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"Casualty" by Seamus Heaney, begins with the description of an unnamed man in a pub, who the speaker has long known. The man was a "regular" patron, and the bartender always knew what he wanted:
[He’d] raise a weathered thumb
Towards the high shelf,
Calling another rum
Having to raise his voice...
The speaker describes him as he would leave for the night: what he was wearing. And note that this seemingly lazy man ("dole-kept breadwinner") was "a natural for work." Something about the physicality of the man impresses the speaker. He "loved his whole manner" even though there was something about his sure-footedness, "sidling tact" and "fisherman's quick eye" that made the speaker think him sly—observant even with his back turned. This provides foreshadowing to later events.
It is clear that the speaker is an educated man, and while they would sit in the pub, they would talk. The fisherman would cut a "plug" of chewing tobacco, take a drink and would bring up "poetry." The discussion was "always politic / And shy of condescension," but the speaker would always somehow turn the talk in a different direction—of the "lore of the horse and cart / Or the Provisionals" ("die-hard Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) sympathizers"). Suddenly the reader learns the fate of this man the speaker so admired: out after curfew that was set for the Irish Catholics...
He was blown to bits
Out drinking in a curfew
The curfew was in place because three nights before, thirteen men ("unarmed civil rights workers") were killed by British Forces, in what is referred to as "Bloody Sunday" in Derry, where the speaker was from.
Section two recalls the funeral of the thirteen men killed. It was a cold, rainy day, and the movement of the coffins is described in a simile comparing them to blossoms floating on water. The loss of their own, the speaker notes, drew them all closer together. Even in light of this, the fisherman would not be ordered, could not be compelled. Though threats were made, the man would go where he chose. The speaker imagines him in that "bombed offending place," where the fisherman dies. What had drawn him was not political, but thirst...
For he drank like a fish...
Swimming towards the lure
Of warm lit-up places...
These places held comfort for him, so he went...and he died. The speaker asks if he was at fault ("culpable") in going...in defying the curfew. Almost as if beyond the grave, he hears the man ask him:
‘Now, you’re supposed to be
An educated man,’
I hear him say. ‘Puzzle me
The right answer to that one.’
The speaker is not at his funeral, but when he imagines it, he thinks of going out with him on his boat, The Screw.
I tasted freedom with him.
He enjoyed the physical comfort of fishing, the rhythm to the work, on the water the fisherman knew so well.
Question me again.
As the speaker thinks of that fishing trip, he recalls the image of the man, like a ghost—"dawn-sniffing reverant" and tells the spirit he feels (or the ghost he imagines) to "question him again." This could refer to the speaker's earlier inquiry, was the man to blame for his death in going out that night? If he innocently snuck out to drink, simply tasting "freedom," he was a victim. Maybe the speaker asks, can one be to blame if he is a victim? Personally, I would think not—especially for a civil war that took so many civilian lives.
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