The Irish Times view on Eavan Boland: A radical, dissenting voice

The late poet was the supreme archivist of hidden histories

Eavan Boland, who introduced new and often radical notes into Irish poetry, was a poet of home truths but above all else a champion of the female voice. Photograph: Eric Luke

Eavan Boland, who introduced new and often radical notes into Irish poetry, was a poet of home truths but above all else a champion of the female voice. Photograph: Eric Luke

 

‘How do I know my country?”, Eavan Boland asks herself in the poem Unheroic. Her answer: “Let me tell you it has been hard to do”. The search for an understanding of her country became her cause and also the catalyst in the making of so many of her finest and most memorable poems.

Boland, who introduced new and often radical notes into Irish poetry, was a poet of home truths but above all else a champion of the female voice. There is in her work a great deal of self-reckoning – as a woman, mother, wife, poet and citizen of her country and the world – but also close attention to finding new ways to look at Ireland and its fractious history. That history led the poet into an intense meditation on the nature of identity, both personal and national, a theme that would become constant in her mission to correct the narratives she believed left so many “outside history”, in particular women excluded from the “enclosed literary culture” she entered as a young poet.

Boland cast a cold eye in the direction of those narratives but in many poems that deal with exile and “emigrant grief”, the clarity of her humane voice is to be heard.

The breakthrough poems of Night Feed – a collection that established a new readership for poetry – announced a radical change in her work. In relocating the Irish poem, away from Yeats’s Big House and Kavanagh’s country barn, into the domestic settings of modern suburbia, she was articulating what she saw as “the new Ireland” emerging among the “stove noises, kettle steam / And children’s kisses”. She was the supreme archivist of hidden histories in such poems as The Huguenot Graveyard at the Heart of the City and her powerful depiction of a famine scene in Quarantine.

Her achievement is not only as a poet but also as a thoughtful essayist, one who was rare in how powerfully she could illuminate and elaborate her own poetry in her prose compositions. Without her voice of repudiation and dissent, Irish poetry and her “new Ireland” would have been without the new language it needed.

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