In time, I know, our devastation at the loss of Eavan Boland will be tempered by profound gratitude for what she gave us and what she left us. But on this beautiful spring morning, when the two kilometres allowed us robs us of our desire to come together and mourn, to celebrate a great and transforming spirit, then it is her poems that will be our salve. We’ll read them in candlelight, and in the bright light of the stretching days, and she will never be far from us: she understood this. If we need or want a national poet, as we sometimes do, then her compassionate, ironic, and truth-laden art is there for the taking - I am your citizen: composed of / your fictions, your compromise, I am / a part of your story and its outcome. / And ready to record the contradictions.
Paula Meehan is a poet and was Ireland Professor of Poetry (2013-2016). Her selected poems, As If By Magic, is forthcoming.
I have been shaken by Eavan Boland’s death in a deeply personal way that is hard to explain; her death has shocked me to the core. She was a powerful leader in Irish poetry and a moral leader of women’s political action, but much more than that. She was passionate, adamant, insistent, searching and learned.
Her review of my first collection in The Irish Times in 1978, when I was just 24, set in motion a whole sequence of marvellous events in my life that lasted for years and years, from a phone-call with the then US ambassador who had read her review to the Ireland Funds Award in 1984. So I adored her for that effect upon my life.
But I loved her for having written The Winning of Etain, a poem in her youthful masterpiece, New Territory, published as far back as 1967. I loved her for her sense of humour. She had a mischievous, wicked sense of humour when discussing the vanity of male poets. But it is for those great books, In Her Own Image, The Lost Land, Object Lessons, that I will cherish her exemplary life for the rest of my own life.
Thomas McCarthy is a Co Waterford poet who worked at Cork City Libraries for many years. His latest book is Prophecy (Carcanet Press)
Perhaps more than most, I owe gratitude to Eavan Boland: she’s responsible for my two children, as I met Conor at a six-week workshop given by her in 1989 when she was Poet in Residence at TCD.
I was mid-20s, a spectacularly aimless postgraduate student beginning, tentatively, to cajole poetry into the centre of my life. Eavan’s workshop was formative. She was generous, rigorous and wonderfully gossipy. When she read a poem, it was a different poem to the one I would read by myself: she’d tease it open, showing how it enacted its technical choices and earned its affect. It really was a masterclass and, like her own writing, it opened up ways of thinking freshly about how poems and lives absorb each other, (and look askance at each other too).
She has many elegant and footsure poems but over the years I’ve particularly enjoyed teaching Love and The Black Lace Fan My Mother Gave Me, which I admire for their tonal authenticity, their salvaging of personal detail and their way of persuading imagery into argument.
She was an important presence in the Irish poetry world. Her exemplary, recent editorship of Poetry Ireland Review showed a mind engaged and open. She gave encouragement – as welcome, I’m sure, to its more recent recipients as it was to my 25-year-old self, feeling my way into poetry and a life that reckoned on it, as hers surely did.
Vona Groarke’s seventh poetry collection, Double Negative, was published with Gallery Press in 2019. Her Lament for Art O’Leary has just been reissued to coincide with the opera by composer, Irene Buckley, which had been due to premiere at the Everyman, Cork on April 30th.
Reading other writers’ social media posts about Eavan Boland, I see that many of us had the same feeling about her: she seemed immortal, as if she would always be here. Eavan Boland was not my teacher, but her poems were - and are. They reassured me that poems about women’s experiences aren’t “women’s poems”; that poems about life’s small, intimate moments aren’t small poems.
In many ways, her poems gave me permission to write my own. We weren’t wrong, not really, about Eavan Boland always being here. She’s here in her poetry and in the poetry she’s made possible in others. She’s here in her students, her students’ students, and all the people they’ll teach and inspire, and on and on. These ripples are endless. What a gift.
Maggie Smith is author of Good Bones
Eavan is a cornerstone of Carcanet and of PN Review, having joined us in 1985 and stayed with us, always as a friend and mentor as well as a poet, until April 27th. She put me right on a number of issues (and writers) and made suggestions which strengthened the Carcanet list immeasurably.
