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FROM THE REPUBLIC OF CONSCIENCE

This poem was written by Seamus in 1985 at the request of Mary Lawlor of Amnesty International Ireland to mark International Human Rights Day. It has since inspired a generation of human rights activists. Amnesty International's highest award - the Ambassador of Conscience - is inspired by this work.

 

I

When I landed in the republic of conscience

it was so noiseless when the engines stopped

I could hear a curlew high above the runway.

 

Seamus Heaney speaking at an Amnesty International Ireland event to mark the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.At immigration, the clerk was an old man

who produced a wallet from his homespun coat

and showed me a photograph of my grandfather.

 

The woman in customs asked me to declare

the words of our traditional cures and charms

to heal dumbness and avert the evil eye.

 

No porters. No interpreter. No taxi.

You carried your own burden and very soon

your symptoms of creeping privilege disappeared.

 

II

Fog is a dreaded omen there but lightning

spells universal good and parents hangs

waddled infants in trees during thunderstorms.

 

Salt is their precious mineral. And seashells

are held to the ear during births and funerals.

The base of all inks and pigments is seawater.

 

Their sacred symbol is a stylized boat.

The sail is an ear, the mast a sloping pen,

the hull a mouth-shape, the keel an open eye.

 

At their inauguration, public leaders

must swear to uphold unwritten law and weep

to atone for their presumption to hold office –

 

and to affirm their faith that all life sprang

from salt in tears which the sky-god wept

after he dreamt his solitude was endless.

 

III

I came back from that frugal republic

with my two arms the one length, the customs woman

having insisted my allowance was myself.

 

The old man rose and gazed into my face

and said that was official recognition

that I was now a dual citizen.

 

He therefore desired me when I got home

to consider myself a representative

and to speak on their behalf in my own tongue.

 

Their embassies, he said, were everywhere

but operated independently

and no ambassador would ever be relieved.

 

"From the Republic of Conscience," from Opened Ground: Selected Poems 1966-1996 by Seamus Heaney. Copyright © 1998 by Seamus Heaney.