Archive for Glenanne Gang

The Strand at Lough Beg – Seamus Heaney

Posted in History, Poetry, Television with tags , , , , , on September 17, 2020 by telescoper

Last night I watched a harrowing but compelling film called Unquiet Graves which is about the activities of the Glenanne gang, a loyalist paramilitary group which carried out in excess of 120 murders during the 1970s including the horrific bombings in Dublin and Monaghan in 1974. Many members of this gang were serving members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Ulster Defence Regiment which ensured that these heinous crimes were never properly investigated and in many cases the families of the victims are still waiting for justice.

The film makes very difficult viewing but is a timely reminder of a terrible period in Irish history and gives reason to reflect on the importance of the Belfast Agreement that brought peace to a part of the world that so recently stood on the brink of civil war.

One of the victims of the Glenanne gang was a young man called Colum McCartney, a cousin of the poet Seamus Heaney. Colum’s car was stopped not far from Armagh by men in army uniforms. He was made to get out and kneel, and then he was shot in the back of the head. His companion, who tried to run away, was shot in the back as he fled. Seamus Heaney composed this poignant elegy to his murdered relative.

In Memory of Colum McCartney

All round this little island, on the strand
Far down below there, where the breakers strive
Grow the tall rushes from the oozy sand.
–Dante, Purgatorio, I, 100-3

Leaving the white glow of filling stations
And a few lonely streetlamps among fields
You climbed the hills toward Newtownhamilton
Past the Fews Forest, out beneath the stars–
Along the road, a high, bare pilgrim’s track
Where Sweeney fled before the bloodied heads,
Goat-beards and dogs’ eyes in a demon pack
Blazing out of the ground, snapping and squealing.
What blazed ahead of you? A faked road block?
The red lamp swung, the sudden brakes and stalling
Engine, voices, heads hooded and the cold-nosed gun?
Or in your driving mirror, tailing headlights
That pulled out suddenly and flagged you down
Where you weren’t known and far from what you knew:
The lowland clays and waters of Lough Beg,
Church Island’s spire, its soft treeline of yew.

There you used hear guns fired behind the house
Long before rising time, when duck shooters
Haunted the marigolds and bulrushes,
But still were scared to find spent cartridges,
Acrid, brassy, genital, ejected,
On your way across the strand to fetch the cows.
For you and yours and yours and mine fought the shy,
Spoke an old language of conspirators
And could not crack the whip or seize the day:
Big-voiced scullions, herders, feelers round
Haycocks and hindquarters, talkers in byres,
Slow arbitrators of the burial ground.

Across that strand of ours the cattle graze
Up to their bellies in an early mist
And now they turn their unbewildered gaze
To where we work our way through squeaking sedge
Drowning in dew. Like a dull blade with its edge
Honed bright, Lough Beg half shines under the haze.
I turn because the sweeping of your feet
Has stopped behind me, to find you on your knees
With blood and roadside muck in your hair and eyes,
Then kneel in front of you in brimming grass
And gather up cold handfuls of the dew
To wash you, cousin. I dab you clean with moss
Fine as the drizzle out of a low cloud.
I lift you under the arms and lay you flat.
With rushes that shoot green again, I plait
Green scapulars to wear over your shroud.