19 pages 38 minutes read

Seamus Heaney

Act of Union

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1975

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Conflict Between England and Ireland

While the poem tells the story of a man and woman dealing with a pregnancy, the underlying allegory likely makes the most impression on the reader. Although England, Britain, Ireland, and Ulster are never explicitly named, the difficult relationship between the two countries—particularly the “Troubles” that began in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s—gives the poem its bite. The consequences of history must be acknowledged (as Heaney noted in his interview with Dennis O’Driscoll [p. 169]). The title of the poem suggests that the difficulties go back a long way—at least to An Act for the Union of Great Britain and Ireland, as it was officially called, which was passed by the British Parliament in 1801. The speaker, as England, is fully aware of what England has done toward Ireland in its capacity as an imperial power, and he knows that the tragic and violent consequences of that policy are now upon them both in the form of the troubled province of Ulster.

As with the pregnancy story, the male speaker, England, expresses some ambivalence in his attitude toward Ireland, presented as female. The poem is written from England’s point of view. He knows that the violence in Ulster is the result of a long process, “our past” (Line 8), for which he, as the imperial male, must bear the brunt of responsibility.