“Two arms the one length” is the English rendering of an Irish proverb. It means being empty-handed, carrying nothing, and arriving with nothing. It is a proverb used by Seamus Heaney in his poem From the Republic of Conscience.
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 International. 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 wrote about the poem, “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.”
Teaching Year 9 students human rights, Amnesty International has been the topic for the lessons, it is thirty-five years older than it was when Heaney wrote his poem, marking its sixtieth anniversary this year. There is a temptation to throw Heaney’s lines into a lesson at some point, in lockdown England where teaching reaches students via Microsoft Teams, there is considerable scope for self-awareness and self-examination.
Perhaps the poem would be beyond the classes, perhaps not, empty-handedness would be a familiar experience for many of them, and their families being subject to the control of others is an everyday reality. In Year 10, there are boys who suggest that your chances of being challenged by the police are determined by the way you dress.
But if conscience is a republic, its citizens are probably few in number. The Year 9 students who adopt an idealistic approach to the world in their teenage years tend to quickly become the consumers who do not ask questions about from where the things they want come.
When buying phones and electronic equipment with Chinese components, they will tend not to ask about the appalling human rights record of China. When they go on family holidays, they will not ask about the rights of the people in the countries to which they travel. Few people will shy away from countries because of the reports of groups like Amnesty.
Having two arms the one length might not present a challenge to fourteen year olds. Occupants of The Republic of Conscience: for a while, they can stand in Heaney’s land.