Seamus Heaney wrote "The Strand at Lough Beg" in memory of his cousin, Colum McCartney, who was "the victim of a random sectarian [that is, Catholic vs. Protestant] killing in the late summer of 1975" (Qtd. in fn. 1523). He begins the poem just prior to McCartney’s attack with him leaving to go on a journey to Newtownhamilton (Line 3). Immediately McCartney is described in such a way that it becomes apparent that the speaker, who I will assume to be Heaney himself, views him as someone who did no wrong. He is said to be traveling "Along that road, a high, bare pilgrim’s track / Where Sweeney fled before the bloodied heads" (5-6). Sweeney is popularly known in Ireland as being "the hero of a Middle Irish prose and poem sequence, one part of which takes place in the Fews" (Qtd. in fn. 1523), which is where McCartney is traveling. Therefore, even before McCartney’s attack is discussed in any way, we already know that he is thought of as a hero or a martyr of sorts.
Heaney then begins speculating about what happened to his cousin, as no one really knows the whole story. Was he stopped by "a faked road block" (9)? Or was he tailgated and then flagged over to the side of the road (12-13)? Heaney describes these scenes in such a way that they become vividly real and frightening in the mind of the reader. As I read these lines, I could clearly hear the screeching of "sudden brakes" (10) and feel the metal of the "cold-nosed gun" (11) against my skin. The reader is right there living through this horrifying experience with McCartney. It is clear that Heaney felt strongly connected to his cousin. As we transition into the second stanza, we begin to learn a little more about the bond between the two men.
Heaney says that McCartney was far from what he knew when he was attacked, and goes on to mention what it was that he knew—Lough Beg (14-15). The rest of the poem is set in Lough Beg and begins by talking about the less violent and senseless way that guns were used there. "There you used hear guns fired behind the house / Long before rising time, when duck shooters / Haunted the marigolds and bulrushes" (17-19). Heaney then goes on, though, to describe how McCartney even feared to discover the "spent cartridges" (20) from these hunters when he was walking across the strand. McCartney is described as coming from a long line of passive farmers who avoided violence and even competition at all costs. In the poem Heaney says to McCartney, "For you and yours and yours and mine fought shy / . . .And could not crack the whip or seize the day" (23-25). Their people are described as "scullions," "herders," (26) and "talkers in byres" (27). These descriptions further convince the reader that McCartney was a simple man who did not deserve to be attacked and who was essentially incapable of defending himself from the relentless aggressors that attacked him.
The third stanza begins by describing Lough Beg on the morning that McCartney was attacked. The scene that is described is peaceful and serene. "[T]he cattle graze / Up to their bellies in an early mist" (29-30) and the men work through plants that are "[d]rowning in dew" (33). Heaney then makes a transition from this peaceful scene to the horrific one that unfolds upon the arrival of his cousin. He does so by saying that he was startled by "the sweeping of your feet" (35). That phrase in itself brings about images of a quiet, peaceful entrance, and continues the image of serenity that was introduced at the beginning of the stanza. McCartney’s entrance changes the mood of Lough Beg quite suddenly, though. This is indicated in the poem by the abrupt change from slow-moving, descriptive language to the brutal honesty and stark reality of the lines which read, "to find you on your knees / With blood and roadside muck in your hair and eyes" (36-37).
Although Heaney’s experience with nature and farming is revealed in the second stanza, it is not until the third stanza that we realize exactly how strongly he feels about it. The last seven lines clearly reveal the bond that Heaney and his family had with their land and with nature itself. He describes washing his cousin’s wounds with "cold handfuls of the dew" (39) from the "brimming grass" (38) in which he was kneeling. He "dab[s] [his cousin] clean with moss" (40) and uses rushes to "plait / Green scapulars [for his cousin] to wear over [his] shroud" (43-44).
Although "The Strand at Lough
Beg" is a beautiful eulogy for Colum McCartney, it is more than just that.
It is a poem that discusses the bonds between humans and nature, between
a man and his land. Even more than that, though, it is a commentary on
the senseless violence between the Catholics and the Protestants. Heaney
makes a good case for the futility of the violence by describing his cousin,
a simple, peaceful man who was randomly killed as the result of a war he
did not even choose to fight.