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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

On his pilgrimage at St. Patrick's Purgatory, the speaker of Seamus Heaney's poem runs into (or imagines that he runs into) people from his childhood, and even other writers who are long dead and gone. One of these writers is William Carleton, an Irishman who wrote "The Lough Derg Pilgrim," a text that describes a typical Irish peasant's habits, values, and superstitions. In Heaney's poem, Heaney says to Carleton,

Your Lough Derg Pilgrim
haunts me every time I cross this mountain—
as if I am being followed, or following.
I'm on my road there now to do the station.

These words seem to encapsulate some of Heaney's ambivalence concerning great Irish authors who have come before him. It is difficult for him to step out of their shadows, to write on his own without reference to their works and the precedents they set, because he so respects them. Carleton responds somewhat condescendingly to Heaney's deference.

Along the pilgrims' path, Heaney also encounters a relative of his named Colum, a second cousin. Colum accuses Heaney of not relating the truth of Colum's death: he was shot in the head by a Protestant. Colum tells Heaney that he accuses that man

directly, but indirectly, you
who now atone perhaps upon this bed
for the way you whitewashed ugliness and drew
the lovely blinds of the Purgatorio
and saccharined my death with morning dew.

Part of what Heaney does with this poem is to try to somehow come to terms with the violence that had characterized Northern Ireland for decades. While Republicans and Unionists fought over whether the country ought to leave the UK and merge with Ireland to form one country or remain part of the UK and separate from Ireland, Heaney took his family and left the country and its violence behind. Evidently, he feels some guilt for his handling of his cousin's death, as well as the way he represented it in his work. He now seems to feel that ugliness should not be squeezed and manipulated until one can get something more attractive or appealing out of it.

In the end, when Heaney leaves the island, he imagines a meeting with the great Irish writer, James Joyce. Joyce tells him that

The main thing is to write for the joy of it.

Further, Joyce tells Heaney not to be so earnest, not to wear the clothing of the martyrs, and to let go of the worries that restrain and alarm him. These words seem to be liberating for Heaney. He feels that he has "stepped free into space" as a result of hearing them. Joyce has given him permission to quit worrying about his literary predecessors, to stop feeling so guilty about his handling (or mishandling, perhaps) of tragedy and violence, and to "let go" of it all—and find the joy of writing.

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