Last Updated September 5, 2023.
This lengthy poem, the middle section of a book by the same name, consists of twelve parts. Heaney, the author, is the poem's narrator, and he narrates as he reflects on the experience of walking the path walked by so many religious pilgrims on the small island in the middle of Lough Derg. A basilica to Saint Patrick dominates the island, and pilgrims make a three-day trip to pray, fast, and walk barefoot among the stones there. This has been a place of Christian pilgrimage since the fifth century BCE. Heaney blends his real experience of being on Station Island with figures representing his own internal struggles concerning his homeland and his status as a writer.
The poem begins with the sound of the bells at Saint Patrick's, and Heaney sees the ghost of an old "Sabbath-breaker" called Simon Sweeney; Sweeney tells Heaney that everything Heaney thinks he knows is worthless. Soon, Heaney bumps into the long-dead Irish writer William Carleton, who is shocked at how little has changed since his death and looks at Heaney as though Heaney is just a "cub anyhow." Apparently in regard to the Troubles, the civil conflict between Unionists (who wanted Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom) and Republicans (who wanted it to separate from the United Kingdom and unite with Ireland), Carleton tells Heaney that the conflict is "like maggots sown in wounds— / another life that cleans our element."
Heaney also converses with the ghosts of three former teachers: Barney Murphy, an unnamed man, and finally, the poet Patrick Kavanaugh. Each gives counsel. Heaney also bumps into the shade of his dead cousin, a man named Colum McCartney, a victim of sectarian violence. McCartney blames Heaney for "whitewash[ing] ugliness" and "saccharin[ing] [his] death with morning dew" in Heaney's poetry. Heaney expresses some ambivalence, at best, about his home, about "everything / That made [him] biddable and unforthcoming." He feels that he cannot deny or defy what his home has made him, and he is powerless to change that home into something better than it is. In the end, it seems to be the spirit of the Irish writer James Joyce who gives the final advice. Joyce claims that Heaney needs to do what "must be done on [his] own," and Joyce orders him to "get back in harness." He encourages Heaney to strike "out on [his] own" and fill the world with his own "frequency."