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 talk 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 toward 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, the “Plodder through midnight rain, / 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.

About Sean William Lynch
Sean Lynch is a writer and editor who lives in South Philly. Lynch's first book of poems, the city of your mind, was published in 2013 by Whirlwind Press. His second chapbook, Broad Street Line, focusing on politics and public transportation, was published by Moonstone Press in 2016. 100 Haiku is his latest release, also published by Moonstone Press in 2018. Lynch's writing has been featured in numerous publications online and in print, including (parenthetical), Poetry Quarterly, and Tincture Journal.

16 Responses to The Question Raised in Heaney’s “Casualty”

  1. pembroke5 says:

    You’re going to go far in Academia, if that’s what you want to do. I’m taking your book on Friday to a Librarian at Lasalle; she’s eager to see it. Alex Alexander Marshall

  2. G. says:

    Hi Sean.
    your analysis of this poem is very an interesting and helpful one.
    I’m a student in Languages&Literatures, and I’m studying Heaney for the first time.

    but I didn’t understand a passage.
    When you wrote ” 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””.. what about the relation between the poet’s “Question me again” with the fishing/water imagery?

    Thanks a lot.

    • Sean Lynch says:

      Interesting that you pointed this out, because the professor I wrote this for had the same question, stating “I don’t follow the logic here.” It’s just sloppy writing on my part. I think I was trying to say that all of the water imagery in between his explicit reference to the fisherman’s death and the end of the poem links together that thought process with the last line of the poem. Does that make sense? I’m not sure how else to put it. Thank you for reading.

  3. Kim Boyd says:

    Thank you. this has got me further into the poem. I see a powerful identification between poet and fisherman in “I tasted freedom with him”: Heaney seems to find a sense of resolution or transcendence in not being physically present at the funeral, but in being with O’Neill imaginatively, finding “a rhythm” as the fisherman did when working out on the lough. Heaney is furthering his quest to find the right voice in which to respond to the troubles in Ireland at the time. The “you” here is somewhat ambiguous: firstly the fisherman, and then the poet himself. I am remembering that Yeats also wrote a poem about a fisherman – it could be worth another look.

    • Sean Lynch says:

      Yes, the experience on the water that the speaker has is almost more respectful because it’s not political like the fisherman’s funeral, but rather purely spiritual as that funeral should be. You’re absolutely right to reference Yeats’ “The Fisherman,” as there is a similar theme about the common man. When Heaney’s speaker is in the bar conversing with the fisherman the latter brings up poetry and Heaney changes the subject because he’s “shy of condescension.” So both poets have a similar desire to have camaraderie with the fisherman and not seem elitist.

  4. Tommy Kearney says:

    Heaney was/is absolutely wonderful. I live close to Glanmore and a friend used to babysit for the family. Thanks to Sean for a most descriptive analysis of this very great poem.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Who is responsible for O’Neill’s death?
    To answer this question, I maybe should consider what the speaker means by asking “How culpable was he / That last night when he broke / Our tribe’s complicity?”
    What is the meaning of “How culpable was he / That last night when he broke / Our tribe’s complicity?”?

  6. James says:

    Who is responsible for O’Neill’s death?
    To answer this question, I maybe should consider what the speaker means by asking “How culpable was he / That last night when he broke / Our tribe’s complicity?”
    What is the meaning of “How culpable was he / That last night when he broke / Our tribe’s complicity?”?

    • The man died because he, for whatever reason, went to a bar of “the opposite sect” on a night of curfew. Heaney is questioning whether that justifies his death. Heaney does not think it justifies his death. This is significant because people of sectarian leanings would say that he got what he deserve because he was in a place that he shouldn’t have been in during a curfew.

  7. trishikamboj says:

    what in your opinion would the main themes revolving around this poem be? like apart from questioning the death of the fisherman and the bloody sunday shootings…

    • The main theme would be surrounding the question of morals. Is the speaker condemning sectarianism in general, or is the speaker questioning moral ambiguity? Howard Zinn’s “you can’t be neutral on a moving train” comes to mind.

  8. Pingback: Family loss and international literature | Leaf Collecting

  9. VARUN NAIR says:

    Hey Sean,

    I really enjoyed reading your analysis.It gave a much more complex and in-depth explanation.
    But the last line of the poem still confuses me.
    What is the ‘revenant’ fisherman asking Heaney? Why is he questioning Heaney? Shouldn’t he be the one to be questioned for breaking his ‘tribe’s complicity'(although his death cannot be justified by saying he shouldn’t have been there) ?

    Thank You.

    • Thanks for reading. I believe his cousin is forcing Heaney to question his own complicity, in that it was assumed provos who killed his cousin in the retaliatory bombing of the loyalist pub. It haunts Heaney as he tries to sleep at night. The dawn sniffing revenant plods through midnight rain to question Heaney again and again about his morals regarding the troubles. This questioning seems to lead to Heaney’s ambivalence about supporting the provos because of the shifting of their tactics from community defense and targeting the British military and Loyalist death squads to tit for tat sectarian violence like the bombing that killed his cousin. So the image of the cousin is what haunts the speaker and forces him to question his allegiance to the provos.

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