Eavan Boland obituary: Outstanding Irish poet and academic

Boland broke the mould of Irish poetry by making women’s experiences central to her poems

Poet Eavan Boland in Dublin in 2018. ‘In my generation,’ she once said, ‘women went from being the objects of the Irish poem to being the authors of the Irish poem.’ Photograph: Barry Cronin

Poet Eavan Boland in Dublin in 2018. ‘In my generation,’ she once said, ‘women went from being the objects of the Irish poem to being the authors of the Irish poem.’ Photograph: Barry Cronin

 

Born: September 24th, 1944
Died, April 27th, 2020

Eavan Boland, the outstanding Irish poet and academic, has died suddenly following a stroke.

Boland, who was professor of English and humanities and director of the creative writing programme at Stanford University, broke the mould of Irish poetry – and drew new audiences to the form – by making women’s experiences central to her poems.

She was the author of more than 10 poetry collections, an award-winning essay collection, prose writings and an anthology of German women poets (Princeton, 2004). Boland’s collections, In Her Own Image (1980), Nightfeed (1982), Outside History (1990) and Domestic Violence (2007) explore historical and contemporary female identity.

Her collection, In a Time of Violence (1994) which merged political and private realities, won the Lannan Literary Award for Poetry and was shortlisted for the TS Eliot prize. Her collection, Against Love Poetry (2001), was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and her heartbreaking poem about Ireland’s 1847 famine, Quarantine, was one of the 10 poems shortlisted for RTÉ’s selection of Ireland’s favourite poems of the last 100 years.

Irish secondary students know her poems well from their English curriculum and the public identify greatly with such poems as Child of Our Time – in memory of the youngest victims of the 1974 Dublin bombings and Nightfeed – an evocative celebration of feeding her infant daughter under the cover of darkness.

Boland won the Pen Award for creative nonfiction for A Journey with Two Maps: Becoming a Woman Poet (2012). In 2014, many of Boland’s best known poems alongside her own photographs of Dublin were published together in A Poet’s Dublin (Carcanet Press) to celebrate her 70th birthday. In 2016, she was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. And in 2017, she received a lifetime achievement award at the Irish Book Awards.

Boland often said that she was a feminist but not a feminist poet. In her memoir, Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman and the Poet of Our Times (1995), she wrote how Irish poetry had objectified women as passive metaphors, emblematic muses and decorative motifs. In Eavan Boland: Is It Still The Same, the 2018 RTÉ documentary, she spoke about the “dull floating debate about what is the legitimate subject matter” for poetry and how it is “easier to have a political murder in an Irish poem than a washing machine”. Yet, Boland was adamant about not editing out the everyday experiences of motherhood and family life but instead to weave them into bigger truths of human fragilities, strengths and volatilities, history and mythology.

She was also a teaching poet who generously mentored new writers, encouraging them to put in the hard work that creative writing required. She also threw light on lesser-known historical and contemporary poets. Throughout her long career, she taught at various universities in Ireland and the United States and was writer in residence at both Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin and at the National Maternity Hospital in Dublin to mark its centenary in 1994.

In 1991, she took a strong public stand against the exclusion of women writers in the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing (1991) even though her poems were included. At the time, she said, “the extraordinary levels of exclusion of women [in this anthology] disfigured the national literature”.

Since 1996, Boland was professor of humanities, professor of English and director of the creative writing programme at Stanford University in California. During the coronavirus pandemic she had returned home to be close to her family and continued to teach students remotely from Dublin.

Eavan Boland was born in Dublin, the youngest of five children of Frederick Boland, an Irish diplomat and Frances Kelly, an expressionist painter. The family lived in Leeson Park, Dublin 4. Her mother, who had left school early yet won a scholarship to study art in Paris – where she met her future husband – was a huge influence on and support to the young Eavan. When Frederick Boland was appointed the first Irish ambassador to the United Kingdom, the family moved to London and then later to New York when he was appointed permanent representative to the United Nations.

Boland wrote about the loneliness she felt as a five-year-old Irish girl in London in An Irish Childhood in England, 1951. She didn’t settle well in New York either and returned to Ireland to board at the Holy Child School in Killiney.

Following her secondary school education, she studied literature and classics at Trinity College Dublin. While there, she became involved in the Women’s Liberation Movement. She also began a lifelong friendship with Mary Robinson then Mary Bourke who quoted from Boland’s poem The Singers in her inaugural address as Ireland’s first female president in December 1990: “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’.”

Boland cherished married life in the new Dublin suburb with its view of the Dublin mountains and often included references to nature in her poetry

As a young woman, Boland was appalled by what she called “signal injustices in a society” which included the marriage bar [which prevented women from working in public service jobs after marriage] and the ban on women on juries. She never lost that radical impulse to fight for women’s voices to be heard. She published her first poems while still a student and graduated with a first class honours degree in English literature and language in 1966.

Boland met novelist, Kevin Casey in the late 1960s. The couple married in Dublin in 1969 and bought a home in Dundrum where their two daughters, Sarah and Eavan, were born and grew up. Boland cherished married life in the new Dublin suburb with its view of the Dublin mountains and often included references to nature in her poetry.

In 2018, Boland was commissioned to write a poem commemorating women winning the right to vote and casting their first ballot on December 14th, 1918, by the Government of Ireland Permanent Mission to the United Nations and the Royal Irish Academy. That poem is Our Future Will Become the Past of Other Women.

She was editor of Poetry Ireland Review for the last three years and in her final editorial, 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, to the lack of it, in which this art is held.”

Her latest collection of poetry, The Historians, will be published by WW Norton in the US and by Carcanet for the UK and Irish market in autumn 2020.

Boland is survived by her husband her daughters, grandchildren, Ella, Jack, Julia and Cian, brother, Fergal and sister, Nessa. Her sisters, Jane and Mella pre-deceased her.