Mid-Term Break

Mid-Term Break Irish Mourning Traditions

"Mid-Term Break" deals with circumstances and themes that are in no way limited to Ireland or to any part of the world: death, family, and communal grief. Indeed, nothing in the poem explicitly suggests an Irish setting. Yet Seamus Heaney, who spent his own life in Northern Ireland, based the poem on his autobiographical experience—namely, the death of a four-year-old brother. Understanding the broader social and cultural context of Northern Ireland at the time in which the poem takes place, as well as understanding the specific expectations surrounding death and mourning in this time and place, can add new layers of understanding and emotional resonance to Heaney's poem. Furthermore, rituals and beliefs about death and dying are particularly prominent elements of Irish culture, and play an unusually large role in the outside world's portrayals and understandings of it.

In Irish culture, a number of unique beliefs and folk legends surrounded the event of death itself. In Ireland, it has been customary over the past several centuries for family members and friends to keep the dying company in their final hours, never leaving the bedside of the sick. The neighbors of those who lived alone often devised a system by which they could take shifts to ensure that the dying person was not left alone. In addition to keeping the dying person company and providing them with physical and emotional comfort, the family and neighbors of the (Catholic) dying traditionally arranged for them to receive last rites from a priest. While the last rites were generally a public occasion, attended by many family members and friends, the moment of confession was a private one reserved for the priest and the dying. However, the community members attending to the dying person might prepare them to receive the last rites by washing and anointing their body parts.

The rituals following a death, meanwhile, concerned both the mourners' home and the body of the deceased. The household clocks would be stopped to mark the time of death, mirrors were covered or removed, and windows were often opened to allow the soul of the deceased to depart; family members might even create a hole in the house's roof. Meanwhile, it was considered extremely important to lay the corpse in a reclining position and close the eyes and mouth of the dead before the wake. The body would then traditionally be left in solitude for some time prior to the wake, in part to offer the dead privacy during the departure of the soul. Indeed, for a period before the wake, the home of the dead resumed its status as a private space, reserved for its residents—in contrast to the communal nature of the rituals performed at the bedside of the dying.

The Irish wake may be the culture's most widely-known death ritual. Traditionally, the body would be displayed in a public area of the house, usually a table, and surrounded with flowers and candles. During the multi-day ritual of the wake, family members and neighbors would once again remain a constant presence by the side of the deceased, ensuring that the body was not left alone until burial. Meanwhile, the gathered friends and family would share food, tell stories, and greet mourners with the phrase "I'm sorry for your trouble"—one Seamus Heaney uses in his own portrayal of a wake. Male attendees would smoke a shared pipe, left by the side of the corpse. The wake was followed by a procession to the cemetery and a burial mass.

Heaney's "Mid-Term Break" is concerned with the balance of privacy and community following a death. In the case of the poem's speaker, community feels like small comfort, and the presence of neighbors and friends is alienating and stressful. It is instead the solitary observing of his brother's body that brings the speaker clarity. In Irish Catholic death rituals more generally, moments of communal presence (such as the wake) coexist with those reserved for family (such as the period following the death and prior to the wake) and, in fact, with those reserved for the dead or dying person to spend in solitude. Heaney does not speak overtly of many of these rituals. Instead, he deeply explores these various types of grief—the communal, the familial, and the solitary.