After his poetry collection Wintering Out was published in 1972, a comment from Seamus Heaney on that violent and turbulent year was reported in the Cork Examiner, “If we winter this one out, we can summer anywhere.”
Some forty-eight years later, as Covid-19 closed down society, Heaney’s words became the most popular meme in Ireland.
The words have expressed the mood of the present times. The first stanza of Heaney’s poem Servant Boy tells of a man who has spent his years working wherever he may earn a wage:
He is wintering out
the back-end of a bad year,
swinging a hurricane-lamp
through some outhouse
Heaney’s words capture a mood of powerlessness, a feeling of a lack of access to resources, of sense of walking uncertainly into an unclear future.
The words written in Ulster in 1972 could as well articulate the feeling of those in Ireland fifty years later.
In the Republic, the culpably negligent Fianna Fail-Fine Gael Coalition government has no regard for those who must labour for a living.
In the North, the irredentist DUP, now commanding just a quarter of the vote and drawing its support from a Protestant community that is a minority of the population, is being allowed to ignore the rejection of Brexit by the people of Northern Ireland and to continue to obstruct progress.
Wintering out is the option for those who have neither buildings to accommodate their cattle over winter months, nor the fodder to feed them for the months when they would be in from the fields. They must make the most of the grazing available, carry fodder out to the livestock when the grass becomes short. Wintering out is the only option for the poorer farmer.
Like the Servant Boy, Irish wage earners are people left to metaphorically ‘winter out’. They are left to pay increasing rents to foreign funds. They are left to struggle with rising prices. They are left as the second-class citizens in health care, in education, in the allocation of resources. Like the farm labourer of the poem, they struggle to see a way forward.
Attending the school sports day yesterday, there was an overwhelming sense of joy among the students. Life had returned to normal. The winter days are passing.
We can summer anywhere now. People will no longer accept the old platitudes, the old dispensation is passing.
The next general election is not scheduled for three years, but it is hard to see how a crumbling coalition reduced to a majority of one and bereft of ideas will endure.
Few people under forty will contemplate accepting the old ways. The summer for which they will vote will be a place that is very different.