Is social awareness an important concern to Seamus Heaney in his poetry?

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

While social concerns appear in some of Seamus Heaney’s poems, such concerns are not as strongly emphasized as they are in the works of various other poets. Indeed, Heaney has been criticized for not being more politically engaged and has had to defend himself against such criticism. If the random sampling of thirty or so of some of Heaney’s best-know poems at is any indication, a surprisingly small portion of his work seems overtly and emphatically engaged with social problems or political topics. This is especially surprising because he is a Catholic from largely-Protestant Northern Ireland, where political and religious tensions have often been very great and very violent.

One poem in which social engagement is clearly apparent is titled “Docker,” which describes a powerfully-built dockworker whom the speaker notices as the speaker looks around a bar. The second stanza reads as follows:

That fist would drop a hammer on a Catholic-- 
Oh yes, that kind of thing could start again; 
The only Roman collar he tolerates 
Smiles all round his sleek pint of porter. 

This stanza obviously alludes to “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland, in which conflict between Catholics and Protestants was often violent and bloody. Yet the focus of the rest of the poem is not political, so that even in one of his most overtly “social” poems, Heaney is seems far less concerned with social issues than some other writers – especially Irish writers, such as Brian Friel – have been.


thanatassa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Seamus Heaney is an Irish poet who was raised as a Roman Catholic in the predominantly Protestant area of Northern Ireland. Combined with his family's farming heritage, this makes him particularly concerned with two major social and political issues. The first is rootedness to the soil and peasant heritage, and the value of that, especially for the poet,  in an increasingly urbanized world.

More importantly, he is concerned with the conflicts between Protestant and Catholic in Ireland, and while dismayed about the oppression of and discrimination against Roman Catholics, at the same time deplores violence of all types. Many of his writings search the history of Ireland for the root causes of violence. Thus, yes, social awareness is an important concern in Heaney's poems.