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In the old man-killing parishes

Monday, 14 October, 2013

A recent outbreak of savagery in Northern Ireland brought to mind the work of the late Nobel Prize winning poet Seamus Heaney, who wrote a series of poems inspired by the discovery of the 4th century Tollund Man, whose mummified corpse was found in a peat bog on the Jutland Peninsula in 1950. In his poem, Heaney compares the ritual sacrifices of ancient Celtic Europe to the “sacrifice” of those murdered by the Irish Republican Army, which had the barbaric habit of burying its victims in peat bogs.

Heaney was in top form when composing this poem and the imagery of his language is startling: “She tightened her torc on him / And opened her fen / Those dark juices working / Him to a saint’s kept body.”

The Tollund Man

I

Some day I will go to Aarhus
To see his peat-brown head,
The mild pods of his eye-lids,
His pointed skin cap.

In the flat country near by
Where they dug him out,
His last gruel of winter seeds
Caked in his stomach,

Naked except for
The cap, noose and girdle,
I will stand a long time.
Bridegroom to the goddess,

She tightened her torc on him
And opened her fen,
Those dark juices working
Him to a saint’s kept body,

Trove of the turfcutters’
Honeycombed workings.
Now his stained face
Reposes at Aarhus.

II

I could risk blasphemy,
Consecrate the cauldron bog
Our holy ground and pray
Him to make germinate

The scattered, ambushed
Flesh of labourers,
Stockinged corpses
Laid out in the farmyards,

Tell-tale skin and teeth
Flecking the sleepers
Of four young brothers, trailed
For miles along the lines.

III

Something of his sad freedom
As he rode the tumbril
Should come to me, driving,
Saying the names
Tollund, Grauballe, Nebelgard,
Watching the pointing hands
Of country people,
Not knowing their tongue.
Out there in Jutland
In the old man-killing parishes
I will feel lost,
Unhappy and at home.

Seamus Heaney (1939 — 2013)

Tollund Man


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