The advocacy I value most is of the American poet Brigit Pegeen Kelly, whom she championed to me. My close colleague Robyn Marsack, working through Eavan’s correspondence in the Rylands Library, Manchester, wrote to me this morning to say that when Eavan writes about her own work she is brisk and practical, but her eloquent advocacies of the work of others are what make the correspondence vibrant.
It was through her that Carcanet came to know and publish gratefully the work of key Irish writers, women and men, and to look at work from other parts of the Anglophone world. Had she not appeared on the scene when she did, with her energy, her developing ideas, her abilty to see fore and aft and to move, to change her mind, change direction in her forms and themes, Irish and Anglophone poetry generally would be very different, and certainly not better.
It has been a privilege to publish in PNReview so many of her major essays and interviews, and her poem sequences, and at Carcanet to publish her own poems, her anthologies, her Dublin, and books about her. More than just a privilege, it has been a continual pleasure, a pleasure enhanced by frankness on both sides, and some instructive disagreements. It will be hard for many of us to adjust to her absence.
Michael Schmidt is general editor, PN Review and editorial and managing director, Carcanet Press
After the news of Eavan Boland’s death, I turned again to her poem Night Feed and felt the present give way. I was immediately back at the moment, nearly twenty years ago, when I sought it out on my shelves and and saw, for the first time, the intimate and epic experience of nursing a small baby outlined on the page.
The poem was big as my life felt then. Measured by the cadence of a feeding child, the lines opened as simply as a child’s eyes do, and the voice was rapt with the sense of having and losing that kept my own days of early motherhood in such tender balance. You would not think this poet was ever angry. You would not think she was telling a truth that was unavailable, or ignored, or considered unimportant elsewhere. But Eavan Boland was righteous and she was also angry. She was not afraid of her anger, because it made her so careful and brilliant and utterly controlled.
Anne Enright’s latest novel is Actress. She was the inaugural Laureate of Irish Fiction.
When I heard the news of Eavan Boland’s death, I felt at first as if a pillar of the house had fallen. It hasn’t, of course – she built a strong and lasting shelter.
Eavan’s work, both her poetry and her excellent essays, which stand as a testament to her own poetics, was the voice that remained attentive to the opening up of history so essential in her own poems. She wrote out of a vast echoing silence, where women were the subjects of the poem. She intended to be the author of the poem and that was her poetic manifesto. She wanted to give voice to the women of history as well as the women of her own time and she wanted to re-draw the lineaments of critical thought to include them. This she did, tirelessly and her essays attest to her fearless intellect.
To me, she was generous, encouraging, and demanded a level of attention to line and stanza she believed the poems merited. Her beautiful, clear voice and crisp delivery has been a peerless gift to those poets who have known her.
Mary O’Malley is a poet and essayist. She is published by Carcanet.
Eavan Boland reminds us what it is to be vigilant, both as an artist and as a citizen. She was not the hail fellow-well met type of arts personality favoured in Ireland. Her interest was always in the development of what the poem can do, of how it can speak back to our moment. Eavan Boland never ran the requisite campaign to be part of Aosdána though awards from elsewhere were many including the Lannan Award and an American-Ireland Fund Literary Award.
Her work is represented in major anthologies including The Norton Anthology of Poetry, The Body Electric: Best Poetry from the American Poetry Review, as well as in The Faber Anthology of Irish Verse, Penguin Anthology of Irish Verse and the Pan Anthology of Irish Verse. At home, she was often denigrated, and she made her teaching career mainly in the USA. That was a loss to Ireland, as is her sudden shocking death, but we have the work that will live on and is steadfast, as she was.
i.m. Eavan Boland
She could name all these, wildflowers of the hills
and because there was a story to be told, she could pull
through breast and brains the way they took these names
from a distant past, a past before there rose a single god
under whom the outrage was to wage.
She would name them and the stamen of their being
stood still in the act of naming. The scent of them flew
out from her tongue, a balm to the legendary wounding.
