“A white bird trapped inside me beating scared wings”

Mary Adams, Author of James Joyce and the Internal World of the Replacement Child offers the replacementchildforum.com insight into the replacement child dynamics of another giant of Irish Literature.

Seamus Heaney: the Lost Sibling and Re-Imagining

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In his long midlife poem, Station Island, Seamus Heaney’s Dantesque journey, he imagines a series of meetings with ‘familiar ghosts’, including James Joyce. Along the way, there is a sudden memory—in the most beautiful poetry—of a ‘seaside trinket’ that belonged to his father’s sister who died in her teens. Heaney described secretly looking at the trinket which had the status of a sacred relic, kept in a sideboard in his parent’s bedroom, wrapped in white tissue paper, a little grotto shaped like a sentry box, clad in tiny iridescent seashells.

…pearls condense from a child invalid’s breath
into a shimmering ark, my house of gold
that housed the snowdrop weather of her death
long ago…
…It was like touching birds’ eggs, robbing the nest
of the word wreath, as kept and dry and secret

as her name, which they hardly ever spoke
but was a white bird trapped inside me
beating scared wings….                                 (1998, p. 248)

Heaney was 45 when he wrote Station Island, still haunted by this lost child. His father, ‘a silent man’, had preserved his sister’s ‘trinket’, perhaps because his parents died young.  Heaney himself lost his 4 year old brother, Christopher, while away at boarding school, age 13.   His poem Mid-Term Break describes the death:

…At ten o’clock the ambulance arrived
With the corpse, stanched and bandaged by the nurses.

Next morning I went up into the room. Snowdrops
And candles soothed the bedside; I saw him
For the first time in six weeks. Paler now,

Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple,
He lay in the four-foot box as in his cot.
No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.
A four-foot box, a foot for every year.  (1998, p. 12)

Heaney refers to a ‘haunter-son, lost brother’: ”For years I have been writing poems where I meet ghost/shades”. (Reid, p. 673)

Much has been written about Heaney growing up a Catholic in Northern Ireland during the most turbulent and violent times.  But there is little about the family’s private trauma losing their four year old child, something which would have deeply affected every member of the family.  We are increasingly aware of the effects such a loss can have on surviving siblings.  ‘A white bird trapped inside me beating scared wings’ is surely among the most powerful of images of the persistent presence of grief and confusion in a surviving sibling. ‘Like an absence stationed in the swamp-fed air’, he wrote.

Survivor Guilt

Among the difficulties often experienced by a replacement child are fears they caused the sibling’s death—an unconscious, unexplained fear that can leave them feeling they should not exist when the sibling had died.  I have described the pervasive sense of guilt that plagued James Joyce, whose parents lost their first child, and the crippling nightmares that reinforced his fears. (2022) Heaney hasn’t spoken openly about nightmares but identifies with Macbeth in the poem Keeping Going:

That scene, with Macbeth helpless and desperate
In his nightmare – when he meets the hags again
And sees the apparitions in the pot—
I felt at home with that one all right

James Joyce as a young man hid his fears and paranoia with arrogance and mockery.  Heaney, by contrast, was more dutiful and self-deprecating—‘Being responsible has indeed preoccupied me’ he said, (Reid, p. 664) and we can see from his Letters how generously he gave in friendships.  Prone to guilt, his letters mostly begin with apologies for not writing sooner.  They are beautifully crafted, entertaining and full of praise for the recipients, but they give little sense of his own inner state—that is reserved for the poetry.  His more personal letters are kept private.

James Joyce remained a vivid presence for Heaney all his life—in my fantasy, communing with him like a lost brother?  There is something deeply moving about this affinity and identification with Joyce and it is no surprise that he imagines looking to Joyce for guidance and ‘to help my unbelief’.  He refers to Station Island as ‘an examination of conscience—a kind of inner courtroom’. I make much of Joyce’s poignant courtroom scenes in both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake as he externalised his own sense of guilt. Both men suffered the legacy of a devout Catholic upbringing. Heaney said, ‘from first awareness until at least the early teens, I dwelt in the tomb of religion’. (Reid, pp. 672-3)  Like Joyce, Heaney was the eldest in a large family, was exceptionally bright and went away to a Catholic boarding school at a young age, homesick for his ever-pregnant mother, calling pregnancy ‘a killing disease’.

Heaney refers to his own ‘inner émigré’ while Joyce described being ‘exiled in on himself’. They both described an inner loneliness and dislocation, a feeling common in replacement children. Heaney describes an image of himself ‘in the middle of a space that is separate and a little sorrowing’: ‘He dwelt in himself/like a rook in an unroofed tower’. (The Master, 280)

Station Island and the freedom of Sweeney

In his youth, Heaney made the pilgrimage to Station Island – three times! – as well as going to Lourdes.  He acknowledged that Joyce ‘would never have walked those nineteenth-century Catholic roads or put up with the murmurs and the mea culpas of the island’, so it is fitting that he called on Joyce to free him. Ulysses is a secular Odyssey—a lonely quest to escape a general paralysis and inner persecution.  I previously described Joyce’s remarkable escape from the ‘sorrow’ of Ulysses—a world without forgiveness—to the new intimacy and concern in the dreamworld of Finnegans Wake, so I was amazed see a similar development in Heaney with his flight from the self-examining pilgrimage to the freedom of Mad Sweeney, the legendary Irish king who was turned into a bird-man. ‘I always had the hope that I’d get as free as Sweeney’, he said. (O’D p. 236)  He has Joyce tell him:

The main thing is to write / for the joy of it…And don’t be so earnest, // let others wear the sackcloth and the ashes. / Let go, let fly, forget. You’ve listened long enough. Now strike your note.  (1998, p. 267-8)

And Heaney does indeed ‘let fly’. In his next section of the poem, Sweeney Redivivus, Sweeney is ‘defying the constraints of religious, political and domestic obligation’.   ‘I felt up and away, at full tilt a far more confident and unapologetic tone…capable of muck-raking and self-mockery,’ says a new Heaney.

For both Seamus Heaney and James Joyce, using their imagination was fundamental in combatting an inner turmoil, some of it produced perhaps by the soul-destroying phantasies of the replacement child.  In their prose and their poetry they could re-imagine and create a distance from their fears and their pain, as one does in psychoanalysis—the ‘white bird trapped inside’ could be released.

                                                                                                                          Mary Adams


Adams, M. (2022). James Joyce and the Internal World of the Replacement Child, Routledge.
Cole, H.  (1997).   Seamus Heaney, The Art of Poetry No. 75. Issue 144, Paris Review.
Heaney, S. (19998). Open Ground: Poems 1966-1996, Faber & Faber.
O’Driscoll, D. (2009). Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney, Faber & Faber.
Reid, C. ed. (2023). The Letters of Seamus Heaney, Faber & Faber.