The poem Casualty by Seamus Heaney was written in memorial of Louis O’Neill, who was killed during the conflicts surrounding the dark day in Irish history known as “Bloody Sunday,” though he is unnamed in the actual text. It is separated into three sections of similar length and uses very sophisticated rhyme and rhythm though Heaney does not enforce it exactly, using slant and near rhymes when wanted and using them to draw attention to certain lines as is common in his other works. Heaney was an excellent craftsmen and it is no less apparent in this piece, making full use of enjambment and very concise language to convey his message.
The first two stanzas describe O’Neill drinking in a bar and the manner in which he does things. The reader gets a strong sense of the personality of both the narrator, and O’Neill mostly through comparison of the two as Heaney switches between himself, O’Neill, and their relationship. Throughout the piece, Heaney sets up opposition, by switching from descriptive narratives of past dealings with O’Neill to graphic facts about the bombing or descriptions of the tension present in Ireland as he did with the reference to the graffiti in stanza three, which compares the death toll to soccer score, “PARAS THIRTEEN, the walls said, / BOGSIDE NIL.”
Stanza four begins the second part with imagery of the day of the funeral of those killed on Bloody Sunday, as coffins are carried through the cathedral doors. It makes a birth reference that I feel like I am missing part of: “The common funeral / Unrolled its swaddling band, / Lapping, tightening / Till we were braced and bound / Like brothers in a ring.” These lines bring an image of people closely huddled around a grave at a funeral, all dressed in black, as everyone gathers around to say their final farewell. Maybe the unrolling of the swaddling band is the birth of their group, as those around them died they all become closer, not only literally because of the circle becoming smaller with each funeral but also in their association with each other. It then goes on to say that O’Neill ignored the curfew that was imposed by his fellow Catholics and that it was to pursue his thirst for alcohol, “For he drank like a fish / Nightly, naturally / Swimming towards the lure / Of warm lit-up places.” The cause of his death is what he is described as doing most often in this poem. The poem begins with his drinking and his life ended with the same thing. Heaney questions if O’Neill was deserving of blame when he was killed and he imagines his face the night of the bombing just as the explosion occurred. Heaney is pointing out in this stanza that everyone was innocent who was killed in the conflicts, like a war that people have been fighting so long they forget what they are fighting about.
The third part of the poem describes the morning of the funeral which melds into the morning he went fishing with O’Neill; it seems as if he is addressing the ghost of O’Neill, telling it to find its “proper haunt.” The last line of the poem is “Question me again.” This line alone is profound but also refers back to the question in the second part: “How culpable was he?” He can not find the correct answer because everything has become hazy or foggy as the poem describes the morning, another visual reference symbolic of the entire conflict; there are no clear answers to be found. There are seldom any clear answers for those who are left behind when people die, but in a time such as that of the poem, when there was so much violence and hate, I can’t even begin to imagine the confusion and feelings of paralysis that those people must have felt. They seek someone to blame but there is no one to be found, because they were all complicit, by doing nothing “while the worst are full of passionate intensity,” as William B. Yeats writes in The Second Coming. Heaney even uses the word “complicity” in the sixth stanza in reference to “our tribe” meaning the Catholic Church. The good people have been hardened against the violence of a hundred years and they can’t see any end in sight. I think Yeats put it very well when writing on the same topic, the same violence years before in Easter 1916 “Too long a sacrifice / Can make a stone of the heart. / O when may it suffice? / That is Heaven’s part, our part / To murmur name upon name, / As a mother names her child / When sleep at last has come / On limbs that had run wild. / What is it but nightfall? / No, no, not night but death.”