And she would touch each pistil, there, like that, between
a crooked finger and a solid thumb, yet not bruise it,
but trace and lift it up as if that too would clear, would hold
the sound still in the valley and resound it out beyond,
yes, let it fly to scatter seedlings from a clearing sky.
Siobhan Campbell is the co-editor with Nessa O’Mahony of essays on the work of Eavan Boland, Eavan Boland: Inside History published by Arlen House.
Eavan Boland revolutionised Irish writing. She created and shaped a place for so many voices previously ignored and unwelcome. She didn’t have to - as an early career poet, married with young children, and writing her 3rd collection, she chose to give her time and energy and vision to change the world.
A founder member in 1970 of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement, in 1978 she joined Arlen House, Ireland’s first feminist press who were demanding that women be allowed to write and publish seriously. Working with Catherine Rose, Eavan edited Ireland’s first anthology of women fiction writers (a No 1 bestseller in 1979), she commenced the classic literature series reviving Kate O’Brien, Janet McNeill and Norah Hoult, and set up WEB (Women’s Education Bureau), the national association of women writers, organising workshops countrywide.
Her Arlen House collections, The War Horse, In Her Own Image, Night Feed and The Journey received international attention, her ‘domestic’ poems angering some male critics who deemed the ‘domestic’ unworthy. Her honest poems will be read for centuries.
More recently I was proud to publish the first collection of critical essays on her work, Eavan Boland: Inside History, edited by Siobhan Campbell and Nessa O’Mahony, launched at an extraordinary event in Poetry Ireland with Mary Robinson and Colm Toibin, and in London with the Irish Literary Society and at Senate House.
Eavan’s life and legacy is honoured by 100 women poets in the anthology Washing Windows? Irish Women Write Poetry. At one workshop Eavan encouraged a 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. Irish writing thrives because of visionaries like Eavan Boland.
Alan Hayes is publisher of Arlen House
Eavan was a profoundly gifted poet – adventurous, fearless, uncompromising - in conflicted love with her country. Her poems especially, but also her essays, her teaching and her witness, have been central in the remaking of Ireland.
She inherited a poetry where women were the subjects, not the makers, of poems, and she would not have it. She took the lyric and stiffened it with lucid, incisive intellect, but she never lost sight of what is, in the end, the only thing that matters, which is love.
She loved her craft, she loved this world, she loved Kevin, and Eavan, and Sarah, and her grandchildren. She mined our hearts and our histories, and brought what she found there in the dark up into the imperishable light. She was brave, and funny, and fierce when the moment called for that; I hope she knew how much she was loved by so many. Her lines came unbidden when the news broke:
“But the words are shadows and you cannot hear me.
You walk away and I cannot follow”
This time, today, it is we who cannot follow. Pathfinder, farewell.
Theo Dorgan’s most recent collection is Bailéid Giofógacha, a translation of Federico García Lorca’s Gypsy Ballads.
Eavan Boland’s work has been one of the pillars of Irish poetry for so long there were times you could forget what was holding up the building. Rereading her with students in recent years, I was reminded of the powerful connections her poems forge across generations and cultures, and how relevant they remain to our own concerns.
We met only once when she completed her editorship of Poetry Ireland Review last year, a tenure distinguished by her inclusiveness and encouragement of the new. In her final editorial, she evoked the moment “when someone takes down a book, maybe late at night, maybe looking for some confirmation of their own life, and comes upon that poem they want to remember. That moment has held together this art from the beginning.”
On so many occasions for me, that book taken down from the shelf has been one of her own. I admired her art, her intellect and her anger. I am so shocked to hear of her passing.
Colette Bryce’s poetry is published by Picador. She is the current editor of Poetry Ireland Review.
I first got to know Eavan Boland’s critical work and autobiography and her revisionist historical interventions through the lasting revolution in Irish Studies which occurred while I was studying at NUI Galway. But her presence and influence were far more wide-ranging than that.
