Saturday, 12 July 2014

The Twelfth

Today is the Twelfth.  Most of you won't have any notion what I'm talking about.  When I was a child in Northern Ireland the twelfth of July was a big day out.  We'd go and watch the bands parade, the flute and accordions and even pipers in kilts.   There were banners showing a man with long curly hair on a white horse.   We'd eat strawberries from little wooden boxes and follow the bands and the men in their bowler hats and orange collarettes to a field where some men would make speeches we didn't listen to and we had a picnic.

It wasn't until I was a teenager that I realised that this big day out wasn't for everyone in Northern Ireland.

This morning on the news there was an item on the news about the Twelfth in Northern Ireland and the likelihood of sectarian violence later today because of disputed routes for the parades.  The presenter on the BBC could hardly disguise his contempt for the marchers and how he considered it ridiculous to be making a fuss about walking along particular stretch of road.  They had an 'expert' from Liverpool University who explained that the community is still largely divided into Catholics and Protestants with few integrated schools or what he described as 'mixed' marriages.  Sad but true.

When I meet new people in England and they realise that I'm from Northern Ireland, they often ask me if I am Catholic.  I'm always a little embarrassed to admit I'm from Heaney's The Other Side.  No one from Northern Ireland ever does this.  We don't need to: things like names or schools give it away.  As Heaney said in 'Whatever You Say, Say Nothing', ‘the rule/ that Norman, Ken and Sidney signalled Prod/ and Seamus (call me Sean) was sure-fire Pape’.

This  article by Jenny McCartney  published in 'The Spectator' last year, 'Seamus Heaney's poems are for Protestants too',  explains what I'm trying to say better than I can. And, as I can't seem to stop myself these days, another poem:

The Other Side
Seamus Heaney

Thigh deep in sedge and marigolds
a neighbour laid his shadow
on the stream, vouching

'It's poor as Lazarus, that ground,'
and brushed away 
among the shaken leafage.

I lay where his lea sloped
to meet our fallow,
nested in moss and rushes,

my ear swallowing 
his fabulous, biblical dismissal,
that tongue of chosen people.

When he would stand like that
on the other side, white-haired, 
swinging his blackthorn

at the marsh weeds, 
he prophesised above our scraggy acres,
then turned away

towards his promised furrows
on the hill, a wake of pollen 
drifting to our bank, next season's tares.


For days we would rehearse
each patriarchal dictum:
Lazarus, the Pharoah, Solomon

and David and Goliath rolled 
magnificently, like loads of hay
too big for our small lanes,

or faltered on a rut - 
"Your side of the house, I believe,
hardly rules by the book at all."

His brain was a whitewashed kitchen
hung with texts, swept tidy
as the body of the kirk.


Then sometimes when the rosary was dragging
mournfully on in the kitchen
we would hear his step around the gable

though not until after the litany
would the knock come to the door
and the casual whistle strike up

on the doorstep. "A right-looking night,"
he might say, "I was dandering by
and says I, I might as well call."

But now I stand behind him
in the dark yard, in the mourn of prayers.
He puts his hand in a pocket

or taps a little tune with the blackthorn
shyly, as if he were party to 
lovemaking or a strangers weeping.

Should I slip away, I wonder,
or go up and touch his shoulder
and talk about the weather

or the price of grass-seed?


  1. I know what you're talking about! Just heard on the news that there have been protests in the town where I live (well I live about a mile away) and also in Dromore. I didn't even know.

    1. Not to bad this year it seems though I'm not there of course so can hardly comment.

  2. I love Seamus Heaney and always make a point of teaching his poems to my senior pupils. "Mid-Term Break" always makes me cry (privately, not in class).

    1. Me too. Mid-Term Break was a GCSE Anthology poem for years and was often the students' favourite. It's the final line that does it. Good to have another English teacher visiting here - and now going to visit your blog.

  3. A foot for every year. Good poems. My Dad is from Omagh (well, a village near Omagh) and he says that in his youth there was less 'us and them', especially because in a rural town the need to get together and help each other out was stronger. Harvest and times of hard work needed all the farmers to work together. I don't know if there is ever an answer to a problem like Ireland; no solution will suit everybody all the time. I just hope that tolerance and friendship can keep the peace more than entrenched hatred can destroy it. I never visited Dad's home until I was 30 because of 'the Troubles' and now, having been, I don't want to be held away by any more.