“Casualty” by Seamus Heaney


He would drink by himself
And raise a weathered thumb
Towards the high shelf,
Calling another rum
And blackcurrant, without
Having to raise his voice,
Or order a quick stout
By a lifting of the eyes
And a discreet dumb-show
Of pulling off the top;
At closing time would go
In waders and peaked cap
Into the showery dark,
A dole-kept breadwinner
But a natural for work.
I loved his whole manner,
Sure-footed but too sly,
His deadpan sidling tact,
His fisherman’s quick eye
And turned observant back.

To him, my other life.
Sometimes, on the high stool,
Too busy with his knife
At a tobacco plug
And not meeting my eye,
In the pause after a slug
He mentioned poetry.
We would be on our own
And, always politic
And shy of condescension,
I would manage by some trick
To switch the talk to eels
Or lore of the horse and cart
Or the Provisionals.

But my tentative art
His turned back watches too:
He was blown to bits
Out drinking in a curfew
Others obeyed, three nights
After they shot dead
The thirteen men in Derry.
PARAS THIRTEEN, the walls said,
BOGSIDE NIL. That Wednesday
Everyone held
His breath and trembled.


It was a day of cold
Raw silence, wind-blown
surplice and soutane:
Rained-on, flower-laden
Coffin after coffin
Seemed to float from the door
Of the packed cathedral
Like blossoms on slow water.
The common funeral
Unrolled its swaddling band,
Lapping, tightening
Till we were braced and bound
Like brothers in a ring.

But he would not be held
At home by his own crowd
Whatever threats were phoned,
Whatever black flags waved.
I see him as he turned
In that bombed offending place,
Remorse fused with terror
In his still knowable face,
His cornered outfaced stare
Blinding in the flash.

He had gone miles away
For he drank like a fish
Nightly, naturally
Swimming towards the lure
Of warm lit-up places,
The blurred mesh and murmur
Drifting among glasses
In the gregarious smoke.
How culpable was he
That last night when he broke
Our tribe’s complicity?
‘Now, you’re supposed to be
An educated man,’
I hear him say. ‘Puzzle me
The right answer to that one.’


I missed his funeral,
Those quiet walkers
And sideways talkers
Shoaling out of his lane
To the respectable
Purring of the hearse…
They move in equal pace
With the habitual
Slow consolation
Of a dawdling engine,
The line lifted, hand
Over fist, cold sunshine
On the water, the land
Banked under fog: that morning
I was taken in his boat,
The Screw purling, turning
Indolent fathoms white,
I tasted freedom with him.
To get out early, haul
Steadily off the bottom,
Dispraise the catch, and smile
As you find a rhythm
Working you, slow mile by mile,
Into your proper haunt
Somewhere, well out, beyond…

Dawn-sniffing revenant,
Plodder through midnight rain,
Question me again.

“Casualty” by Seamus Heaney
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I love how the poem tells the story of complex Irish history and culture. From the start of the poem, Heaney takes readers to a typically Irish setting: a beer in a tavern. As the source of inspiration for many Irish authors, tavern tours are a must-see for any visitor who wishes to understand Irish culture.

Casualty is a poem written by Seamus Heaney (1939 – 2013), an Irish poet who lived during the civil war, which split Irish people between the two countries: one run by Catholics (the Republic of Ireland) and one run by Protestants (Northern Ireland).

The poem talks about the funeral of thirteen men, considered casualties of war. The poem refers to Bloody Sunday on 30 January 1972. Thousands of people went down onto the street to protest against a law that gave authorities the power to imprison people without trial. This poem is a tribute to the thirteen people killed that day.

The poem is divided into three parts, each telling the story of the speaker who is mourning his dead friend, a fellow fisherman. The first part takes readers to a typical Irish setting: a pub. It’s clear that the speaker is a regular customer: “Calling another rum / And blackcurrant, without /Having to raise his voice / By a lifting of the eyes / And a discreet dumb-show.” Like the alcohol’s effects, Heaney suppresses the human senses of hearing, touch, sight. Like in death, it’s about losing what makes one person human and joining them in their quiet agony.

The second part of the poem is about the day of the funeral and the social pressure that comes with it. The speaker does not attend the ceremony and is being criticized by the community: “Our tribe’s complicity? / ‘Now, you’re supposed to be / An educated man’.” This is where Seamus’ irony comes out: people criticize the fisherman for his improper behavior while it was this very same “tribe” that acted like savages and killed his friend. “‘Puzzle me / The right answer to that one.’”

The author uses a lot of words related to nature: “For he drank like a fish / Nightly, naturally / Swimming towards the lure / Of warm lit-up places.” The natural elements sound comforting and provide peace to those who died. The contrast between humans and nature is emphasized by the word choice to describe them. People are bitter and violent, while nature is warm and reassuring. Natural elements will also be a source of relief to the speaker.

The third part is about mourning. The speaker remembers memories shared with the dead fisherman while they were at sea together: “I tasted freedom with him. / To get out early, haul / Steadily off the bottom,/Dispraise the catch, and smile.” Slowly, the readers understand the affection the author has for his friend and how hard it’s going to be for him to let his friend go, as he will continue sailing.

The ending of the poem is more hopeful as the death of the fisherman is associated with wonder and freedom: “On the water, the land / Into your proper haunt / Somewhere, well out, beyond.” It’s as if his friend had found peace in the water and will accompany his future boat trips. As the fisherman found peace in death, the speaker will find his in the depths of the ocean.

the abyss of the ocean
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The positive outlook on nature is representative of Irish culture. They are proud of their beautiful landscape and have shared a deep connection with it. Irish people are descended from the Celtic people, who showed great consideration for the forces of nature. The Celts believed that all living beings were animated by a spirit, including trees. In this poem, Seamus refers to the origin of Irish culture, before the religious debate divided his people.

I think the poem is a historical reference to the funeral of the thirteen men, who died during Bloody Sunday, but also a symbolic funeral of Irish unity. The poem is set in an Irish pub and refers to the Celtic culture. But it also talks about how the government has murdered its own citizens along with the speaker’s rejection from society. What makes Irish culture is still present, but the people are divided, exactly as it happened during the Troubles.

Casualty is a beautiful eulogy to the 13 people who died for protesting against an undemocratic law and for the unity of the Irish nation. Like a piece of history printed in literature, the poem attests to the dehumanizing period of the Troubles.