Eavan Boland has long been published in Manchester by Carcanet Press and, not long after I moved to Manchester, she was a memorable speaker at the city’s annual Rylands Reading. Her poems, alongside Bernard O’Donoghue’s, were also reference points for the literature of Irish emigration in the Irish writers’ workshop I occasionally attended on Cheetham Hill, while her advocacy had a major impact on the kinds of Irish and American poetry which Carcanet would publish. That included Three Irish Poets which selected from her own work alongside Paula Meehan and Mary O’Malley at that moment when Carcanet gave such momentum and force to the publication of poetry by Irish women.
It also led to the publication here of a poet like Brigit Pegeen Kelly, whose poems once read are rarely forgotten. Likewise a poem like Eavan’s Love, which retains its force no matter how often I read it, its sudden annunciation made even more powerful by its ordinary setting:
We had a kitchen and an Amish table.
We had a view. And we discovered there
love had the feather and muscle of wings
and had come to live with us,
a brother of fire and air.
And the matching force of that love when it is something that can only be remembered:
Will we ever live so intensely again?
Will love come to us again and be
so formidable at rest it offered us ascension
even to look at him?
But the words are shadows and you cannot hear me.
You walk away and I cannot follow.
John McAuliffe’s fifth book The Kabul Olympics (Gallery) is out this month. He is Professor of Poetry at the University of Manchester and regularly writes about new poetry for The Irish Times.
Eavan Boland changed the world for Irish women poets. Those of us who were lucky enough to discover her work as young women began our writing lives under the assumption that poetry could matter, that we could have bodies and minds, that a woman could intervene in the wide world by means of her words.
Even then, we did not fathom what she had given us. For many of us, it was only much later – perhaps tired, in a darkening room in a rented house in a suburb, the sound of children playing – that we returned again to her work and discovered what generosity, what hospitality, what sisterhood was waiting there for us, when so much else had fallen away. There are Irish poets who equal her in significance, but none who surpass her.
Ailbhe Darcy is an Irish poet who lives in Cardiff. Her most recent book is Insistence (Bloodaxe, 2018).
Eavan was, at first acquaintance, a formidable figure, not given to easy small talk or easy laughter. In Stanford, however, the stories of her kindness and her warmth were legion. She enjoyed the politics of university life and excelled as an administrator. I saw her once looking after a student’s interests in a way that was so generous, so thoughtful. The fact that the student was arrogant made her smile. This was, she suggested, the way of the world, the things sent to try us.
I came to love the time spent in her office, the time talking about poetry and about Ireland. It was a great gift to have known her. She had wide-ranging mind - she knew all about computers, for example - and a dry wit and a way of approaching the task in hand with sharp determination and energy and flair. In the university, she was a public figure, her power and influence made all the greater by the sense she exuded of a rich private and imaginative life, a loving family life, a sense of justice and a belief in the power of language and the importance of poetry.
Colm Tóibín's latest novel is House of Names
I was trying to write a radio essay. It was going to be a scholarly meditation on the difficulties of writing during a global pandemic, complete with blue stocking references to William Wordsworth’s spots of time, and Virginia Woolf’s famous declaration that all a woman needed to write was a room of her own. I planned to touch upon the challenges of writing locked-down in a digital age, where everyone was hearing and reacting to the same news, and reading the same social media feeds.
And then, around tea-time on April 27th, those very social media feeds began to chirrup with the same, incredible news. Tweets were sent and resent, comment was laid over comment as a community, not just poets and writers but readers and thinkers and anyone who had ever been touched by Eavan Boland’s words, began to express what she’d meant to them.
And perhaps because I’d been thinking about Virginia Woolf, I was transported back to a gloriously sunny afternoon in Bloomsbury in late June 2017. A few months earlier, Arlen House had published a new collection of essays and poems responding to Eavan’s work (Eavan Boland: Inside History), which had been edited by poet Siobhán Campbell and myself. The prestigious Irish Literary Society was hosting the London launch of the collection, and Eavan had graciously agreed to be interviewed at the event. I was to be the interviewer.
That might have been reason enough for the nerves to flutter as I walked in the steps of the Bloomsbury. In fact I was quite sanguine at the prospect of conducting a public interview. I’d done my research, prepared my questions, and was fairly confident that I would acquit myself well.
