A quick reading of Seamus Heaney’s “Requiem for the Croppies”

As we close in on St. Patrick’s Day, here is a lovely sonnet from Seamus Heaney with a brief explication de texte. Read it out loud, please–I won’t listen–and then go on.

“Requiem for the Croppies”
The pockets of our greatcoats full of barley…
No kitchens on the run, no striking camp…
We moved quick and sudden in our own country.
The priest lay behind ditches with the tramp.
A people hardly marching… on the hike…
We found new tactics happening each day:
We’d cut through reins and rider with the pike
And stampede cattle into infantry,
Then retreat through hedges where cavalry must be thrown.
Until… on Vinegar Hill… the final conclave.
Terraced thousands died, shaking scythes at cannon.
The hillside blushed, soaked in our broken wave.
They buried us without shroud or coffin
And in August… the barley grew up out of our grave.
Seamus Heaney

When I teach this poem I like to read through it out loud and then discuss its origins, its structure, and its meaning—and then read it out loud again. When I teach it well, I can create a kind of cavernous silence at the end of the second reading.

Heaney, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995, wrote this poem in 1966 when many Irish poets and artists were seeking to commemorate the 1916 rising.  Heaney reached back further than that—finding the origins of the 1916 rising in 1798. The rebellion of 1798 was born of the revolutionary republican ideas sweeping America (1776) and Europe (particularly the French Revolution of 1789) and the national feeling of the Irish. It was savagely put down.

The poem is a sonnet. It is 14 lines long—traditional for a sonnet—but contains a rough, imperfect rhyme scheme: “barley” and “country”—“day” and “infantry”—“thrown,” “cannon”, and “coffin” which only pick up that last consonant sound of /N/. But lots of lines contain internal sound connections—”until” and “hill;” “died” and “scythes;” “stampede” and “retreat” in adjacent lines. There is also lots of wonderful suggestive consonance (repeated consonant sounds) and assonance (repeated vowel sounds). Listen to the /s/ and near-/s/ sounds in “Terraced thousands died, shaking scythes at cannon. / The hillside blushed, soaked in our broken wave.” All of that wet blood, streaming down from the hill as the Croppie boys retreat up it–that sound gives you the sloshing moisture.

Not all of the lines have 10 syllables—some run over. But this roughness matches the voice of the unlettered narrator who speaks in first person plural, notice the use of “our” and “we”—he is one of the Croppies. The poem is filled with pauses and stops: there are 7 ellipses; 4 commas; 7 periods; and one colon—19 stops. It also contains beautiful if horrible images—a hillside so blood-drenched that it blushes; the birth of new life out of death as the bodies of the Croppies are the nourishment of the barley that grows from them.

The croppies were called such because they wore their hair cropped—to oppose the foppish, long-hair favored by the aristocracy of the time.  They did carry barley in their pockets. And, on June 21, 1798 at Vinegar Hill, they were cornered and many were slaughtered by artillery bombardment.  They made two futile attempts to break the British line. The British buried the bodies in mass, shallow graves—but the seeds of rebellion were sown—and bore fruit when the barley in their pockets came up–nourished by their own bodies–and bore fruit again in, 1913, 1916, 1969 and beyond—whenever the revolutionary spirit could not be killed. There was, in fact, a priest who led a division of the Croppies. These “soldiers,” fighting with farm implements and using whatever was at hand, (cows, the underbrush, the speed of men who carried their food with them) were overmatched by artillery yet in some way were undefeated.

Now read it out loud again-linger over the pauses. Participate in the pain and the hope.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day.

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11 responses to “A quick reading of Seamus Heaney’s “Requiem for the Croppies”

  1. Thanks, I enjoyed it and the explanation. It reminds me of the song ‘Boolavogue’ which is about the same uprising. I had the good fortune to be able to sing it at a St. Patrick’s day event last year and attempted to give it the same passion and emotion as the sonnet.

    • Thanks Mr. Hickie, there are a couple of good songs about this event and even a British folk song celebrating the massacre. I don’t know the one you mention but I will look it up. All best, Dan

  2. Dan Sheerin

    Great poem and inspiring insights about this grand work, Dan. As you also know and as other might be interested to learn, there are quite a few other poems (more songs, actually) that recall the Irish Rebellion of 1798, including the two provided below. In the first song found below, The Croppy Boy, one line from the second stanza tells of a young Irish rebel who took part in the 1798 rebellion, and was then taken prisoner and ultimately executed by the British forces’ of “Lord Cornwall.” Dr. McMahon points out that the Irish rebels of 1798 were inspired by the American rebels who fought against the forces of the Crown beginning in 1776 in the American war of revolution. Another connection in this regard – historical analysis of The Croppy Boy song puts forward that the “Lord Cornwall” mentioned in the second stanza is a slang reference to Lord “Cornwallis,” i.e., “Charles, first Marquis and second Earl (1738-1805), governor-general of India and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland from May 1798. Previously, Cornwallis had served in America where he had the dubious distinction, for a British officer, of surrendering to the American forces at Yorktown in 1781.” Sadly for Irish independence, Cornwallis’s British troops were not forced to surrender in Ireland in 1798, as they had been forced to by George Washington’s troops – including many who were recent immigrants from Ireland – to surrender in America in 1781 at the Battle of Yorktown. But as the last lines of Boolavogue, the second song found below, put it, the Irish fight for freedom continued, and “the cause that called you may call tomorrow … in another fight for the Green again!”

