A love poem to a 2,000 year old stranger

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“I almost love you,” poet Seamus Heaney writes of a female bog body in the poem Punishment, “but would have cast, I know, the stones of silence….I who…would connive in civilized outrage / yet understand the exact / and tribal, intimate revenge.”


Nobel Prize winning Northern Irish poet Seamus Heaney was obsessed with bog bodies. Many of these centuries-old human remains found in northern Europe’s boglands were victims of ritualistic killings: not only are their fingernails, hair, and skin well preserved, but also the violent nature of their deaths. Heaney’s poems to them read like love letters, and as metaphors for political strife in Northern Ireland during the years known as the Troubles, when violence between Catholics and Protestants erupted in the late 1960s.

In this episode of Popcast, reporter Audrey McGlinchy unearths a 1983 reading by Heaney from the Pacifica Radio Archives, and explores the science and symbolism of bog bodies in Heaney’s work.

“What is remarkable is that you can see the face, the lines on the skin, almost the facial expressions,” University of Manchester bioarcheologist Andrew Chamberlain says of way the bog environment preserves these bodies. “You can get a very strong sense of the personality of the person you’re dealing with.”

For Heaney scholar Stephen Enniss, of the University of Texas at Austin, the poet used the bog figures as ” an indirect way to describe the violence he witnessed on the streets of Belfast and elsewhere …. as symbols of tribal conflict and tribal warfare … the violence perpetuated by one people onto another.”

This third episode of the second season of Popcast from Pop Up Archive was produced by Audrey McGlinchy, a freelance writer and radio journalist based in Austin, Texas. The archival audio used in this episode comes courtesy of the Pacifica Radio Archives. Visit them at pacificaradioarchives.org or call 1-800-735 0230. You can also find their archival radio show, “From The Vault,” at fromthevaultradio.org. Find this podcast, along with thousands of archival recordings, at popuparchive.com/explore

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