No, what was bothering me now was the suggestion I’d made some weeks earlier that I and Eavan should have a cup of tea to chat before the event, an invitation she’d graciously accepted. And whilst I’d met her several times before at poetry events, I’d never actually spent any time alone in her company. The social responsibility was terrifying.
My mind had raced over those famous meetings between writers in history; Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop at the entrance of the New York Public Library, James Joyce and Marcel Proust at a party in the Majestic Hotel in Paris. It seemed vitally important that my tea with Eavan shouldn’t end up as a discussion of ailments or stilted small talk.
I’d googled suitable places close to the Bloomsbury Hotel, where the interview was to take place, and had found one that seemed eminently appropriate. Tea and Tattle was a tea-room over an antiqurian bookshop and was resplendent with mahogany tables groaning under tiered bone china cake-stands and an eclectic mix of Crown Derby tea cups and saucers.
I arrived first, Eavan shortly afterwards, and there followed a simply delightful 60 minutes or so of a little tittle, quite alot of tattle, and not much solemnity at all. The incisiveness so many have commented upon was there, when the talk briefly touched on infamous anthologies of the past, but the overall tenor was warm and witty, light and companionable.
There was, I came to realise, a public and a private Eavan. The public persona was impressive if austere, the formidable intellect breathtaking in its allusiveness; the private person could be giggly and mischievous. She was a very human and humane person, of great kindness and consideration.
I would go on to interview the public persona that evening in Bloomsbury, but what I’ll remember most are those 60 minutes over tea and buns when we set the world to rights. And her poems, of course. Her wonderful poems.
Nessa O’Mahony is a poet from Dublin whose latest work is The Hollow Woman on the Island (Salmon Poetry 2019)
In I Remember, the opening poem to one of Eavan Boland’s finest collections, The Journey (1987) the poet recalls one of her mother’s paintings as a work in progress amid “the ruined evenings of/bombed-out, post-war London” and later, insistently, “and I remember, I remember”:
I was the interloper who knows both love and fear,
who comes near and draws back, who feels nothing
beyond the need to touch, to handle, to dismantle it,
the mystery; and how in the morning when I came down –
a nine-year-old in high, fawn socks –
the room had been shocked into a glacier
of cotton sheets thrown over the almond
and vanilla silk of the French Empire chairs.
A poet is known and best remembered by their poems; there’s something irrefutable about that. When I think of the poems of Eavan Boland’s I see a landscape and a palette of colours, and a stillness that is cinematic and pure; detailed yet historical, personal and immaculate.
Gerald Dawe is a poet.
Eavan Boland’s 1998 collection The Lost Land bears the dedication “For Mary Robinson – who found it”. Boland’s lasting and peerless contribution to poetry needs to be understood in terms of retrieval. Quite rightly, we will remember the timely, bold embrace of her literary vision, in which she made a home for the subjects and the people which history had a habit of leaving behind.
But we should also remember the details that grace each individual poem - the denim skirt of a ‘suburban woman’ walking to a neighbour’s house at dusk, for example, or the overgrown famine roads in the west of Ireland which track the private agonies of historical catastrophe. Through the enduring forms of her poetry, and the lucid authority of her criticism, she broadened the politics and the sympathies of Irish literature.
Rosie Lavan teaches modern Irish poetry in the School of English at Trinity.
Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuigh
The new English curriculum for Leaving Cert was introduced at the turn of the millennium, consigning the much-loved Soundings anthology to history. When I sat the state exams in summer 2001, it was the first year the new course was examined, including as it did Boland, Bishop and Dickinson. I suspect I was blind to the significance of their inclusion. In Irish, we had already studied Máire Mhac an tSaoi, Caitlín Maude, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Biddy Jenkinson and Áine Ní Ghlinn. Were it not for Boland’s prose, I would have remained oblivious to her efforts in insisting on the legitimacy of female experience in poetry. I’m grateful for not having to justify my existence.
Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuigh is the recipient of the 2020 Lawrence O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry.
