Seamus Heaney’s poem “Requiem for the Croppies” is a tribute to Irish rebels of the late eighteenth century who resisted English domination of their country. They were called “croppies” because they cut (or “cropped”) their hair short as a sign of defiance. Because Heaney’s poem deals with one example of the long-standing conflict between England and Ireland, it is a poem brimming with social awareness and cultural politics.
The opening two lines of the poem indicate the nomadic lifestyle of the rebels, who must carry food, in the form of barley, in their coats and who have “No kitchens on the run” and few if any possibilities of setting up permanent camps. The rebellious Irish soldiers must move quickly through their “own country” (3) – a highly ironic phrase, since Ireland, as dominated by England, both is and is not the “country” of the Irish. Even (or perhaps especially) Catholic priests must hide from the English (4). Like many latter-day Irish “armies,” these Irishmen are not an organized, disciplined force in the truest sense at all, unlike the far more powerful and better-equipped English. Instead, the Irish are
A people hardly marching... on the hike...
[Who find] new tactics happening each day . . .
They must fight with fairly primitive weapons, and they even stampede cattle into the ranks of the English infantry, hoping to disrupt the superior forces they face. These tactics are employed until the Irish eventually face the English in a major battle at “Vinegar Hill,” site of a devastatingly bloody defeat for the rebels, who, encamped on the hill, were pummeled by English artillery before being assaulted head-on by English cavalry and infantry. In the poem’s final lines, the speaker brings the work full-circle, explaining how the barley seeds carried by the Irish eventually blossomed, out of the Irish graves, into new-born barley plants.
This poem is relevant to social awareness and cultural politics in a number of ways, including the following:
- It deals with the centuries-old conflict between England and Ireland.
- It not only deals with the past of that conflict but also intervenes in the present state of the conflict, creating a sympathetic portrait of Irish patriots and also implicitly reminding the present-day English persons of their country’s history as an oppressor of the Irish.
- The poem pays tribute to the fallen Irish, but it does not (as some poems by some other Irish authors might have done) try to stir up new conflict between England and Ireland. Thus, the poem mourns Irish deaths without explicitly calling for retaliation or revenge against England. The poem deals with people who fiercely resisted English rule, but its own tone is less fierce, less stridently resistant.
In short, the poem deals with the cultural politics of the past while also participating in the cultural politics of the present.