19 pages 38 minutes read

Seamus Heaney

Act of Union

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1975

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Authorial Context

In the early 1970s, when the Troubles in Northern Ireland were escalating in an alarming fashion, it was difficult for an Irish poet to ignore them. Heaney was no exception. Several poems in North, the 1975 collection in which “Act of Union” appeared, reference the sectarian conflict. Particularly relevant for “Act of Union” is “Ocean’s Love to Ireland,” which also deals with relations between England and Ireland going back to the Elizabethan era in the late 16th century. It features the English statesman and soldier Sir Walter Ralegh (1552-1618). In the early 1580s, Ralegh suppressed a rebellion against colonization by the English in Munster, Ireland. As an English settler, he was granted confiscated land in and around the town of Youghal, where he established a small colony of several hundred English people. The poem represents Ralegh as committing a rape of Ireland. As in “Act of Union,” Ireland is presented as female: “Ralegh has backed the maid to a tree / As Ireland is backed to England / and drives inland / Till all her strands are breathless.” (Heaney, Seamus, Poems 1965-1975, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980, pp. 201-02.) The poem also references Ralegh’s role in the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, which was a fleet of 130 ships dispatched from Catholic Spain to invade England and overthrow the Protestant Queen Elizabeth 1.