I first met Eavan Boland when I was studying English at Trinity College Dublin and she was writer-in-residence there. At the time we had a male-dominated curriculum – I remember Emily Dickinson and Marianne Moore but we read few other women poets, and certainly no Irish women. Eavan opened up a new world of poetry, freeing us from these constraints, connecting her own experience as a writer with work she loved from diverse traditions.
In the course of these conversations she would often choose a poem to demonstrate a precise formal detail or because of a single resonant line. She was a very gifted teacher, listening carefully and always questioning - trying to draw us out, to help us think more clearly. Her influence as poet, editor and teacher is far reaching - she made us all better readers, more attuned to close observation than grand gesture, more reflective, more willing to follow our instincts.
Lucy Collins is an associate professor at UCD. Her works include Poetry by Women in Ireland 1870-1970: A Critical Anthology (2012)
Eavan Boland was a poet who led with a fierce kindness, who was a pioneer of it. Her vision was powerfully inclusive, and altered the course of both Irish and international poetry. There are few poets who can take on an entire tradition and deepen it to such a degree - Eavan was one of those poets. A pathbreaker, to whom poetry everywhere owes are great debt of gratitude.
Seán Hewitt’s debut collection Tongues of Fire has just been published by Jonathan Cape. He reviews regularly for The Irish Times
I first met Eavan Boland on The National Writers’ Workshop in the mid 1980s. As our director she plunged us into an erudite, sometimes eupeptic, re-appraisal of what we thought we knew. I learned from her that I wasn’t a poet, but also that valid other voices do make it through, despite the deluge of contempt sometimes heaped on them. She knew about these things.
Eavan always believed that it is the work which matters, not the consensus; that making women real, the subject rather than the object of literature, is a challenging, but invigorating task. She was diligent and unsentimental in her criticism, raised the bar gratifyingly high and gave lavishly of her energy when teaching. I will always be able to hear her voice as it strove to illuminate what was going on.
Evelyn Conlon is a novelist, short story writer and anthologist. She lives in Dublin.
No, we were not related. I was asked that question throughout my entire adult life, and I dare to think it’s possible Eavan Boland was at least once asked the opposite question herself. I never even met her personally, although of course I heard her read; that mellifluous compelling voice like the sound of swift water that drew you upstream with it.
I didn’t know the person, but I knew the poems that I loved. I marvelled and lingered over the lyricism of poems like The Black Lace Fan My Mother Gave Me, in Outside History. A fan, bought in Paris, and passed down from mother to daughter; embroidered with the wild silk roses of stories and memories and romances of the man who had bought it for her. I read it so often, I knew it by heart.
“The lace is overcast as if the weather
it opened for and offset had entered it.”
I loved Eavan Boland’s eye for the eccentric. Her poem, The Glass King, in The Journey, takes it conceit from the fact that in his later years, King Charles VI of France believed he was made of glass. As a young poet myself back then, I felt permission to be imaginative. That not all Irish poetry was rooted in the earth and drumlins and bicycles of Kavanagh’s Monaghan. That not all important Irish poets were men.
“My prince, demented
in a crystal past”
I always wondered if the idea for that candle in the window at the Aras when Mary Robinson became President came from the poem, The Emigrant Irish; published long before 1990:
The Emigrant Irish
Like oil lamps we put them out the back,
of our houses, of our minds.”
Like all classic poems, the truth that informs those lines still endures. Eavan Boland’s own oil lamp of poems will long burn bright in the windows of our collective memories.
Rosita Boland is a poet, author and an Irish Times journalist
I never met Eavan Boland in person but she’s been a generous guide-a pioneer who blazed ahead for us Irish women poets. So many of her poems are touchstone poems for me. I first brought An Irish Childhood in England 1951 to an English classroom in the ‘90s. Written about a time when the Irish were seen as “a sub race” in England according to Boland, I wasn’t sure if it would speak it to my students but everyone in the room identified with it even those who’d lived in London all their life. Because everyone knows what it feels like to be alien, to be homesick. She touched them all, some were in tears. I’m in tears writing this. Great poems make us as one-we are connected.
