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Clouds
Century of poetry and war

PART 6: other wars

 

Two Lorries by Seamus Heaney

It's raining on black coal and warm wet ashes.
There are tyre-marks in the yard, Agnew's old lorry
Has all its cribs down and Agnew the coalman
With his Belfast accent's sweet-talking my mother.
Would she ever go to a film in Magherafelt?
But it's raining and he still has half the load

To deliver farther on. This time the lode
Our coal came from was silk-black, so the ashes
Will be the silkiest white. The Magherafelt
(Via Toomebridge) bus goes by. The half-stripped lorry
With its emptied, folded coal-bags moves my mother:
The tasty ways of a leather-aproned coalman!

And films no less! The conceit of a coalman...
She goes back in and gets out the black lead
And emery paper, this nineteen-forties mother,
All business round her stove, half-wiping ashes
With a backhand from her cheek as the bolted lorry
Gets revved and turned and heads for Magherafelt

And the last delivery. Oh, Magherafelt!
Oh, dream of red plush and a city coalman
As time fastforwards and a different lorry
Groans into shot, up Broad Street, with a payload
That will blow the bus station to dust and ashes...
After that happened, I'd a vision of my mother,

A revenant on the bench where I would meet her
In that cold-floored waiting room in Magherafelt,
Her shopping bags full up with shovelled ashes.
Death walked out past her like a dust-faced coalman
Refolding body-bags, plying his load
Empty upon empty, in a flurry

Of motes and engine-revs, but which lorry
Was it now? Young Agnew's or that other,
Heavier, deadlier one, set to explode
In a time beyond her time in Magherafelt...
So tally bags and sweet-talk darkness, coalman,
Listen to the rain spit in new ashes

As you heft a load of dust that was Magherafelt,
Then reappear from your lorry as my mother's
Dreamboat coalman filmed in silk-white ashes.
 

POETRY INDEX

  the first world war
  the 1930s

  the second world war
  crimes against humanity

  the nuclear age
  other wars
The US Sailor-Japanese Skull GO
Missing GO
Two Lorries GO
O Come Love GO

  responsibility
  women's voice
s


INFORMATION
   
'cribs': hinged sides
'Magherafelt': (pronounced Mackerafelt) a town in Northern Ireland
'lode': vein or seam rich in coal
'black lead': preparation for smartening and polishing the exterior of black iron stoves
'emery paper': sandpaper, glasspaper, used for smoothing rough surfaces
'bolted': the lorry's sides put up and locked into place
'red plush': for many people the red velvety seats in cinemas represented luxury
'payload': profit-making cargo; the term is also used of the warhead of a rocket
'revenant': ghost, person returning from the dead
'motes': dust
'tally bags': coal sacks marked so they can be counted and checked off
'heft': lift
'dreamboat': 1940s word for a highly attractive member of the opposite sex
'filmed': covered with a film of ashes (but the idea of a cinema film - black and white in the 1940s - is also present)
   

HISTORY
   
Christianity was brought to Ireland, a country of tribes and clans, in the 5th century. Raiders from England made periodic efforts to invade and conquer, but by the15th century Irish chieftains had regained most of their lost land in this strongly religious, Roman Catholic land.

In the 16th century Henry VIII of England broke with the Roman Catholic church and declared himself head of a newly-founded Protestant Church of England. He also took the title 'King of Ireland'.

From now on, there were rebels in Ireland. Some had their land confiscated, and English settlers moved in. But the defining event was in the 17th century: James I 'planted' Ulster, the north of Ireland, with Protestant settlers from England and Scotland. When the Catholics mounted a rebellion in 1649, Oliver Cromwell's Protestant troops harshly suppressed it. Laws were introduced barring Catholics from gaining wealth and power.

In 1801, under the Act of Union, Ireland was united with the rest of Britain, but despite political union the government paid too little attention to Ireland's social and economic problems and needs. Catholics were allowed by law (1829) to become MPs, but otherwise continued be disadvantaged. Their discontent was effective fuel for nationalism, and the struggle for Irish freedom (Home Rule) escalated.. In 1919 the Irish Republican Army (IRA) was founded.

In 1921 the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed and Ireland was divided in two. Six of the nine counties of Ulster became Northern Ireland, part of the UK. The rest of the country became the Irish Free State (later Eire, and then the Republic of Ireland). The IRA continued its fight for a unified Ireland. In Northern Ireland, the Irish Protestants were determined to remain British; but a third of Northern Ireland's population were Catholics, many of whom did not wish have a Northern Ireland address, let alone a British one. All of them suffered from Protestant discrimination against them (in housing, employment and education), which led to the growth of a strong civil rights movement in the 1960s. Both sides contained hardline militants who campaigned with violence, and in1966 the Ulster Volunteer Force declared war on the IRA.

In 1968 the period known as the Troubles began. After riots and armed attacks in Ulster, the British government sent in troops. Years of violence followed in which thousands, many of them innocent bystanders, were killed. One of the many towns subjected to IRA bomb attacks was Magherafelt. Seamus Heaney was born on a farm not far from it, in 1939. He has lived in both Northern Ireland and the Republic, and for many years resisted calls to write poetry about the conflict. Poetry, he seemed to say, doesn't take sides in war where all are victims.
   

IDEAS
   

In fact, by referring indirectly and unpolitically to the conflict, as Seamus Heaney does in this poem (published in the 1990s), he possibly says far more about the horrors of life in civil war than any partisan statement might have done.

The lyric lilt of the poem - not only in its rhythm but also in its sounds, many of them repeated as words (Magherafelt, ashes, lorry, coalman, mother) or parts of words (coal-bags/body-bags; payload/ plying his load) - provides a deceptively sweet background for the two kinds of action, as it were the two black-and-white movies in the programme. The first is a childhood documentary:. The second ('As time fastforwards...') is more complicated: a blend of dream and truth.

Indeed, which lorry is it now? Time won't rewind to before the fatal explosion, and the coalman can't lose his new aspect, the aspect of death. And is that last image - 'dreamboat coalman filmed in silk-white ashes' - an image of death, a ghost, or the result of burning? However one winds and rewinds this poem, the end is pain.

It's worth the rewinding, though, to reach the central issue: that bombing achieved nothing positive or good, only dust and ashes. This was the message which the Peace People of Northern Ireland, founded in 1976, began to spread. 'We've got to stop the violence,' they said, 'We've got to solve the problems another way'. The desire for peace took hold, and is still in place, despite outbreaks of violence and problems still to be solved.

 

   
     

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