Much of Heaney’s poetry is based on is his upbringing. Violence and murder was a frequent part of is childhood and life and therefore context. Allegiance to a particular ‘tribe’ was a vital part of his Irish culture. By tribe I refer to his loyalty to the Irish Catholics and their campaign to eventually win Ireland’s independence.
The troubles in Ireland could be described as a conflict between two ‘tribes’ – the Catholics and the Protestants or the British. Heaney is torn between his loyalties and his desire for peace, which can eventuate only when such alliances are abandoned, by all of Ireland. Casualty speaks of the particular ‘tribal loyalties’ that form a basis of understanding much of Heaney’s work.
Heaney grew up in a society divided by religion. The Heaney family was Catholic. The ruling group in Northern Ireland at the time was protestant and there were widespread discrimination against the catholic. The seeds of what would flare into violence that lasted on and off from 1969 to 1998 in Ireland was present in Heaney’s everyday life as a young boy.
The poem ‘Casualty’ is part of the collection ‘North’. Seamus Heaney recognizes that the collection North is the consolidation of all that has gone before. More then ever in this collection he faces up to his thoughts and feelings about the problems experienced in Northern Ireland. In ‘North’ Heaney feels that it is necessary to write directly in a way that will show the horror of the time and the fear it engendered. Heaney was under intense pressure at this time to become more of a political ‘voice’.
This poem is an elegy for Louis O’Neill who spent most evenings in Heaney’s father in laws pub. O’Neill remains unnamed throughout the poem, a deliberate withholding by Heaney to make him a representation of the countless innocent and unnoticed lives which have been lost in wars. Although a catholic himself, O’Neill (a fisherman and heavy drinker) disobeyed a curfew imposed by the IRA (a catholic extremist group who violently opposed the protestants) he went to a protestant pub for a drink and was consequently killed when the pub was blown up by a bomb set by the IRA in a retaliation attack for bloody Sunday
Bloody Sunday was when British paratroops killed 13 unarmed catholic civil rights protesters, it was a monumental turning point in Irish social History and a significant part of Heaney’s social context as it occurred in his home town- Derry. The events surrounding these issues in this poem are thus highly political and personal for Heaney. He uses ‘casualty ‘ as a means of exploring the detrimental ramifications religious segregations have on communities.
The poem Casualty can be referred to as a Triptych; a work of art divided into three distinct sections, each developing an aspect of the story line.
In ‘Casualty’ Heaney- the objective persona- directly confronts the circumstances leading to a sectarian murder and explores the complex loyalties and social restrictions associated with religious ideologies.
In the first stanza Heaney describes how the man would order his drinks without speaking. His mimes were recognized because he was such a frequent visitor. He would leave at closing time dressed in a peaked cap and waders (Irish fishing attire). Heaney liked the personality of the man, his movement, his keen observation and his awareness to what was happening around him. ‘I loved his whole manner’ Through the use of warm language, Heaney positions us to feel affectionate towards