By Seamus Heaney
A Constable Calls is the second in a sequence of six poems entitled 'Singing School' which concludes Heaney's fourth collection 'North' (1975). The poem is a vivid description of an incident from the poet's childhood - a policeman making an official visit to his father's farm at Mossbawn to record tillage returns. There is something grotesquely bizarre about an armed representative of the law travelling by bicycle around the Ulster countryside to record agricultural statistics. Although the incident is described through the impressionable eyes of a child, we are also aware of the wiser presence of the adult Heaney. On a broader level the poem accurately records the sense of resentment and alienation felt by the Catholic Nationalist minority community in an artificially created State governed by the descendants of Protestant planters. The constable is an agent of this repressive sectarian regime. The Royal Ulster Constabulary has always had a predominantly Protestant membership and has traditionally been unequivocally pro-Unionist.
In the opening movement of the poem the constable's bicycle is described in language that is detailed, unemotional.
His bicycle stood at the window-sill,
The rubber cowl of a mud-splasher
Skirting the front mudguard,
Its fat black handlegrips
Heating in sunlight, the 'spud'
Of the dynamo gleaming and cocked back,
The pedal treads hanging relieved
Of the boot of the law.
However, its different component parts are subliminally associated with the repressive power of an alien law. The 'handlegrips' suggest handcuffs and the 'dynamo gleaming and cocked back' becomes a gun primed for firing. The second verse climaxes with the pedals 'relieved Of the boot of the law', hinting at the brutal physical force used by the R.U.C. against Catholics at different periods in the troubled history of the Northern Ireland State, but particularly during the Civil Rights marches of 1969. By contrast the image of the 'spud' emphasises how incongruous the armed representative of British law is in this rural community. 'relieved' anticipates the young Heaney's feeling when the constable thankfully departs. An unpleasant, tense atmosphere is created by the use of sinister 's', hard 'c','g','b' and harsh 'r' consonants, combined with ugly broad vowel sounds.
In the second movement the constable himself is described seen through the eyes of the 'staring' child. The man is described purely in terms of his uniform - the 'cap, the polished holster With its buttoned flap, the braid cord Looped into the revolver butt' - and the visual symbol of the purpose of his visit - the ominous-sounding 'heavy ledger'. The description
The line of its pressure ran like a bevel
In his slightly sweating hair
cleverly emphasises that the uniform is the man, making him the visible embodiment of the hated Protestant government, endowed with no more humanity than his bicycle. The absence of any physical description emphasises that for the Catholic community the constable has no existence as an individual human being - he is a non-person, no more than an unwelcome, intrusive representative of an alien, repressive regime. To emphasise this, there is a total absence of hospitality - the visitor's hat is not hung up; although he is 'slightly sweating' he is not offered a drink and there is no exchange of pleasantries. The visit is strictly professional and impersonal.
In the third movement the constable goes about his business of recording Heaney Senior's tillage returns. Significantly, this is done in British imperial measures - 'acres, roods, and perches' - subtly suggesting the presence of occupying British planters on Irish soil. There is a bitter irony in the representative of an oppressive alien power cataloguing returns from the land belonging to the native Irish. The constable's curt questions
Any other root crops?
Mangolds? Marrowstems? Anything like that?