Martina Evans is a writer and poet. Her latest work is Now We Can Talk Openly About Men! She reviews regularly for The Irish Times
Aifric Mac Aodha
Two years ago, the Royal Irish Academy and the Irish Government commissioned a poem by Eavan Boland to commemorate 100 years since the women of Ireland were granted suffrage and first cast their ballots in the 1918 election. I was fortunate to be asked to translate this commanding piece of work into Irish, and around that time we exchanged a few e-mails. Her poem concludes with a hope-filled triad in which the women of Ireland, both past and present, awake to find ‘Justice no longer blind. / Inequity set aside. / And freedom re-defined’. Those lines, like her opus, speak of bearing witness to arduous times with precision and feeling.
On a personal note, I am grateful to her for how she replied to my excited e-mail asking her had she seen The Irish Times version of the poem. There was no need for her to meet my giddiness half way but, of course, she did: “I was thrilled with the front and back of the poster - by now I hope lots of people have noticed it in your open-plan office!!! / best/ Eavan.”
Her re-defining of freedom made room for everyone.
Aifric Mac Aodha’s latest collection is Foreign News (The Gallery Press, 2017)
I was 14 when I saw Eavan reading The War Horse on the Late Late Show. I was electrified by the acuity of her vision, her vivid imagery, her empathy and elegant directness.
Her language hit you right between the eyes as well as going straight to the heart of what mattered. Later I had the privilege of attending classes given by her, a memorable if daunting experience. “Self-expression is not art.” she observed, and her forensic interrogation of our offerings showed us the clear-eyed scrutiny and rigour every writer needs. A genial, witty, and incisive presence in company, she taught so many of us so much, on and off the page. She was one of my lifelong heroes; our only daughter is named after her. I am heartbroken by her passing, but the consolation of her work lives on.
John O’Donnell is a poet and short story writer. His short story collection Almost the Same Blue will be published in May by Doire Press.
Eavan Boland has been one of my closest friends for almost 25 years now. I admired Eavan’s poetry long before I met her, and as we began to work together here at Stanford I found in her the great heart and seriousness one would have expected from her work, but also a keen delight in absurdity – always near at hand in academia – and even in mischief.
When I needed a lift I went to Eavan’s office, where I could count on having a laugh over her droll but tolerant relation of the latest gossip, and then a good conversation about poetry, and family – she doted on hers, was never without the latest grandchild photos on her iPhone – and department politics, of which she was a master navigator, though never in her own interest. Eavan employed those political talents entirely for the benefit of our students, and for the Creative Writing Program, of which she was director for over 20 years – though the word “director” doesn’t capture the humanity she brought to the office.
I never once heard Eavan talk about herself in terms of personal ambition rewarded or thwarted, or of pride in her achievements, extraordinary as they were. Self-importance was repugnant to her. Her gaze went outward. What she did worry about was making sure our writing fellows had good insurance, that their stipends would carry them through the summers, that one of our lecturers should have her classes covered when her baby took ill, that an undergraduate suffering from depression should receive help, and promptly. She extended her sense of family to all of us who worked with her, and studied with her.
Over time Eavan became an honorary member of my own family. We treasured our visits and meals with her, the stories she told and the laughter she inspired. One night at dinner she was the first to notice that our poodle had raided the coffee table and scooped up a wedge of gorgonzola, too big for him to swallow, so that it left him facing us with a panoramic, grotesque smile. “Your man has got the cheese!” Eavan announced, and to this day one of us has only to repeat those words to send the rest of us into fits. Now that laughter will catch in the throat.
How I will miss her.
Tobias Wolff is a US writer, whose works include This Boy’s Life
Eavan Boland was a pre-eminent and beloved Irish poet for many years and I was shocked and saddened to hear of her death. For many of us she was a lodestar, brave, outspoken and revered.
At a time when poetry was an almost exclusively male playing field she wrote graceful, tough lyrics about historical catastrophes and how they affected women’s lives.
