Remembering Eavan Boland Poet, feminist and inspiration

Photo of Eavan Boland courtesy Wikipedia.

Geneva Pattison

In a year filled with so much death, devastation and sadness, the loss of Eavan Boland on the 27th of April felt somewhat surreal. People may have known her from studying her poetry during the leaving cert, some may have been introduced to her poetry later in life. However, and irrespective of the ‘how’ and the ‘when’, Eavan’s work has touched countless souls across the globe.
Eavan was born in Dublin in 1944 to noted painter Frances Kelly and diplomat Frederick Boland. When Eavan was six years old, she and her family moved to London, as her father Frederick had been appointed the Irish Ambassador to the UK.
During this period of her life, Eavan had her first experience of anti-Irish sentiment. Her experiences during this time inspired her poem, An Irish Childhood in England: 1951.
Reading the poem, you find yourself transported directly into the centre of every uncomfortable moment relayed by Eavan. The “bowls of dripping” and eerie smiles fixed in place, the sleepless nights “filled with some malaise of love” for something she never knew she had.
A specific incident, recalled by Boland in the poem, regarding her time spent as a young girl in a London convent school, stuck with her. The young poet uttered the phrase “I amn’t,” to which the teacher turned and said to her “you’re not in Ireland now.”
It’s such a touchingly sad and ground-breaking poem that makes a political statement on the erasure of Irish culture and heritage and how the Irish were viewed and treated in England during that time. In a way, it also reminds us to cherish the ‘now’ and find peace in your present, while observing the past and not living in it.
At 14, Eavan moved back to Dublin and attended school in Killiney. She went on to attend Trinity College, studying English Literature and Language in 1962 and published her first collection of poetry, entitled 23 Poems, in the same year.
Much of Eavan’s poetry was written on the subject of motherhood, the role of women in Irish history and the domestic lives of women. Through this work, she sought to liberate and expand people’s perceptions of the lives of ordinary women and recognise the individuality and importance of every woman’s experience.
She focused on aspects of the everyday, finding beauty and power in traditional female roles. However, Boland also highlighted the conflict, isolation and monotonous drudgery that often went along with being a mother or a woman. Boland wanted the true lives of women to be reflected in the poetic discourse and history of an Ireland that was dominated by male poetic voices.
Poems like Woman In Kitchen, illustrate the post-breakfast dance of tidying up and struggling to find self-purpose for the rest of the day. “She watches the machines go fast and slow” as they clean items, but the woman is “islanded by noise”, and has “nowhere definite to go”. She is surrounded by white, the sideboards, the surfaces, even the cups “wink white in their saucers”.
This gives us an impression that this woman takes pride in her environment and cleanliness, but the all-encompassing white nature of her surroundings feels as if it will engulf her. This monotone expanse is her life and it appears as if it will devour her.
As the morning tasks end, “the wash done, the kettle boiled, the sheets spun and clean”, the true existential dread of isolation hits. “The silence is a death”, and the room becomes buried “in white spaces’’ of nothingness. The woman moves to “spread a cloth on the board and iron sheets in a room white and quiet as a mortuary”, the sheet like a death shroud, possibly mourning the life she could have outside the home.
Even the title Woman In Kitchen plays on the archaic viewpoint that ‘a woman’s place is in the kitchen’. However, as evident from reading, Eavan’s woman struggles to find physical, metaphorical and psychological space in her kitchen; she needs out.
There are numerous other influential and poignant poems by Eavan that reflect the varying and, at times, under-represented truths of women. We see The Achill Woman, a poem which is largely a reflection of the lost voices of Ireland’s island women, reminding us of the generation eclipsed by modernity.
The cherished poem, The Pomegranate, is a poem about how myths and tales mimic our own life narratives. A poem for mothers and daughters, and mothers who were once daughters. It tells us that it’s ok to embrace the learning curves of youth and and sit back and observe in later life.
Boland’s epic piece, Anna Liffey, touches on history, national identity, politics and language, while still remaining an innately personal and intimate poem about the poet herself. Again, this is a statement about the importance of the lives of ordinary women the poet sought to write into the history of this country. This is just a cross section of the work of Boland and it’s difficult to capture the profoundly soulful qualities of her poetry within these rationed lines.
Eavan Boland started to lecture shortly after her BA graduation in 1966, and held various lecturing and teaching positions in universities including Trinity College and UCD, while continuing to produce poetry collections.
From 1996 onwards, Eavan was a tenured professor in English studies at Stanford University and divided her time between her work in California and her home in Dublin.
Upon the notice of her death on the 27th of April, there was an outpouring of tributes made by the literary and arts community both from Ireland and abroad, with The Irish Times publishing many of the heartfelt messages all together. Paula Meehan, Anne Enright, Vona Groarke and Colm Tóibín were amongst the names to pay tribute to the late poet.
President Higgins honoured Eavan’s memory, in saying that she was “one of the most insightful inner sources of Irish life, not only in life as expressed but as sensed and experienced.”
During a period of great separation in the course of our initial lockdown, reading the messages of remembrance, side by side and coming from all over the world, was a comforting reminder that we may be distances apart but our hearts remain united.
Eavan is survived by, and lives on through her daughters, husband and the wealth of poetic gifts she has given the world.

A selection of works by Eavan Boland, for further reading:
• The War Horse. London: Victor Gollancz, 1975.
• In Her Own Image. Dublin: Arlen House, 1980.
• Night Feed. Dublin: Arlen House, 1982. Reissue: Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1994.
• The Journey and Other Poems. Dublin: Arlen House, 1986; Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1987.
Irish Times tributes to Eavan Boland:
Statement released by President Higgins following the death of Eavan Boland: