Eavan Boland, leading Irish poet and champion of the female voice, dies aged 75

Poet, who returned last month from teaching at Stanford University, suffered a stroke

Eavan Boland, one of Ireland’s most distinguished poets, has died suddenly at the age of 75. She suffered a major stroke at her home in Dundrum, Co Dublin, this morning and was taken to hospital, where she died this afternoon. She is survived by her husband, the writer Kevin Casey, and her two daughters, Eavan and Sarah, and four grandchildren.

Up until last month, she had been teaching at Stanford University in California, whhere she had been a professor since 1996, but had returned home in light of the coronavirus pandemic to be close to her family and had been enjoying teaching remotely, her family said.

The daughter of Frederick Boland, a diplomat, and Frances Kelly, a noted artist, Eavan Boland was born in Dublin in 1944. She spent part of her childhood in London and in New York, later studying at Trinity College, Dublin. Her first two collections, 23 Poems (1962) and Autumn Essay (1963), were published before she was 20 years of age.

Her collection In a Time of Violence (1994) received a Lannan Award and was shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize. Her 70th birthday was marked by an event at the Abbey Theatre, in which she discussed her writing with fellow poet Paula Meehan. In 2018, she was commissioned by Ireland’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations and the Royal Irish Academy to commemorate the centenary of Irish women winning the right to vote and casting their first ballot with the poem Our future will become the past of other women.


President Michael D Higgins paid this tribute: “With the passing of Eavan Boland Ireland has lost not only an internationally acclaimed poet, distinguished academic and author, but one of the most insightful inner sources of Irish life, not only in life as expressed but as sensed and experienced.

“It was her particular gift to reveal the beauty in the ordinary. Over the years, through her poetry, critical work and teaching she displayed an extraordinary ability to invoke Irish landscapes, myth and everyday experience. She became one of the pre-eminent voices in Irish literature, noted for the high standard she sought and achieved.

“The revealing of a hidden Ireland, in terms of what was suffered, neglected, evaded, given insufficient credit, is a part of her achievement. If the long legacy of Irish poetry was a well from which she drew, its contemporary richness was recognised in her critical work. It owes much to her encouragement and generosity to fellow poets.

“A passionate believer in poetry, in the editorial to her final issue as editor of Poetry Ireland Review she wrote: ‘The life of the poet is always a summons to try to set down some truth that was once true and will go on being true. No poet should have to worry about the public respect, or the lack of it, in which this art is held.”

“This was a principle by which she lived and wrote. She will be missed by all who have read her work and by students who have had the privilege of learning from her in any one of the academic institutions to which she made such a distinguished contribution, including Trinity College, University College Dublin and Stanford University.

“To all of us who had the privilege of knowing her, her passing is a source of great loss and sadness. To her husband Kevin, their daughters and the members of her extended family, her colleagues in poetry and her wide circle of friends, Sabina and I send our deepest condolences.”

In Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks, Fintan O’Tooole observed: “In her inaugural address as Ireland’s first female head of state, in December 1990, Mary Robinson declared that ‘as a woman I want the women who have felt themselves outside history to be written back into history, in the words of Eavan Boland, ‘finding a voice where they found a vision’.

“It was entirely apt that the poet, should be name-checked at this emotional moment for Irish women. For few writers had done more to insert the female experience into the modern Irish poetic tradition.”

The poet and critic Ruth Padel described Boland’s “commitment to lyric grace and feminism” even as her subjects tend to “the fabric of domestic life, myth, love, history, and Irish rural landscape.” Her Poetry Foundation profile said: “Keenly aware of the problematic associations and troubled place that women hold in Irish culture and history, Boland has always written out of an urge to make an honest account of female experience.”

Gerard Smyth, Poetry Editor of The Irish Times, said: “For over half a century Eavan Boland has been a singular and influential presence in Irish poetry. Beneath the artistry of the poems lies her constant and deep inquiry into her own experiences of womanhood and motherhood, marriage and the domestic space.

“Central to her poetry has been her exploration of identity; the question of nationhood and its complexities is frequently addressed and interrogated. She had, too, an abiding attachment to Dublin, the place she called her City of Shadows. Her work was an ongoing meditation on Ireland and her relationship with the country, a dialogue with the past that always sought to include those “outside history”.

“She was a poet who, from early on, signalled with missionary zeal her rejection of what she regarded as outmoded and outworn rhetoric, the “broken images” she refers to in one of her finest poems, Child of Our Time, written in memory of one of the youngest of the victims of the 1974 Dublin bombings; a poem in which she unequivocally declares the need for a “new language”, that new language was one she herself would forge in dealing with those themes that were important to her.

"She was unafraid to challenge the established orthodoxies in Irish poetry, and in doing so pioneered a poetic language for those living unseen lives in the new suburbs of Dublin where she sensed the making of a new Ireland. As the child of a diplomat father who spent formative school years in Britain and adolescent years in the United States, she wrote poems that often display a tender empathy with what she called "emigrant grief". These early experiences - recalled in poems such as An Irish Childhood in England, 1951 and Fond Memory - sowed the seeds of the compassionate attitudes that became commonplace in her work. Her loss is great, but so too is the legacy she leaves to Irish poetry, not least as an enabling force for younger writers."

"I began to write in an Ireland where the word 'woman' and the word 'poet' seemed to be in some sort of magnetic opposition to each other," Boland told the website A Smartish Place. "Ireland was a country with a compelling past, and the word 'woman' invoked all kinds of images of communality which were thought to be contrary to the life of anarchic individualism invoked by the word 'poet' … 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." Arts Council Director Maureen Kennelly said: "Eavan was one of the most influential voices writing anywhere. She was editor of Poetry Ireland Review for the last three years and I and my colleagues there gloried in our connection with her. She was beguilingly direct, frank, funny, energetic and no-nonsense. "Her voice has humanised many of this country's old tragedies. We would all be poorer without that elegant voice shining a light on forgotten and ignored voices. She honoured those who have been outside history, writing them back in, and enabling them to find a voice. "She wrote beautiful tender poems about motherhood – Nightfeed is especially beloved by new mothers. She made it her life's work to open up the literary culture, sifting it with feminist ideas and making it less enclosed. "Her fine poems have assured her a place in the galaxy of the world's great poets. We send our deepest sympathies to her beloved family."

Poet Seán Hewitt paid tribute to “a poet who led with kindness, was a pioneer of it”.

Wriitng in The Irish Times last week, Boland declared: “When I teach, there are always books I recommend to students. My chief category, however, is just this: books I wish I’d read when I was younger. I don’t think I knew when I was a student that books don’t just engage you. They change you. Long after the book is closed you take those changes with you into your life, where they continue to instruct it. They alter what you know and add to it. You may well read the book later. But those mysterious changes you never get back. I wish I’d understood that sooner.”

Martin Doyle

Martin Doyle

Martin Doyle is Books Editor of The Irish Times