    The Croppy Boy
    It was early, early in the spring
    The birds did whistle and sweetly sing
    Changing their notes from tree to tree
    And the song they sang was Old Ireland free.

    It was early early in the night,
    The yeoman cavalry gave me a fright
    The yeoman cavalry was my downfall
    And I was taken by Lord Cornwall.

    As I was going up Wexford Street
    My own first cousin I chanced to meet;
    My own first cousin did me betray
    And for one bare guinea swore my life away.

    As I was walking up Wexford Hill
    Who could blame me to cry my fill?
    I looked behind, and I looked before
    But my aged mother I shall see no more.

    And as I mounted the platform high
    My aged father was standing by;
    My aged father did me deny
    And the name he gave me was the Croppy Boy.

    It was in Dungannon this young man died
    And in Dungannon his body lies.
    And you good people that do pass by
    Oh shed a tear for the Croppy Boy.

    Boolavogue
    At Boolavogue, as the sun was setting
    O’er the bright May meadows of Shelmalier,
    A rebel hand set the heather blazing
    And brought the neighbours from far and near.
    Then Father Murphy, from old Kilcormack,
    Spurred up the rocks with a warning cry;
    “Arm! Arm!” he cried, “For I’ve come to lead you,
    For Ireland’s freedom we fight or die.”
    He led us on against the coming soldiers,
    And the cowardly Yeomen we put to flight;
    ‘Twas at the Harrow the boys of Wexford
    Showed Booky’s Regiment how men could fight.
    Look out for hirelings, King George of England,
    Search ev’ry kingdom where breathes a slave,
    For Father Murphy of the County Wexford
    Sweeps o’er the land like a mighty wave.
    We took Camolin and Enniscorthy,
    And Wexford storming drove out our foes;
    ‘Twas at Sliabh Coillte our pikes were reeking
    With the crimson stream of the beaten Yeos.
    At Tubberneering and Ballyellis
    Full many a Hessian lay in his gore;
    Ah, Father Murphy, had aid come over
    The green flag floated from shore to shore!
    At Vinegar Hill, o’er the pleasant Slaney,
    Our heroes vainly stood back to back,
    And the Yeos at Tullow took Father Murphy
    And burned his body upon the rack.
    God grant you glory, brave Father Murphy
    And open heaven to all your men;
    The cause that called you may call tomorrow
    In another fight for the Green again.

  3. Dan Sheerin

    Danny Doyle, an Irish singer who used to sing in many pubs in the Wash DC area and who still lives in Northern VA, I believe, issued an entire CD on the 1798 rebellion. Here is a list of the songs / poems on that CD, many of which are available online on youtube or elsewhere:

    Danny Doyle – Who Fears To Speak of ’98 / Narration and Air (03:08)
    Danny Doyle – The Wearin’ Of The Green (03:28)
    Danny Doyle – The Rising Of The Moon (03:30)
    Danny Doyle – Narration and Air (01:06)
    Danny Doyle – Dunlavin Green (03:19)
    Danny Doyle – Shemus O’Brien (03:48)
    Danny Doyle – The Wind That Shakes The Barley (04:10)
    Danny Doyle – Narration (00:35)
    Danny Doyle – The Boys Of Wexford (03:27)
    Danny Doyle – Father Murphy (04:57)
    Danny Doyle – Narration (00:32)
    Danny Doyle – Kelly, The Boy From Killane (02:43)
    Danny Doyle – Molly Doyle, The Heroine Of Ross / Air (03:01)
    Danny Doyle – The Croppy Boy (04:33)
    Danny Doyle – Narration (00:36)
    Danny Doyle – Roddy McCorley (03:34)
    Danny Doyle – Henry Joy (03:25)
    Danny Doyle – Narration (00:34)
    Danny Doyle – The Men Of The West (03:30)
    Danny Doyle – Narration and Air (01:24)
    Danny Doyle – Bodenstown Churchyard (02:37)
    Danny Doyle – Michael Dwyer (03:06)
    Danny Doyle – Boolavogue (04:44)
    Danny Doyle – Narration (00:53)
    Danny Doyle – The Memory Of The Dead (04:32)

  4. Pingback: In which I almost kill a guy in a rugby game in Wexford | Tír na nÓg

  5. Emily Leech

    I came across this post today after learning of Heaney’s death. Thanks so much for your analysis and insight, this is helpful with such a profoundly moving piece of work.

  6. It’s interesting that barley serves, in effect, as a means of resurrection (and of course the bodies of the Croppies are, almost literally, made of barley). It reminds me of the English ballad “John Barleycorn” (recorded by the Watersons, though better known from the version by traffic), which is about the “resurrection” of barley through the cycle of harvesting and planting.

    There’s an Irish ballad about the 1798 rebellion called “The Wind That Shakes the Barley.”

  7. How fitting on this weekend of the proposed use of high tech weapons to salve the blood-lust of the west, that we remember a time gone by of scythe versus cannon and the same brutality of political power.

  8. Pingback: Poem of the Day: Requiem for the Croppies | Jim Shepard

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