July 1, 2020
Poetry fans in Ireland and the world over continue to mourn the death of Eavan Boland, one of her country’s leading poets and a champion of women in the arts who died in late April at age 76. Ms. Boland first published her poetry when she was a first-year student at Trinity College, Dublin, her work growing into a force with successive volumes of elegance and power.
From her earliest work, Ms. Boland explored the identities of Irishness and Irish women. These were constant themes, the “wider contexts of nationhood and womanhood” as stated in her volume “The Journey and other Poems.”
When she was a child, she moved to London when her father was appointed Ireland’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, and it is there that Ms. Boland had her first experiences of alienation from the prevailing culture. In dealing with this distancing, she strengthened her identification with her Irish heritage. She recalled this period in several of her poems from “The Journey,” particularly in "An Irish Childhood in England: 1951":
“…the teacher in the London convent who
when I produced “I amn’t” in the classroom
turned and said – “you’re not in Ireland now.”
Ms. Boland also plumbed the emigrant experience from the perspective of those who remained:
“Like oil lamps we put them out the back,
of our houses, of our minds. We had lights
better than, newer than and then
a time came, this time and now
we need them. Their dread makeshift example.”
But it was as a liberating force for Irish women writers that Ms. Boland won the hearts and admiration of her contemporaries. In 1991, she publicly criticized “The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing,” touted to be the most complete collection of Irish writing ever compiled. Though her work was included in the volume, she was one of only three women in the contemporary section, leading her to rally opinion against omissions of other women in essays and reviews and speeches. As she put it in a speech at Trinity:
“I am critical of the recent Field Day anthology which has 34 male poets and 3 women poets in the contemporary Irish poetry section. It has other absences. There are no [female] section editors. There is no mention of the women’s movement, whose ideas and importance can be seen in something like the recent debate on abortion. There are articles by distinguished scholars such as Edward Said but you can’t find the name Mary Robinson in the index. The Field Day anthology indicates the fact that those who put together canons which confuse power with authority do so at their peril …”
“She was at the time of the publication of “The Field Day Anthology” a warrior goddess on behalf of the throng of excluded women writers,” the poet Mary O’Malley wrote in 1999 for the journal Colby Quarterly. “Her magnificent defense of contemporary women writers ensured that such an extraordinary exclusion, whether from arrogance, ignorance, or appalling sloppiness, is unlikely to happen on that scale in Ireland again.”
Ms. Boland also opened up new territory as fit subject matter for poetry. The Irish writer and scholar Declan Kiberd once said that she was “one of the few Irish poets to describe with any fidelity the lives now lived by half a million people in the suburbs of Dublin.” It was no coincidence. In 2014, she told the arts and culture magazine Believer:
“I was a woman in a house in the suburbs, married with two small children. It was a life lived by many women around me, but it was still not named in Irish poetry….I’ve often said that when I was young it was easier to have a political murder in a poem than a baby.
“I wanted to put the life I lived into the poem I wrote. And the life I lived was a woman’s life. And I couldn’t accept the possibility that the life of the woman would not, or could not, be named in the poetry of my own nation.”
Aside from writing and raising two daughters with her novelist husband, Kevin Casey, Ms. Boland pursued a very successful academic career, taking up teaching at Trinity College, Dublin, University College Dublin, and Bowdoin College. She was also a member of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, and a writer-in-residence at Trinity College, Dublin, and at the National Maternity Hospital.
In the late 1970s and 1980s, she taught at the School of Irish Studies in Dublin. From 1996 until her death, she was a tenured professor of English at Stanford University where she was the Bella Mabury and Eloise Mabury Knapp Professor in the Humanities and the Melvin and Bill Lane Professor and director of the Creative Writing program. She divided her time between Palo Alto, and her home in Dublin.
It was at University College Dublin in the early 1980s that I had the privilege of studying under Ms. Boland while pursuing a graduate course in Anglo-Irish Literature. What strikes me to this day is how consistent her demeanor in the class was with her poetic voice – generous and modest, but authoritative. In this, she was an inspiration to our class in Modern Irish Poetry, and particularly to the women, who clearly emulated her. A number of them went on to successful academic careers of their own in Canada, the US, and Ireland. The many accolades and academic awards Ms. Boland received as her career matured were no surprise to those who studied with her.
In 2018, to mark the 100th anniversary of the granting of suffrage to women in Ireland, she read excerpts at the United Nations from a poem she had written for the occasion, “Our Future Will Become the Past of Other Women.” It included a section that, she told the assembly, was about the grandmothers and great-grandmothers of the suffragists, women who had never had the chance to vote:
“Ghost-sufferer, our ghost-sister
Remind us now again that history
Changes in one moment with one mind.
That it belongs to us, to all of us.
As we mark these hundred years
We will not leave you behind.”
It would serve her well as an epitaph. Eavan Boland held herself, as well as others, accountable. Her students, her readers, her fellow poets all knew that they could count on her to stand up when it mattered. As Hannah Aizenman, the New Yorker’s poetry coordinator, wrote in the magazine’s edition dated April 29, the day of Ms. Boland’s death, she “refused to let the lyric off the hook of history.”
Michael McGonagle is a Dorchester native, the son of Irish parents, and a long-time Jesuit educator. He currently works at Notre Dame Academy in Hingham and serves in the Ignatian Volunteer Corps.