Culture & History

Summer 1969: Seamus Heaney in Madrid

It was by pressing hard against a pen, and not guitar strings, that his fingers bled.

If seasons reflect moods, then the summer of 1969 was exceptional in producing works that mirrored a particular moment in time. Or rather, many moments in time, as the web that now spreads between world corners had not been woven yet; in its absence, global moods were as variable as a day containing all seasons. Whilst to one side of the ocean, a hopeful Bryan Adams tried ‘real hard’ with his first six-string, to the other, the Irish in Northern Ireland hopelessly fought to pull their own strings; not far from them, Spaniards looked down at their wrists and pondered on what to do with ties that were no longer attached to anything other than themselves, and which, like umbilical cords, were bound to rot out of lack of need.

Seamus Heaney in Madrid

Heaney was in Madrid. In August. And he really felt the heat. His Summer 1969 poem, the fourth of a set of six under the title ‘Singing school’, is, indeed, full of that constant yearning for home that pervades the souls of so many travellers; a morriña also tinged with a fundamentally Irish trait, a deep sense of regret. Guilt can so often feel like fire burning in our eye waterline, and in Madrid’s dog days, Heaney felt the Falls burning inside his own, so close and yet so far. Wherever he went, echoes of home were present; in Madrid he breathed a conflict’s post-truth: the quietness of defeat, and he was not at home with it.

Silence was deceiving; a relieving respite as threatening as the loudest of explosions. It sat in the throat as dryly as the feeling of not belonging. And while his body tried to take refuge in the city’s night air and its attractions, his mind flew away like an ancient Greek butterfly; it did not stop psyche, however, from writing back to each one of his senses, and the fishiness of power with its stinking imposition, the black shawl of resignation, and the false sense of security of patent leather, all weighed him down.

When admiring Goya’s work, cudgels appeared as weightless as quills fighting a monster larger than a landscape, conjuring the question ‘Was the pen really mightier than the sword’? The question, that day, appeared to fall on deaf ears, drowned by the noise of a bloody-horned harvester mowing down anything tender under its revved-up hoofs. Yet, before and then, here and there, a voice had already abandoned its sepulchre and stood above ground, on a podium hill, where the dust of destruction would not reach, persisting uncomfortably like the fragment of a melody that cannot be escaped.

Heaney’s Poem

You can enjoy this beautiful text below:

Summer 1969 (part of ‘Singing School’, North (1975)).

While the Constabulary covered the mob   

Firing into the Falls, I was suffering

Only the bullying sun of Madrid.

Each afternoon, in the casserole heat

Of the flat, as I sweated my way through   

The life of Joyce, stinks from the fishmarket   

Rose like the reek off a flax-dam.

At night on the balcony, gules of wine,

A sense of children in their dark corners,

Old women in black shawls near open windows,   

The air a canyon rivering in Spanish.

We talked our way home over starlit plains   

Where patent leather of the Guardia Civil   

Gleamed like fish-bellies in flax-poisoned waters.

‘Go back,’ one said, ‘try to touch the people.’   

Another conjured Lorca from his hill.

We sat through death-counts and bullfight reports   

On the television, celebrities

Arrived from where the real thing still happened.

I retreated to the cool of the Prado.   

Goya’s ‘Shootings of the Third of May’   

Covered a wall—the thrown-up arms   

And spasm of the rebel, the helmeted   

And knapsacked military, the efficient   

Rake of the fusillade. In the next room,

His nightmares, grafted to the palace wall—

Dark cyclones, hosting, breaking; Saturn   

Jewelled in the blood of his own children,   

Gigantic Chaos turning his brute hips   

Over the world. Also, that holmgang

Where two berserks club each other to death   

For honour’s sake, greaved in a bog, and sinking.

He painted with his fists and elbows, flourished

The stained cape of his heart as history charged.

And Remember…

You can find us on our main website,, and you can check out our podcast on RadioPublic. The blog can also be found on Medium and Bloglovin’.

Other poetic content can be found here, while you can read more about the Spanish Civil War here.

More culture can be found below, in the video:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.