Remembering Eavan Boland on Nollaig na mBan - a leading feminist light

To mark women’s Christmas – January 6th – a tribute to the life and legacy of the poet and literary feminist

“Eavan Boland revolutionised Irish writing”. I wrote these five words on the day she died. Two years later I am even more convinced of this truth. As I am ever more sure of the necessity of, and our duty to, write into history the work of those trailblazers who came before us. Otherwise, we risk writing their work out of history.

Diversity is the biggest buzzword in the arts right now, as if it was a new, trendy thing recently discovered, yet the reality is that the demand for diversity – and of its sisters, equality and human rights – began in the Irish arts world in the 1970s, from women such as Catherine Rose, Margaret Mac Curtain, Janet Martin, Terry Prone and Eavan Boland – who ran Arlen House, Ireland’s first feminist press; the first publisher to politically challenge Irish society on diversity grounds. As it is still doing almost 50 years later.

The leading light in the campaign for literary feminism was Eavan Boland. She helped create and shape a place and a space for so many female voices previously ignored and unwelcome. She didn’t have to. While some may envision Boland as a privileged white female (with all the connotations they believe this entails), back in the 1970s she was an early career poet, building a young family, vulnerable. In 1978, when she joined Arlen House, her first two collections were already out of print, and she was working on her third. She chose to give away much of her time, energy and vision to help other women. That had consequences.

While Boland is rightfully given credit for starting the workshop movement for women poets in the mid-1980s, her initial literary feminist work started in 1978 and focused on female prose writers, both living and dead. Arlen House announced a national competition for female debut short story writers, with Boland as a judge. She edited and introduced the book, The Wall Reader, Ireland’s first anthology of women fiction writers (which became an unexpected No 1 bestseller in 1979), despite a media backlash, from both male and female critics who said there wasn’t a need for a female-only competition. In a transcript of one fascinating interview, Boland retorted: “because we are female, and because we want to write, we are being presented as freaks”. She demanded equality and fairness.


In 1979, with Catherine Rose, she commenced a classic literature series (at the same time as Carmen Callil’s Virago Press started their modern classics series in the UK). The first title was Kate O’Brien’s The Ante Room, with a preface by Boland (1980). Boland had spent a memorable evening with O’Brien in Dundrum in 1972 while Kevin Casey was publishing her final fiction. By the time she died in 1974, all her work was out of print and she was in danger of being forgotten. Boland’s revival work was on a massive scale, with enormous sales, huge critical appreciation and international interest.

Eavan Boland and Arlen House had demonstrated that a large interest and market existed in the work of dead Irish women writers, to many people’s surprise

Four years later, Arlen House founded The Kate O’Brien Weekend in Limerick, the first Irish literary festival ever to be named after a woman writer. And Virago Press swooped in, outbidding Arlen House on O’Brien’s other titles, and buying rights to a number of novels by Irish women writers. Eavan Boland and Arlen House had demonstrated that a large interest and market existed in the work of dead Irish women writers, to many people’s surprise. Classic novels by Janet McNeill, Anne Crone, Norah Hoult and Katherine Keane, among others, were also republished. In 1981 Boland met Mary Lavin to discuss republishing The Becker Wives, and she wrote an introductory essay which starts with “The Becker Wives is a masterpiece”. All the enthusiastic correspondence and the introduction is held in the Arlen House archives, but for some reason the book didn’t appear. I regret not asking Eavan if she remembered what happened.

1984 saw the foundation of WEB (Women’s Education Bureau), the national association of women writers in Ireland, with Eavan Boland as artistic director. This was a membership organisation which organised a large range of workshops nationwide, provided mentoring and support, and organised a Writers and Readers Day in the National Museum (Boland spoke there alongside Maeve Binchy, Jennifer Johnston, Medbh McGuckian and many others). They organised the National Women Writers Workshop, directed by Boland, with financial support from the Arts Council, with guest presenters such as Clare Boylan, John McGahern and Seamus Heaney. Boland knew there was a need for the creation of a safe space for female aspiring writers. The poetry world could be hostile to women, and there were predators out there. However, that didn’t mean that she was a pushover in the workshops. Her criticism could be harsh, and she didn’t suffer fools.

Boland’s Arlen House collections, The War Horse, In Her Own Image, Night Feed, The Journey and Selected Poems (the latter two in collaboration with Carcanet) received widespread attention, huge sales and the interest of international publishers. There was some hostile criticism in Ireland; her ‘domestic’ poems angering some male critics who deemed the ‘domestic’ unworthy. However, her honest poems will be read for centuries, while I’ve already forgotten the critics’ names.

When I relaunched Arlen House in 2000, Eavan Boland sent good wishes. Years later, after she discovered that the Arts Council was refusing to fund the press, she suggested an artistic auction, where she offered to draw visual representations of her poems, In Her Own Image and Night Feed, to raise funds. But she understood that I preferred to devote all my energy and time into making books, and on artistic and creative work.

When Arlen House poets Nell Regan and Martin Dyar were invited to participate in the famous International Writing Program in Iowa, they followed in the footsteps of John Banville, Sebastian Barry, Desmond Hogan, Kevin Casey and Eavan Boland. I built up a relationship with colleagues at the IWP and Iowa City Unesco City of Literature (a sister organisation to Dublin Unesco City of Literature, of which I was a co-founder) and suggested we jointly publish an anthology of Irish writers in Iowa. Eavan contributed beautiful new poems to Town Stitched by River (2015), co-edited by Christopher Merrill and me, and launched in Iowa City and in the US ambassador’s residence in Dublin.

More recently, Arlen House was proud to publish the first collection of critical essays on her work, Eavan Boland: Inside History (2017), edited by Siobhán Campbell and Nessa O’Mahony, launched at an extraordinary event with Mary Robinson, Colm Tóibín and Catherine Rose, and in London with the Irish Literary Society, and at Senate House Library. In Poetry Ireland, Eavan Boland stated that over her 55-year career, Arlen House had been her favourite publisher. She later wrote “Arlen House has one of the finest histories of any publishing house I know˝. At our last face-to-face meeting, in London, I told Eavan that I had bought the rights to Kate O’Brien’s rarest novel (Pray for the Wanderer) and would be reviving her Arlen Classic Literature series.

The woman replied she couldn’t tell her neighbours she was a poet because they would think she didn’t wash her windows

Boland’s life and legacy is honoured by 100 women writers (including Edna O’Brien, Nuala O’Connor and Martina Evans) in the poetry anthology Washing Windows? Irish Women Write Poetry (2017), presented as a surprise to Boland. She later wrote that she found it a “deeply touching publication”. At one 1980s WEB workshop, Boland encouraged a talented writer to “go public” with her poetry. The woman replied she couldn’t tell her neighbours she was a poet because they would think she didn’t wash her windows. That is the space and the culture which Eavan Boland and her sister feminists subverted and exploded.

The vast array of Irish women writers today, reaching international heights, owe a debt of gratitude to Eavan and her sisters for their radical work revolutionising Irish writing and the literary scene. Now Irish writing is a more diverse and open space, for both women and men, because of the truly groundbreaking and perilous work started in the 1970s by visionaries such as Eavan Boland. Let us never forget.