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The Tollund Man – Space, Time and Universal Violence

Séamus Heaney remains one of the most influential poetic voices of the 20th century. He was born to a Catholic family in 1939 and died in 2013, living through a tumultuous period in his native Northern Ireland known as “The Troubles” (1960 – 1990) – a time of political violence, segregation and extreme prejudice, popularly. Through a close reading of one of Heaney’s most poignant poems, The Tollund Man, this article explores the characteristic style of Heaney; a deft alignment between his own private life and the great historical moments and processes he saw in motion around him, which he felt were absolutely inseparable from one another. The poem examines the eternal presence of violence – particularly religious violence – throughout human history. Heaney draws the connection between an ancient death from prehistory and the ongoing death and suffering around him, thereby collapsing time and creating a universal context to consider violence and human nature. The result is a harrowing and understated record of one country’s bitter division, a minute rendering of life in wartime.

The latter half of the 20th century saw Northern Ireland continuously suffer through cycles of sectarian political violence. The 1920 Act of Union divided the island of Ireland into two halves: a predominantly Catholic independent Republic of Ireland, and Northern Ireland where the majority of the population was comprised of Protestant Unionists who got their wish to remain a part of the United Kingdom. From its inception, Northern Ireland was wracked by internal division stemming from political disenfranchisement and discrimination against the minority of Republican Catholics within its borders. This resentful status quo remained largely peaceful until the late 1960s when increasing calls for equality by civil rights activists resulted in violent recrimination and a rapid militarization of the local conflict by the British military (Collins, 2003). On 30th January 1972, thirteen Civil Rights Association protesters were killed by British soldiers stationed in Derry – an event which came to be known as “Bloody Sunday” – and later the situation devolved into a state of segregation, bombings, and kidnappings amidst guerilla warfare between the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and British forces (Campbell, 2023). It was around this time that Heaney abandoned his post as a lecturer in English Literature at Queen’s University Belfast to move to Wicklow, in the Republic of Ireland (Russell, 2010).

Figure 1: Youths throwing stones during a riot in Bogside, Derry (Martin, 1981).

The Tollund Man was released in 1975 as part of Seamus Heaney’s collection North. The poem centres on discovering a body in Silkeborg, Denmark, preserved for over two thousand years in a peat bog. His death is placed sometime circa 380 BC. Heaney recalled in a later interview that The Tollund Man “seemed to me like an ancestor almost, one of my old uncles, one of those moustached archaic faces you used to meet all over the Irish countryside” (Collins, 2003, p. 57). This was not the only foreshadowed similarity that drew Heaney to his subject: the man, preserved in fascinating detail, was the victim of a sacrificial religious killing. This creates a vivid connection between the violence of Bronze Age Scandinavia and the bitter reality of ongoing sectarian strife between Catholic and Protestant communities in his contemporary Northern Ireland.

Heaney draws this connection by invoking Catholic imagery and vocabulary to ponder the similarities between these events (Quinlan, 2021). He “risks blasphemy“ by considering the potential for renewal and cleansing this ancient sacrifice could have on modern-day victims, particularly on “four young brothers“ – a reference to four young Catholic men who had died in Belfast close to the time of publishing. The blending of language – Catholic and pagan, ancient and modern – collapses time and locates the events in a particular context: humanity. Heaney “wrests from the mire of the peat-bogs in Jutland an Iron Age corpse bearing mute testimony to centuries of ritual violence in Northern Europe” and bridges “an age-old racial violence extending from pre-Christian Scandinavia to contemporary Belfast“ (Collins, 2003, p. 57). By this association, Heaney makes clear the fact that this ancient pagan death and those still taking place occurred on religious grounds: however distant the old world seems, the same sins are in evidence right before the poet’s eyes and ours.

The Tollund Man found in Denmark in 1950
Figure 2: The face of The Tollund Man, preserved for over two thousand years (Silkeborg Public Museum, 2013).

The peat bog has preserved the body to an extraordinary level. Heaney documents the minute atoms that comprise his remains, from the “mild pods of his eye-lids“ to the “last gruel of winter seeds caked in his stomach“. This blunt intricacy gives an evocative image of a body that is at once horrifically deformed yet also shockingly preserved, suspending the man in the two spaces that preoccupy Heaney: the ancient past and the violent, immediate present, and acts as a rope tying together the two ages. Another equally important effect of this doubling is to associate a more visceral, physical conception with the bodies of the civilian victims in the Northern Ireland conflict. This allows them to not be forgotten as one among a growing number of statistics, retaining the sense of individual humanity that would otherwise decay and be lost to time. Their memory is instead, as if suspended in a bog, preserved.

Out here in Jutland In the old man-killing parishes I will feel lost, Unhappy and at home.” (lines 40-44)

The third and final section of the poem exists on a double plane that exemplifies Heaney’s universality and use of double meaning. Heaney hopes that “something of his sad freedom [...] should come to me“. This imagining of death as yet another distant yet relatable country, some mythical archetypal land where the surroundings seem strange yet some cloud of old familiar violence lingers. He knows that in this strange place in the afterlife, he would of course feel “lost“ and “unhappy“, not knowing the tongue of the country people who reside there, just as his fellow citizens of Northern Ireland remain unaware of their shared experiences across human history. His encounter with this archetype of ritual religious sacrifice and martyrdom will however make him feel “at home“.

Figure 3: Interpretation of life in Troubles-era Northern Ireland by John Keane (1989).

It has been argued that Heaney’s creation of such acceptable mythos around the Northern Ireland conflict has fostered a sense of artistic dialogue dealing with the traumatic events, and in turn led to healing in the divided state (Russell, 2010). What is certain is that his words gave poetic witness to a particular society’s destructive instincts, and did so in a way that touched the souls of individual readers and the global literary community – Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995 “for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past“ (Nobel Prize for Literature, 1995). By this perfect balance of context and vagary, Heaney allows his poetry to exist in multiple spaces – of time, freedom and meaning. The poems speak to experiences that resonate with Heaney, with history and all of mankind’s shared imagination, recounting his unique personal context in a small-scale civil conflict without ever mentioning it directly. Heaney understood that the cycles of violence underpinning life in Northern Ireland were not part of some incomprehensible, nihilistic world. Nor was the violence of the distant past a vague abstraction without significance to the modern day. The two were inherently linked, and demonstrating such was the ultimate goal of Heaney’s poetic output.

Bibliographical References

Campbell, J. (2023). On Bloody Sunday: A New History of the Day and its Aftermath by Those Who Were There. Octopus Publishing Group.

Collins, F. (2003). Seamus Heaney: The Crisis of Identity. University of Delaware Press, pp. 55-57.

Foster, R. (2020). On Seamus Heaney. Princeton University Press.

Quinlan, K. ‘Catholicism’. In Higgins, G. Seamus Heaney in Context (2021). Cambridge University Press.

Russell, R. (2010). Poetry and Peace: Michael Longley, Seamus Heaney and Northern Ireland. University of Notre Dame Press.

Xerri, D. (2010). Poetic Responsibility and The Troubles. Maunsel & Company.

The Nobel Prize in Literature (1995, October 5). Retrieved June 7, 2023, from

Visual Sources


Author Photo

Seán Downey

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