Whatever You Say, Say Nothing - a speculative piece
Originally, I unknowingly encountered the title of Seamus Heaney's "Whatever You Say, Say Nothing"
on a 1970's political poster
. This was long before I ever read the poem as assigned by a recent contemporary Irish literature course. The poster reads; "Loose Talk Costs Lives: In taxis, On the phone, In clubs and bars, At football matches, At home with friends, ANYWHERE! Whatever you say, say nothing!"
The poster addresses the obvious issue of informing, knowingly or not, to members of the British security forces or worse even, to ruthless Loyalist murder squads. There is even a threatening undertone carried by the poster; perhaps wordlessly saying that you will be found if it is heard you informed. Informers are and have been the scourge of the Republican movement since the time of the United Irishmen. Measures to counter-act this terrible bain to the RM had to be taken.
The poem, on the other hand, is a literary jab at the culture of silence across the Six Counties. This culture of silence is in the process of being challenged head on by the proposed truth committees. After over 3 decades of bloodshed and sectarian conflicht, this culture of tight-lipped communities is just now beginning to lift.
The first line of this poem describes the generalized view that the world has of the struggle in the Six Counties. The sarcastically stabbing phrase, "views on the Irish thing," is an accurately declared truth of the worlds' perspective of this localised strife. The presses of foreign nations try to pin the fight on "religious differences." This may be accurate on the surface, but in truth it has always been an economic struggle; a class struggle. The Protestant majority at a time held all the well-paying jobs and those of the Catholic minority were either unemployed, or held relatively unskilled, low-paying jobs. To call it purely religious is to be ignorant of Irish history.
"Bad news is no longer news" is another compelling phrase. This struggle has gone on so relentlessly that bombings and shootings are no longer front page articles in the newspaper. The violence became part of everyday life for people living in the Six Counties. Even as a part of everyday life, the common people still avoid discussion of happenings for the most part. It is viewed as inappropriate chat between acquaintances and neighbours in most cases. Many people view the subject matter as more trouble than its worth to discuss.
What Heaney is trying to say is that the common citizen[sic] of the Occupied Six Counties tries not to show strong
political convictions, save at ballot time. This statement is shown true by the results of the last local elections in the Six Counties. Rising numbers of voters chose the more "radical" parties as the ones they wished to represent them at Stormont. This goes to show, the outward demeanor of the common people of the occupied counties does not show the truth of their political leanings.
"Maneouverings to find out name and school, subtle discrimination by addresses." This line is an additional one that must be discussed. This suggests (and is largely true, sadly enough) that average people in Six Counties discriminate on basis of what part of town you are from, what church you go to, what school you attend(ed) and what your first and/or last name is. i.e
: If your name is Daithi MacHugh , you are a "sure-fire Pape"
and will be treated accordingly by the community. If you have a British sounding name, you will be treated with more respect from members of the Protestant community, before they ever know your religion.
In the later stanzas of the poem, Heaney tries to give the reader a vivid image of internment camps and bomb craters. Machine-gun nests and reminders of Stalinist Russia. This poem makes pokes at long-standing ways of every day life in the Six Counties and has become a literary example used to explain some of the points of the violence to those not in the know.
I understand that some of the points I made above are very generalized and may not seem to cover all bases; but I am just attempting to put out a short review of my views on this increasingly popular poem.