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Eavan Boland 1944-2020

Gerald Dawe writes: An abiding image when I think of Eavan Boland. It is 1980 or so and we are sitting in the lounge of a friend’s house in Galway overlooking the bay and the Claddagh. The sunlight is streaming in and filling the room, where several artists, poets and supporters are foregathered in advance of Eavan’s reading for the Galway Arts Festival, then in its infancy. The room is light-filled and Eavan is talking with that wonderful forthright, no-nonsense, inquiring tone of voice that would influence so many she touched over many, many years – as a broadcaster (if memory serves me right, she took over from Seamus Heaney on RTÉ’s poetry programme in the 1970s), as a workshop leader, as a lecturer and a contributor to numerous television and radio programmes. But primarily, of course, as a poet.

Many tributes will be made and more will justly follow celebrating her role in promoting the poetry of contemporary Irish women and of her critical engagement with the ideas of tradition and nationalism in Irish society. What may not be so well charted is her very early engagement with the impact of the Northern Troubles on the Irish republic as it was actually happening. In 1974 she moderated a roundtable encounter “The Clash of Identities”, which was published in The Irish Times. It was way ahead of its time in drawing into the conversation those who were involved in the violence as well as fellow-poets and novelists and it showed what could be done, or, at least, attempted, if and when people sat down and discussed issues with each other. A belief, I can only speculate now, which lay at the core of Eavan’s intellectual life and I think this is important to note. Because in many ways she marked a new direction in herself for Irish poetry in the way she married the critical intelligence to the creative instinct.

One needs only look at the sheer volume of review material she produced from the mid-1960s to realise the extent of her fascination for literature, primarily poetry and poetry criticism, but also the energy she brought to meeting with readers and writers in a seemingly tireless journeying across the countryside to attend readings and writers’ groups. Around the same time as that Galway Arts event I recall collecting Eavan from the carpark in what was then UCG (University College Galway) one morning. She had left Dublin early so that she would be on time to address a group of visiting students attending a summer school. Nothing would stop her, after the session went off in a blaze of applause, but to turn the car around and head back to Dundrum. Eavan set the standard many of those drawn to her passion and intellectual brilliance sought to follow, myself included. The poems I particularly treasure come from books of that time and a little later, such as The War Horse (1975), In Her Own Image (1980), featuring the artwork of Constance Short, the immaculate dreamscapes of Night Feed (1982), the powerful and impressive The Journey (1987) and the culmination of this period of her writing in Outside History (1990) and In A Time of Violence (1994). In 1985 I had the temerity to ask Eavan would she join the editorial board of Krino, a literary review we were establishing in Galway. Not only did she say yes but on my request contributed a new essay, “The Woman Poet: Her Dilemma”. It was duly published in the first issue in spring 1986 and would become part of Eavan’s critically ground-breaking book, Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman and the Poet in Our Time (1995).

As an editor and as a translator Eavan Boland contributed immensely to the cross-currents of poetic and intellectual exchanges between Ireland, the UK and increasingly more from the mid-1990s, the US. I associate her poetry with a view and vision, precarious, troubled yet also calm, such as one finds in the numerous artists she and her poetry gravitated towards and celebrate. Eavan Boland’s poetry, whether in the long substantial poems like “The Journey” or in the sequences addressing her sense of nationhood through the voice of the women’s struggle, resolve into a voice that is unmistakable and utterly its own:

but nothing now can change the way I went
indoors, chilled by the wind
and made a fire
and took down my book
and opened it and failed to comprehend

the harmonies of servitude,
the grace music gives to flattery,
and language borrows from ambition –

and how I fell asleep
oblivious to

the planets clouding over in the skies,
the slow decline of the spring moon,
the songs crying out their ironies.
(“The Achill Woman”)

Image: Poetry Foundation