Culpability of The Fisherman in Seamus Heaney’s "Casualty"

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Words: 1289 |

Pages: 3|

7 min read

Published: Oct 26, 2018

Words: 1289|Pages: 3|7 min read

Published: Oct 26, 2018

Seamus Heaney’s “Casualty” is written as an elegy for a friend who was killed in a bombing in Northern Ireland shortly after Bloody Sunday. His friend, who was a Catholic, failed to obey a curfew set in place by the Irish Republican Army. He was consequently killed in the bombing of the pub he often frequented. “Casualty” serves as an elegy for this friend in that Heaney uses it to remember and honor the deceased. The poem also allows Heaney to express his opinion on the relative guilt of his friend and of the I.R.A.

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Central to “Casualty” is the question of the Fisherman’s responsibility in bringing about his own death. Heaney asks the reader, “How culpable was he/ That last night when he broke/ Our tribe’s complicity?” (78-80) He can imagine his friend replying, “Puzzle me/ The right answer to that one.” (83-84) The poem ends with an echo of this question as Heaney suggests, “Question me again.” (112) This repetition of the question of the guilt of the friend suggests to the reader that this poem was meant to convey a political message in addition to its function as an elegy that Heaney uses to pay respects to his friend. We are meant to analyze this poem to determine for ourselves whether the violation of this curfew, imposed by the Fisherman’s own people, was enough to warrant his death.

By choosing not to follow the curfew agreed upon by the Catholics in Northern Ireland, the Fisherman is seen as going against his people, his “tribe.” Therefore the question of his guilt seems to rely upon deciding whether the rights of an individual should be valued higher than the collective good of his or her people. The Fisherman’s crime was turning his back on his people. Heaney reinforces this theme with imagery describing the Fisherman as he was all those nights in the pub, “His fisherman’s quick eye/ And turned, observant back.” (19-20) Heaney is comparing the literal way in which the Fisherman sat in the bar, with his back turned to the rest of the patrons, to the figurative way he turned his back on his people. The Fisherman goes against the agreement of the Catholic community to fulfill his individual desires. Heaney seems to find issue with this being a justification for his death and he asks reader to consider whether the crime of disobeying the will of one’s people is enough to warrant murder.

Both Heaney and the Fisherman were Catholic and were therefore expected to obey the curfew imposed by the Irish Republic Army. However, Heaney portrays the Fisherman as having little choice about breaking the curfew in that he was compelled by his habit to seek the alcohol:

For he drank like a fish

Nightly, naturally

Swimming towards the lure

Of warm lit-up places (70-74)

Here, Heaney makes it seem as if the Fisherman’s need to drink made it so “he would not be held/ At home by his own crowd/ Whatever threats were phoned.” (60-63) Fueled by his addiction, it seems the Fisherman had little control over his choice to disobey curfew. Heaney describes how he can imagine his friend in the moments leading up to his death:

I see him as he turned

In that bombed offending place,

Remorse fused with terror

In his still knowable face (64-67)

That his face, in Heaney’s imagination, showed remorse, indicates that the Fisherman was aware of his transgression. His compulsion coupled with his repentance seems to lessen his guilt, make him seem less “culpable” and less deserving of his fate.

The idea that Heaney is defending his friend, the Fisherman, can be supported through analysis of how Heaney presents the man’s character throughout the poem. The poem begins with Heaney remembering how his friend behaved at the pub. He describes him as a quiet man who kept to himself:

He would drink by himself

And raise a weathered thumb

Towards the high shelf,

Calling another rum

And blackcurrant, without

Having to raise his voice (1-6)

Because he keeps to himself, we can infer that the Fisherman was not one to cause trouble or bother those around him. Occasionally, the Fisherman would start a conversation with Heaney and would attempt to discuss poetry with him, “In the pause after a slug/ He mentioned poetry/ We would be on our own.” (27-29) From this quote, we can build on our perception of this man as quiet and as a loner. Heaney points out that when the Fisherman would begin a conversation, they would be alone; it would not be a public conversation where others would be able to intrude. Heaney’s portrayal of his friend, coupled with the imagery of his “turned, observant back,” suggests that this Fisherman, because he was a loner, did not seek out the company of others often and he therefore seems to be an outsider of society.

The final lines of the poem, Heaney’s final comment on the guilt of the Fisherman, leave the reader with the impression that Heaney does not find the Fisherman culpable in his decision to break curfew. Heaney describes a fishing trip he took with his friend, “When he took me in his boat/ The screw purling, turning.” (99-100) He describes the setting in the boat, on the water as the Fisherman’s natural habitat:

As you find a rhythm

Working you, slow mile by mile,

Into your proper haunt

Somewhere, well out, beyond… (106-109)

This isolated setting fits in with Heaney’s portrayal of his friend as a loner. During this trip, Heaney understands and empathizes with the Fisherman’s love of these peaceful voyages. Heaney begins to enjoy the isolation as well and describes his empathy for the Fisherman to the reader, “I tasted freedom with him.” (102) Because Heaney understands the time alone on the boat to be “freedom” to the Fisherman, it suggests that he does not find fault in his friend for living outside the boundaries of society. He accepts that to his friend, it is not a disgraceful thing to wish to be outside of society. The Fisherman finds solace in the freedom that his time away from people gives him. The last stanzas of the poem seem to show that Heaney’s opinion is that his friend was justified when he put his individual rights, his freedom, above the rules of his people.

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In “Casualty” Heaney asks the reader to examine the culpability of his friend, the Fisherman, for ignoring the rules set in place by his people, the Catholics of Northern Ireland. Although he ultimately leaves it to the reader to decide the extent of the Fisherman’s guilt, Heaney makes his opinion on the matter clear throughout the poem. The central theme of individual’s rights versus the good of a people is central to the poem. Heaney suggests that his friend’s addiction to alcohol compelled him to break curfew and suggests that he must have felt remorse for this decision. He portrays his friend as a loner who kept to himself and was never a problem to those around him or society as a whole. Heaney sympathizes with this man’s need for isolation, recognizing this social isolation as freedom to the Fisherman. Taking all these things into account, it seems as if Heaney is suggesting that his friend, who lived his life as an outsider of society, was justified in disobeying its rules to seek out and fulfill his individual needs.


  1. Campbell, S. (2014). Seamus Heaney's' Casualty'-Causal or Casual?. Poetry Ireland Review, (113), 133-134. (
  2. Heaney, S. (2014). Casualty. The Poetry Ireland Review, (113), 130-132. (
  3. Corcoran, N. (2013). Question Me Again: Reflections on WB Yeats and Seamus Heaney. Yeats Annual, (18), 215-238. (
  4. Pearce, E. (2010). “Like blossoms on slow water”: the Power of Metaphor in Seamus Heaney’s Poetry and its Translation. Études irlandaises, (35-2), 119-133. (
  5. Schneider, D. (2014). Dilemmas of Violence: Heaney through Benjamin. Wake Forest L. Rev., 49, 815. (
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Culpability of the Fisherman in Seamus Heaney’s “Casualty”. (2023, February 28). GradesFixer. Retrieved February 25, 2024, from
“Culpability of the Fisherman in Seamus Heaney’s “Casualty”.” GradesFixer, 28 Feb. 2023,
Culpability of the Fisherman in Seamus Heaney’s “Casualty”. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 25 Feb. 2024].
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