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.