavement all of a sudden out of my peripheral there are children speaking violently with pre-pubescent and adolescent voices

they’re saying that they’re strapped are they talking to me I keep my pace

I feel the bullet pierce my back in microseconds
don’t look

am I dead it’s only imaginary why is it imaginary am I imaginary why
I don’t belong here no one does