Themes

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

An elegy set in the divided Northern Ireland of the 1970s, Heaney's "Casualty" takes conflict as its key theme. It explores how conflict can affect those who, like the unnamed former fisherman who is the subject of the poem, have offered only a "turned back" to it.

The "casualty" is not involved in what is going on; he doesn't really want to think about it. His key preoccupation is drinking. He "drank like a fish" and would ignore all warnings and curfews in order to do it. While we know he was not unaware of what was going on—he was "observant" and had "tact"—he "would not be held" at home and refused to be part of his "tribe's complicity." In the speaker's mind, the dead man asks him to "puzzle" the question of whether this makes him culpable in his own death: "blown to bits" by a parachute regiment stationed in Bogside. The speaker does not answer this question. He cannot answer it himself. Should we take sides in conflicts? Does this make us safer? Conflict, the poem indicates, affects everyone who is in its proximity, whatever their personal attitudes to it.

Another theme in this poem is that of belonging and where our "proper haunt" truly is. This intersects again with the political context of the poem. The people of Northern Ireland were (and to an extent, remain) torn about where they belong—in terms of religion, language, and nationality. This inability to feel secure or in the right place feeds into the conflict. The casualty, meanwhile, is imagined as literally a fish out of water; while seeking that water, he "drank like a fish," as if to become one again. Finally, in the end of the poem he finds his home "somewhere, well out, beyond. . ."

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