What’s in a name? The Four Nations History of Mossbawn

What’s in a name? The Four Nations History of Mossbawn

This week, Leila Crawford (University of Otago) examines the relationship between language and a sense of place in the work of Seamus Heaney.

Throughout his career, Seamus Heaney engaged with issues of identity as represented through language. Poems such as ‘Broagh’ explore the trauma of losing touch with one’s native tongue, while ‘Anahorish’ speaks to the interconnectedness of language and place. Here I’ll discuss the connection between linguistic history and sense of place as it relates to Heaney’s childhood home, Mossbawn. At the end of his poem ‘Belderg’ (1975) Seamus Heaney attempts to excavate the linguistic history of Mossbawn:

So I talked of Mossbawn,

A bogland name ‘but Moss’?,

He crossed my old home’s music

With older strains of Norse.

The poet finds his ‘old home’s music’ to be unclassifiable, a mixture of various etymologies, carrying strains of Norse, Irish and English. Heaney continues:

I’d told how its foundation

Was mutable as sound

And how I could derive

A forked root from that ground,

Make bawn an English fort,

A planter’s walled-in mound.

Or else find sanctuary

And think of it as Irish,

Persistent if outworn.

Mossbawn appears as a composite, a palimpsest—a piece of material culture in which are embedded the marks of those travellers, settlers, and invaders who camped on the land over the years. Though located in Northern Ireland, Mossbawn retains the linguistic traces of other regions and other languages; and the multiple linguistic identities at play in the name Mossbawn reveal Heaney’s own complicated sense of identity as he attempts to bring together the various regions in his poetry. Analysing the linguistic histories and etymologies of townlands in southern Co. Derry can help us understand Heaney’s troubled sense of national identity.

The scholar Richard Rankin Russell has written at length about Heaney’s ‘regionalism’. He asserts that Heaney enacts a specifically Northern Irish poetics. However, as Russell notes, Heaney’s influences were not only fellow Northerners. Although Heaney is much indebted to Louis MacNeice and Monaghan man Patrick Kavanagh, his poetry is just as much informed by English writers (such as Ted Hughes, Edward Thomas and William Wordsworth), Welshmen (Dylan Thomas and R.S. Thomas), Scots (Norman MacCaig, Sorley MacLean and Hugh MacDiarmaid), and even by the North American poet Robert Frost. Thus, Russell argues, Heaney’s ‘regionalist project bursts the bounds of the six counties of contemporary Northern Ireland,’ enabling Heaney to instead conceive of Northern Irish regionalism as ‘transhistorical, transcultural and transhistorical.’ (Russell 49). In effect, Heaney’s transnational influences allowed him to create a new space outside of and apart from the traditionally imposed notions of British/Irish identity.

Just as Northern Ireland was attempting to find and assert her own identity within Ireland and Great Britain, so, too, was Heaney attempting to establish a distinctive voice. It is not surprising, then, that he was drawn to the linguistic histories of his homeplace. Heaney wrote about the allure of digging, the joy he found from tossing up dirt to discover hidden histories. It seems to me that the same archaeological impulse is at play at the end of ‘Belderg.’ We might conceive of Heaney, therefore, as similar to the Irish pioneers in ‘Bogland’—digging down, rather than expanding out; building their histories and identities out of sediment laid down centuries before.

Heaney was, of course, aware of the loaded linguistic history of his country and its connections to sectarianism. In Preoccupations, he asserts that

‘In the names of its fields and townlands, in their mixture of Scots and Irish and English etymologies, this side of the country was redolent of the histories of its owners. Broagh, The Long Rigs, Bell’s Hill; Brian’s Field, the Round Meadow, the Demesne; each name was a kind of love made to each acre. And saying the names like this distances the places, turns them into what Wordsworth once called a prospect of the mind.’ (Preoccupations 20).

So, we might ask, what’s in a name? Would Mossbawn by any other name still be as important, as redolent with meaning to Heaney? Of course it would — its associations and import come from the poet’s memories of his childhood, of the time he spent there. However, as Heaney argues above, names are vital. Not only do they inscribe a place with meaning and mark its social and linguistic history, they also enable the place to endure, to become, through their recitation, something more than just a field, more than a farm, more than a bog. Excavating the various linguistic strands embedded within a placename — Mossbawn, for example — gives us access to that place’s history. Mossbawn becomes multi-dimensional, a place as well as an idea, a concept. It not only represents Heaney’s childhood, but also stands in for the British presence in Northern Ireland and suggests Heaney’s response to his multilayered identity.

Leila Crawford is a second year PhD student at the Centre for Irish and Scottish Studies at the University of Otago, NZ. Her dissertation explores the Ulster landscape as an embedder of history, and explores Heaney’s engagement with that landscape. Leila completed her BA at Williams College in the USA and holds an MPhil from Cambridge University.


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