I once translated her beautiful long poem Anna Liffey that meanders like the river itself through a landscape of bog, heather, reeds and swans towards the suburbs and bridges of Dublin, through centuries of Viking swords, red coats, the burning court house, and past the figure of a woman at her door contemplating all this, asking herself how to own it as her personal history.
This was one of Eavan Boland’s central preoccupations, the exclusion of women from history, from agency, and to restore presence and voice where absence and silence reigned, and she did with generosity and love. We owe her a great debt of gratitude.
Eva Bourke's most recent collection was Seeing Yellow. Together with Vincent Woods she edited Fermata, an anthology on writings inspired by music.
Behind Eavan Boland’s canonical poem The War Horse, there is the story of a semi-wild horse terrorising an avenue of Dublin houses that was formerly a Travellers’ halting site.
In 1979, reading at Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City, where she represented Ireland at the International Writing Program, the poet spoke of the horse as looking for its own former home, and as being possessed by a folk memory. Boland herself was one of the new residents, and that equine apparition led her to a timeless meditation on social unrest. It also led her onwards to that perfect poem of raging loss and insight, Child of Our Time.
She herself was possessed by a suspicion of the ground of Irish poetry. Her trademark clarity and poise, and her greatness, belong to a lifetime of passionate negotiation, argument and intellectual labour. The eternal glow of her best poems was fought for.
Martin Dyar is a poet, and the editor of Vital Signs: Poems About Illness and Healing, which will be published in the Autumn by Poetry Ireland.
Back in the mid-’90s, feminist and formalist Marilyn Hacker introduced me to Eavan Boland, initially, in the classroom and later, in person at a Sylvia Plath tribute event in the New York Public Library.
As an undergraduate in Marilyn’s class, I was required to respond in verse to a published poet’s work. I chose Eavan’s poem The Rooms of Other Women Poets. At the time, I was a Morrison Visa recipient and a waitress in an Irish bar in New York City. Eavan’s poem gave me the confidence to not only dream of becoming a poet myself, but to create a room of my own in which to write my poems.
On hearing the incredibly sad news of Eavan’s passing, I sifted through my juvenilia drawer looking for my homage to the great poet. I found the cringe-worthy hubris of youth.
“Well, Eavan, wonder no more – about me, at least.
I sit at a big, oak roll-top when I
Write my poems. A massive hunk of a thing,
Like an old church organ. Fat legs, broad chest
Ample behind-nothing scrawny about this
Bad girl. Phenomenal woman.
My chair is nothing to write home about:
Shaker, ladderback, toffee rattan.
Utilitarian, to say the least.
But when I belly up to my desk, I leave the
Smokey Manhattan bar-rooms – my waitress
Apron, A gin ‘n' tonic! Two pints-a-Bass!
Many years later, as a fledgling faculty member at Hofstra University, New York, I had the honour of introducing Eavan at our Great Writers reading series. She was in her element at the event dinner; afterwards, everyone commented on her generosity, her brilliant mind, her wit. All these years later, I can still hear her distinct pronunciation of “Daniel Corkery”, as opposed to my flat midlands “Cawk-ery”.
The previous night, I’d taken Eavan out for dinner, to an Italian restaurant. I have to admit, I was in awe of her and more than a little intimidated. She was interested in my history of growing up in an industrial school and shared a little about her mother, who was orphaned at a young age. She also spoke of her experiences in a boarding school and offered sound advice on writing and life. Eavan had the lasagna and salad. I can’t remember what I had.
As I dropped Eavan back to her hotel, I nervously handed her a tiny gift-wrapped box which held a cloisonné hummingbird. (The day before, I’d flitted around the floors of Fortunoff department store looking for the perfect present for her. What do you gift the woman who’s given you the gift of poetry? A black lace fan? A pomegranate?) A week later, I was beating myself up over the foolishness of it all: “A feckin’ hummingbird, what the hell does Eavan Boland want with a feckin’ beady-eyed enamel hummingbird? She probably left it for the chambermaid.”
Connie Roberts, an Irish poet, teaches creative writing at Hofstra University, New York. Her poetry collection Little Witness (Arlen House) was a winner of the Patrick Kavanagh Award.