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The Irish For: 'Hope & History Rhyme' - the background to a much-quoted line

Joe Biden quoted Seamus Heaney after his Super Tuesday win in the US this week. Darach Ó Séaghdha examines Heaney’s words.

Darach Ó Séaghdha Writer

AFTER HIS SURPRISE victory in the Super Tuesday primaries this week, former US Vice-President Joe Biden chose to anoint the moment with a quote from our own poet, the late Seamus Heaney.

While Biden has quoted other Heaney lines before, this one warrants particular attention as it (especially the last five words) has risen to become one of the most quoted lines of Irish poetry this century:

History says, don’t hope on this side of the grave, but then, once in a lifetime, the longed-for tidal wave of justice rises up and make hope and history rhyme.
- Seamus Heaney

It was so well-known by the year 2000 that it was alluded to in a U2 lyric (Peace On Earth, from the All You Can’t Leave Behind album) in full confidence that listeners would get the reference.

Such familiarity can be a dubious honour – most quotes are misquoted, or have at least drifted so far from their original context that their meaning has been changed. This was the case with John F Kennedy’s quoting of James Joyce’s line “bitter pail of tears” and continues to be the case with Samuel Beckett’s “Fail again. Fail better”.

So what is the original context of “make hope and history rhyme”? As it happens, this year marks the thirtieth anniversary not just of the original work but also of the events it referred to and its first appearance as a quote in a politician’s speech.

In Irish language terms, this reference to hope or trust translates into Dóchas (pronounced duh, hass in Ulster Irish). It sounds temptingly like another word, dúchas (doo, hass in Ulster Irish). Dúchas means heritage and ancestral claim, but can also be used as an adjective to describe something or someone who has turned wild or feral; a madra dúchais is a mad dog. This dark side of our historical inheritance is carved into our very language, as is the unsettling similarity of stair (history) and stáir (frenzy).

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Heaney and Greece

Seamus Heaney was fascinated by the enduring relevance of Greek drama and mythology, as well as the politics of translation. The words theory and theatre share a Hellenic root – theasthai, to behold, or to come together to understand – and the Derry poet felt that the Greek drama was the suitable format to consider global issues that hinge on the character and decisions of individual leaders. This was the case when he wrote in 1990 about the release of Nelson Mandela from Robben Island.

Heaney’s verse play, The Cure At Troy was performed in Derry later that year. It is his translation of the Sophocles play Philoctetes but was stacked with unmistakable allusions to the contemporary situations in South Africa and Northern Ireland.

The story concerns Philoctetes, a talented archer who has been gifted with a magic bow. On his way to the Trojan War, he receives a snake bite to his foot which becomes infected.

He is abandoned on an island by his fellow soldiers who cannot bear his wailing or the wound’s putrid smell. It is foretold that this wound will be healed at Troy if he ever arrives there. But he resents his abandonment intensely, blaming Odysseus in particular for the decision to leave him behind.

Odysseus knows Philoctetes hates him. He also knows they cannot win the war in Troy without the betrayed archer and sends a naive but honourable young emissary to persuade him to join the cause.

Philoctetes is faced with a decision: does he choose to continue on the mission he originally set out on, one with a cure at the end, or does he let the injuries and indignities he suffered on the way define him? Can he work with former enemies to create an outcome they all want? He has the high moral ground; what should he do? The Greek Chorus advises him with the celebrated stanza.

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Mary Robinson and Bill Clinton

Within two months of the play’s opening in Derry, Mary Robinson quoted the famous line in her inauguration address.

Five years later, after Heaney had won the Nobel Prize, Bill Clinton quoted the line in his celebrated speech in Derry (the one the Derry Girls almost saw in the last episode of season 2). It has been the single most famous Heaney quote ever since, even though the play itself is rarely performed.

It is said that Yeats is quoted during troubled times while Heaney is cited when outlooks are brighter. However, this reputation as a poet of positivity does a disservice to Heaney’s capacity for slyness, ambiguity and communicating dark doubts.

The ending of The Cure At Troy expresses this well:

…suspect too much sweet talk but never close your mind…
I leave, half-ready to believe.

It is the half-readiness to believe after being bitten before – to know that working together is frustrating but offers us opportunities that not doing so cannot – that is the thrust of the play, and the curtain drops before we are certain that the risk has paid off.

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About the author:

Darach Ó Séaghdha  / Writer

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