Empty hands and clear consciences

Mar 16th, 2008 | By | Category: International

“And I bet you come home with both arms the same length!”

It was a piece of Ulster dialect* that needed to be learned very quickly by an Englishman living in a community where he was a minority of one – to come home from a trip with both arms the same length, without a gift for those at home, was a serious mistake to make. It would have been a matter of choice, and was unmistakably the wrong choice to make for anyone who valued domestic harmony.

It is a piece of dialect used by Seamus Heaney in his poem From the Republic of Conscience, a poem he uses in yesterday’s Irish Times column marking the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The poem, which appears in Heaney’s 1987 collection The Haw Lantern, was first commissioned and published in 1985 to mark the 25th anniversary of Amnesty. The third part begins:

I came back from that frugal republic
with my two arms the one length, the customs woman
having insisted my allowance was myself.

Constraints upon freedom in Heaney’s poem are those imposed by others, they are not those freely chosen. His two arms are the same length because he has been given no other choice.

Heaney writes in yesterday’s article, “I took it that Conscience would be a republic, a silent, solitary place where a person would find it hard to avoid self-awareness and self-examination”.

Is there not some irony in the fact that the media that eloquently celebrate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and carry reports from Tibet are the media who will later this year carry extensive coverage of the Beijing Olympics in China?

Do we need a spell in Heaney’s republic to see how hollow we have become if we celebrate anniversaries while watching the Olympics and buying the products of the sponsors? Will we this summer freely choose to have our two arms the one length?

* Discussing From the Republic of Conscience over lunch, my fourteen year old daughter tells me “two arms the one length” is the English rendering of an Irish proverb and not Ulster dialect. There are problems in not speaking Irish!

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